a@w 9 – October 21, 2020: Shared Vulnerability as the Equalizer

awareness@work 9 – October 21, 2020
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Shared Vulnerability as the Equalizer

Written by: Carolyn V. Coarsey. Ph.D.

October 21, 2020

The biggest challenge is showing companies the benefits of reaching out from the heart when trauma occurs.

-Captain Susan Bisig, (retired UPS Airlines)

    The intention of the Foundation’s new series awareness@work is to shed light on how leaders within business organizations today 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 they respond.

    Awareness of how the needs of distressed people can be met within the context of the workplace has risen dramatically with the evolution of Care and Special Assistance Teams throughout the world. Once cautioned against approaching a distressed survivor due to concerns over liability, many companies today encourage employees to contact them without fear, expressing sorrow and thereby showing true compassion toward the impacted individual.

     This new series features comments by program leaders as to the changes they are experiencing and challenges they see for the future of humanitarian assistance programs. This month Susan Bisig, a retired UPS captain and experienced CARE Team responder, provides insight from her perspective.

    Before her twenty-seven year career at UPS, Susan retired from the US Air Force where she served in hospital administration, learned to fly, and finished her career as an Aircraft Commander in theater supporting Operation Desert Shield. At UPS Susan flew the line and instructed on the Boeing 727 and the A300. Following the fatal crash of UPS Flight 6 in 2010 where both crew members on board died, Susan became involved in Family Assistance and the CARE Team.

    In 2013, when UPS experienced another fatal crash where both crew members also died, Susan was selected to be part of the CARE Team and supported the family of the First Officer. Following are Susan’s responses to my questions based on her experiences.

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? 

SB: People look directly at the higher echelons of the company to gauge their response following a traumatic experience. Little communication results in suspicion and anxiety. An appropriate amount of communication equals less sick calls and reduced stress levels.


CVC: To what do you attribute any positive changes?

SB: Training and unfortunately, experience. Until you have a major incident, you will not really know how the company will respond. This is where training and exercising play an important role.


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?

SB: The biggest challenge is showing companies the benefits of reaching out from the heart when trauma occurs. Until they experience a traumatic event (and I hope they never do), it is difficult to predict the response. Protecting the brand will be their first reaction but we must ensure them that they can protect the brand and show compassion at the same time. This is done through proper training, working with companies who have experienced traumatic events and learning from their experience.


CVC: Is there anything else you want to say about the need for change?

SB: There are numerous examples of improper responses to major incidents where people were not the priority. Learning from these has shown us that leading from the heart does produce more positive results which protects the brand and helps the company, as a whole, heal faster. 

Shared Vulnerability

The ties that bind us are stronger than the occasional stress that separates us.

-Colin Powell

    In the 2015 Annual Member-Partner meeting, in Santa Fe, NM, Susan presented about her experience with assisting the co-pilot’s family from the crash of UPS Flight 1354. Susan’s presentation was recorded for training purposes and is a popular training video used by the Foundation and Independent Pilot Association (IPA, UPS’s pilot union). The video serves as an excellent example of how tragedy can forge connections between union and management within a company, that surpasses normal business transactions.

    Suffering from loss of one’s own employees and fellow teammates exposes human vulnerability like nothing else. Hard business negotiations involving money and other tangibles, lose significance when company employees are injured or killed. The beauty of the IPA/UPS CARE Team is the way union and company employees work side-by-side in the aftermath of a crash, bonded by the shared suffering.


Until you have a major incident, you will not really know how the company will respond. This is where training and exercising play an important role.

-Captain Susan Bisig


    Following the 2010 crash of UPS Flight 6 and the 2013 crash of UPS Flight 1354, it was clear that great strides had been made in teaming up union members and company employees when the unthinkable happens. Training and exercising was put to test and the heart behind the company logo could be seen and felt as one united, cohesive team.

Death is the Great Leveller 

-Claudius Claudianus (Latin Poet, c370-40)

    A couple years after the response to the crash of Flight 1354, one of the company’s Care Team members died from an aneurysm. The brother-in-law of the deceased co-pilot, who she had assisted during the response, drove 5 hours to attend her funeral and 5 hours home. This story sums up the power of shared suffering in bridging relationships among complete strangers.


…leading from the heart does produce more positive results which protects the brand and helps the company, as a whole, heal faster. 

-Captain Susan Bisig

    Feelings of isolation and separation are classic symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Bringing people together for shared mourning and family support allows survivors to form connections and create relationships that last a lifetime as the above story illustrates. The following quote by popular researcher Brené Brown, from the University of Houston says it all as to why the IPA/UPS model works so well. Despite differences, the union and the company are aligned in their values and match it with their actions following loss of treasured employees.


"We don't have to be perfect, just engaged and committed to aligning values with actions." 

-Brené Brown


    Susan 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.

For more about the Foundation and our programs, please contact Cheri Johnson, cheri.johnson@fafonline.org or visit us at fafonline.org.

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