Foundation, reminding you that a fully-integrated approach for assisting survivors of
traumatic loss involves a balance of head and heart. Wednesday Wisdom is written
and copyrighted by Carolyn V. Coarsey, Ph.D., and distributed by the Family
Assistance Education & Research Foundation Inc., fafonline.org. Reprint is available
with written permission from the Foundation.
Part II: The Employee's Perspective
"After the crash, when I entered the cockpit and saw what happened to my
buddy, I knew my life would never be the same. I led the investigation to its
completion and vowed it would be my last. I then took the steps necessary
to make the life I was living, my own. I now knew that there are no guarantees
as to how long anyone has to live.”
– Airline Captain
Part I of this series on “Shattered Assumptions” focused on how people are
impacted by trauma, as it changes their general assumptions about how they see
the world—and the basis for their well-being. While the first article gave examples
of the impact on families of victims, this week’s issue includes examples of how
employees who work for a company where trauma has occurred, are similarly
impacted. The opening quote comes from an interview with an airline pilot who
described the significant impact a crash had on his life. Before the accident, he
thought he had unlimited time to straighten out his life, which by his own words,
was one he was not proud.
He was living a double life in that he had both a wife and a girlfriend. The main
reason he was dishonest with his wife had to do with not wanting to break up his
family, for the sake of his daughter. After the crash, he decided to model for his
daughter the fundamental nature of living an honest life—one for which she could
be proud, and make every day her own. He divorced his wife and married his
girlfriend—and openly explained the reasoning to everyone involved. Following
are other examples where assumptions by employees were drastically impacted
in the aftermath of accidents involving their own companies.
From a Care Team Leader
After responding to a crash where 68 passengers and crew died on impact at the
company where he worked, two fundamental things changed for him. First, he
realized that most people, including himself at the time, operate under the assumption
that we all have an unlimited supply of tomorrows. The question about time was
brought into focus by a pastor at one of the memorial services who shared that
until the evening before, he had been very concerned because he couldn't think
of any words that fit such unfathomable losses. He was in his garden listening to
music and trying to come up with something to say, when a new song came on –
Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor often referred to as an "unfinished masterpiece." He
said it clicked in his mind that "unfinished masterpieces" was the perfect description
of all the lives that had ended before their time. He called upon those present to
honor the passengers and crew by carrying on their legacies and doing their best
to live their own lives in a way that left as little unfinished as possible, and I have.
A second assumption that was shattered pertained to the company side. The major
carrier, the regional involved, the legal people, insurers, etc.- all shared one vision
of "the right thing to do" when in fact there were many objective-driven definitions
of that. Seeing the discord and some of the terrible decisions that arose from it
convinced me of something I often say today, that leadership must understand that
acting in the best interests of the people involved is also acting in the best interests
of the organization.
From the leader of Family Assistance Programs for an Airline
This person’s entire perspective changed as to what assisting survivors is about.
His first response was almost 30 years ago now. The learning was simple but
powerful.The airline team was all focused on an airplane that crashed into a
mountain rather than on the 20 people who had lost their lives and the hundreds
of people who loved them. I learned then that I don’t respond to plane crashes. I
respond to people needing assistance prompted by a plane crash. I teach my
teams in every accident response there will be lots of things, and lots of people…
stay focused on the people.
This leader went on to say that now when he talks to employees about a crash, he
reminds them that when an airplane lands safely, passengers may be load factors,
calculations in a weight and balance formula, or numbers on a financial spreadsheet.
But when it crashes, you learn they are living, breathing, human beings–with people
who love them. And you have just turned their worlds upside down.
“After leading the entire airline's response to the families of the passengers
and crew members who perished in the crash, the normal duties in my job
during peacetimes were not interesting to me. I left a secure job with financial
security to start my own business where I could help other companies benefit
from what I had learned. Not long after that decision, the attacks of
September 11, 2001, challenged the viability of my new business efforts.
Despite that, helping other companies do their best to help families during the
worst time of their lives, for me is a privilege.”
– Former airline emergency management leader, now business owner
One's assumptive world (ideas taken for granted to be fact) are often called into
question when response by the organization’s leader reveals values that are different
from one’s own. As the field of emergency management for business and industry
has evolved, the necessity of putting people in front of process and procedures as
has been captured in quotes in the earlier part of the article, is plain to see. However,
attitudes from past leaders left much in question.
Two examples from this manager’s story make the point. In the mid-nineties, as he
was developing the emergency management department, a crash occurred resulting
in several fatalities and survivors. Because the flight was a codeshare operation,
the manager asked the duty director what the airline would do about the crash. The
duty director advised that there would need to be a schedule adjustment, as the
aircraft involved would not be available to continue the flight. There was no mention
of the casualties, their families, nor the survivors.
Following this disappointment, the manager asked the head of corporate
communications how he would respond to the press where a crash occurred
involving a codeshare flight. To his surprise, he was told that there would be no
response if the aircraft were not their airline's. In both these examples, the manager
resolved to put practices and procedures in place that would ensure the company
followed more human and appropriate guidelines in the future.
Part III of this series will examine how trauma impacts employees of other industries.
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