· Features

HR managers must champion building resilient employees

On 7 August 1485, Henry VII landed at Milford Haven, intent on claiming the throne of England from Richard III. At the time, Richard and his army were in Nottingham.

Because of the limitations of contemporary communication channels, it was only after four days that news of Henry's landing reached Richard, and certainly the rest of England didn't find out about it, or about the subsequent battle at Bosworth, for a number of weeks.

Exactly 526 years later, on August 7th 2011, there was rioting on the streets of London following the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan by the police. News of that event was beamed live around the world in real time; journalists, broadcasters, bloggers, activists all used modern technology to ensure their message and images were instantly available to everybody with access to a television set, radio, computer or mobile phone. Not only did we hear about the fact of the riots, we also saw real live footage of rioters in masks, of buildings in flames, of police vehicles under a hail of missiles. We saw business owners in deep shock and distress, cameras pointed at their faces from close quarters, so that we were in no doubt at all about the emotional payload.

The difference between the two events could hardly have been more stark - if Henry VII landed in Wales now, we would have TV coverage before he got his feet wet and we would have live tweets from Bosworth Field.

All of this presents a significant problem for HR directors concerned with psychological trauma and the impact it has in the workplace.

There was a time when an organisation might experience a mishap or critical event and require help in dealing with the emotional sequelae. Critical Incident debriefing, defusing, reprogramming and a host of other interventions were developed in the light of experience based on a common theme - those closest to the epicentre were most in need of support and, as the circle was drawn further out, the need for active intervention was diminished. For businesses this created a degree of certainty, of finality.

People talk of closure, and operating a critical incident system that met the observed needs of those in most need was clearly a good way of achieving that closure. To a large extent this is how Critical Incident responses still work, and with a good degree of success. The problem is that this only applies a top dressing to some problems and only addresses the obvious, ignoring some other possibilities.

Take, for example, the events of 9/11 in the United States. When the Twin Towers were destroyed, the natural and sensible response in terms of psychological support was to focus on those closest to the action and provide intense interventions to speed recovery. Moving away from the focal point in Manhattan the provision of Critical Incident support was reduced so that it became almost non-existent by the time we leave continental America. In the UK, however, Right Management was involved in providing emotional support to a number of organisations that had colleagues or business contacts personally affected by the events; this was not particularly surprising and we had resources available to help. We did, however, encounter an entirely new phenomenon.

Our help lines noticed a sharp upturn in calls for emotional support from people who had no personal involvement but who were psychologically affected by what they saw in the media. For some people there were particular triggers, whereas for others it was just the sheer overwhelming emotion of the stories they were exposed to. The significant thing is that these were people who no one could not predict or identify prior to the event. They would not have been highlighted by any business hazard assessment, yet their emotional response had a negative impact on their ability to be at work or at least on their ability to focus and maintain productivity levels.

Businesses can't be expected to provide Critical Incident programmes for employees who happen to be affected by something that happens elsewhere when that event is nothing to do with their organisation, yet they can rapidly find themselves impacted. This problem will only escalate as online social networks grow, as conventions on what should and should not be reported are broken down; people can unexpectedly be faced with emotional payloads that they had not actively sought.

The answer is something that has gained great currency in the classroom today, yet is equally relevant to adults and to business. In order to cope with the slings and arrows that we will encounter in the course of a lifetime we need to develop people who can cope, who can bounce back from adversity, who are resilient.

In the human age, where the principal tool of business is its people, the development of a resilient workforce is a crucial success factor. This isn't a battle cry for the stiff upper lip of Olde England; rather it is a call to invest in our people, to recognise the importance of emotions and to understand that resilience is a skill that can be learned.

Adverse events will always happen. The question is, will your staff cope?

Kevin Friery (pictured), clinical director at Right Management Workplace Wellness