The Foundation’s new series awareness@work intends to shed light on how leaders within business organizations are responding to those impacted by a crisis in the workplace. Whether one person (customer, employee, family member) or a group of people are experiencing trauma, many organizations are initiating change in how their employees respond.
Awareness of how distressed people's needs are best met is rising dramatically with the evolution of Care and Special Assistance Teams throughout the world. Once cautioned against approaching a distressed survivor due to liability concerns, many companies today encourage employees to contact them without fear, expressing sorrow, and thereby showing genuine compassion toward the impacted individual.
This new series features program leaders' comments as to the changes they are experiencing and the challenges they see for the future of humanitarian assistance programs. This month Jonathan Henson, CMIOSH (Chartered Member, Institution of Occupational Safety and Health), shares insight from his perspective. Jonathan is a consultant based in Houston, Texas, USA, and works in the oil, gas, and manufacturing fields. Before this, Jonathan was a veteran of the US Coast Guard, where he spent his career in operations and safety inspection assignments at various US and international locations.
After the Coast Guard, Jonathan went to work for Maersk Drilling, where we met in a Care Team Training class. Following the training, Jonathan introduced me, telephonically to Captain Rich Phillips and his wife, Andrea. Jonathan served Andrea and her family during the 2008 kidnapping of the Maersk Alabama, where Captain Rich, his crew and cargo were held for ransom by Somali pirates. Jonathan made it possible for me to interview Captain Rich and Andrea on video for training classes.
CVC: Since you first started your work involving humanitarian assistance in the workplace, what changes have you noticed in how people are responding when trauma or any suffering takes place?
JH: My first experience with humanitarian assistance was as a decedent affairs officer in the Coast Guard. I had to inform two families their sons had died by their own hand. I had no training on how to inform a family with tragic news. So, my fellow Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer and I simply told the truth in what we knew, which wasn’t much and did not speculate. Then we left the families on their own.
Today, when families are informed of deaths in the family, counseling is offered, support is provided, and there is more direct contact with the family. Change has come from society because we demanded it. Stone faced silence from a company is not acceptable. Example, my father suffered from PTSD due to the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Back then, it was called battle shock and few understood what the service member was going through. Over time, research and work in the counseling and medical communities made PTSD a known and treatable issue. It is the same for workplace treatment of employees/families after a tragedy. At a previous company, an employee suffered from partial finger amputation after an incident at work. The HR team and supervisors were very effective working with the employee and keeping his family informed of the medical process, pay and benefits.
CVC: To what do you attribute any positive changes?
JH: Honesty. Much has been learned from passenger airliner crashes. I believe society has learned along with the airlines to be more effective when caring for victim’s families. In the Maersk Alabama incident, I was tasked to assist Captain Richard Phillips family, particularly Rich’s wife Andrea; there was no time to receive training. I was advised to tell Andrea the truth and all new information on the incident would be passed from the Maersk Line, Limited senior officers to me. I would tell Andrea. The best advice I received was from a hostage negotiator who said: “Tell Andrea the truth. We are going to do our best to get Rich back but there is always a chance we may not.” I believe Andrea appreciated the honesty and directness.
Protection of the victims’ families. My other unwritten task was to protect Andrea from the press with another Maersk employee, who was a professional in dealing with the media. Between us, we did just that.
Obviously, the Maersk Alabama incident ended well for Rich and Andrea Phillips. I believe we had the support of the company from the highest levels to support Andrea if the incident did not turn out the way it did.
CVC: Where do you see the greatest challenges going forward as we try to help companies respond from compassion instead of fear of lawsuits and/or questions about increasing liability by employee response?
JH: 1) Training. When you see firemen exiting a building after a successful rescue, what do you hear from them? They had no issues because they were trained to fight fires and rescue people. In our situations, we are not like first responders who receive training in firefighting. Instead, we are employees, colleagues and citizens who want to help our fellow humans. Humanitarian situations require training but it’s not always available. Therefore, the more exposure to training and dealing with incidents honestly and openly, the better. Another opportunity is to conduct a lesson learned session with the principle players to effect changes. Then, follow up on the company to ensure the changes have been affected.
2) Serving. Vice Admiral William “Dean” Lee, USCG-Ret, had a great quote for leadership. This is what we are doing during a humanitarian crisis. We are leading those in need. Admiral Lee stated his personal mission was to Serve First, Lead Second and to Stay Humble. These are good words to live by and no lawyer can find fault with this mission statement.
CVC: Is there anything else you want to say about the need for change?
JH: First, recognize most folks don’t like change. So instead of using the term change, let’s say improve our processes to better serve our families and clients. Second, staying ahead of the problem allows control over the problem. This means change. Third, focus on service to those in need.
Honesty, Training and Leadership, Key Components of HSR™
I had to inform two families their sons had died by their own hand. I had no training on how to inform a family of tragic news.
Themes of honesty, training, and leadership discussed in the article ring true to HSR™ practitioners, trainers, and leaders. Preparation in advance of a tragedy helps limit the long-term harm that occurs when employees are as shocked by the tragedy as the customers/public who are dependent on them for assistance. Well-prepared organizations take the time to train their internal responders on how best to support and assist during a crisis. Providing guidelines for practical communication is a major component of the training.
Jonathan’s article reminds us of when notifiers did not understand death notification gravity, much less the long-lasting consequences of lying, speculating, misleading, and other mistakes made when employees are left to give tragic information without guidelines. Research is clear that providing news about death impacts both the giver and receiver. It changes the life of the one receiving the information and the one who is giving it. For example, one study showed that poor communication about death resulted in complicated grief recovery for the family, as well as health issues for physicians who communicated the tragic news.
HSR™ training includes role-playing and interacting with experienced responders, and learning from survivors. Follow up interviews with survivors who have received tragic news from employees trained correctly shows these training methods work. That most trained Care Team members continue to volunteer for these assignments is a further indication that employees take pride in helping families even with the worst of tasks.
The best advice I received was from a hostage negotiator who said: “Tell Andrea the truth. We are going to do our best to get Rich back, but there is always a chance we may not.”
In the kidnapping of the Maersk Alabama, the officials chose to empower Jonathan as the Care Team member and Andrea by choosing to tell the truth. Untrained employees often give false hope as they believe it helps the survivors feel better when they are awaiting news of their loved ones’ fate. Interviews with survivors show that truth helps them prepare for the next steps—especially if the worst happens. Survivors become angry when they are lied to by employees. Admitting that facts are not known is better than speculating.
Admiral Lee stated his personal mission was to Serve First, Lead Second and to Stay Humble. These are good words to live by, and no lawyer can find fault with this mission statement.
In training new Care Team members, showing emotion with families is a frequent concern—how much emotion do we show? The quote by Admiral Lee is representative of our training on this topic. Survivors want to know we care, but above all, they need leadership when they are helpless and dependent on those around them. They need team members to serve them and to remain humble while doing so. Knowing they have a strong advocate, like Jonathan was for Andrea is at the top of the list of what matters most to families in similar circumstances.
Jonathan’s comments as well as interviews with Andrea and Captain Rich Phillips reminds us that regardless of the industry or the nature of the crisis, the principles of helping survivors in distress are largely the same. During the dependency phase of the trauma, people want to know the company involved has trained responders who can assist them as well as connect them to the other officials and helpers who are there to serve them.
Jonathan also serves on the Family Assistance Foundation’s Business & Industry Board. A board recently created for the purposes of the Foundation’s joint work with Louisiana State University, (LSU) in the creation of a trauma institute dedicated to improving international humanitarian assistance following workplace trauma.