It was a deeply humbling experience to be among o so many brave people, none of whom seemed to think they had done anything special - it was just their job.
Recently we have seen yet more flag-draped coffins arriving back in UK, the frontline television footage of combat and its consequences, and have heard the softly-spoken words of young men and women who have seen things that will haunt them for the rest of their lives and which we should be grateful we haven't. And then we turn off the television and return to the nice comfortable lives we lead - but they can't.
Unseen to us is the trauma of fighting to regain health after injury, the difficulties in returning to the UK and leading a normal life, especially for those leaving the Services and trying to build a new career outside. This isn't new - every year but one since the end of the second world war British Service personnel have been killed in action somewhere. And what we forget is that for every death there are many more injuries. In Afghanistan and Iraq alone 454 have been killed so far and 11,000 have been injured and when you add to that those injured in the Falklands, Northern Ireland and conflicts going back to and including the second world war, there are thousands more. And those are just the physical injuries. The mental scars are often unrecorded but potentially a hundred thousand of the 1.3 million ex-Service personnel in UKare affected.
So this hidden problem is significant. In some cases the effect of their personal experiences combined with readjustment problems when leaving the Service causes severe difficulties, for example:
- Some end up among the long-term unemployed: the younger ex-Service community (those aged between 18 and 49) is twice as likely to be unemployed as their peers (Royal British Legion Report 2006)
- Some end up homeless - approximately 2,500 ex-Service personnel in statutorily homeless families are in London on any given night (York University figures)
- Some end up in prison, mainly as a result of post-traumatic stress: it is estimated that 8% -10% of the prison population is ex-Service, much higher than their percentage in the general population
This is all very sad but what relevance does this have for us in the HR world? Simple, the title sums it up: it's the vital role you can play in helping those from the Services when they return home - whether they are reservists returning to their jobs, others returning injured or those who are leaving, or who have left, the Service and are seeking employment. You are the gatekeeper to your organisation and determine how well it understands, supports and engages those from the Services.
We know that their skills are often of a higher level than those of their non-Service counterparts, for example, in communication, problem-solving, flexibility and innovation. They are determined to deliver, they are reliable, great team players, able to learn fast, to develop and inspire others even when times are tough. In other words, they are the ideal kind of staff to have.
Ex-Service staff can add real value to your organisation and we should give them a chance to do so. Here are some steps you could initiate now, with the support of your CEO, if possible:
- Identify your nearest regular or reserve Services unit and Royal British Legion Branch. Contact them to see how you could help them by making them aware of any vacancies you may have or by offering to support their activities - they may have ideas of how you can help
- See if they could help your organisation in any way, for example, by giving some of your staff insight into how they deliver real leadership and get things done effectively
- Identify those in your organisation who serve in the reservists or who are ex- Services and see if you are using their skills to the full and supporting them
- Ensure that staff engaged in recruitment are aware of the high level of team skills of ex-Service personnel and proactively seek them out
- Talk to the Royal British Legion Civvy Street Team (0800 169 4073) who advise organisations on how they can help
- Also speak to Help for Heroes (0845 673 1760), which helps the wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan
This will take minimal time and effort, but it will potentially transform the lives of those who have risked their lives for us and at the same benefit your organisation. And don't forget that you are also helping their families as well.
Chris Roebuck is visiting professor of transformational leadership at Cass Business School. He is a former army officer and lecturer on leadership at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst and the Joint Services Command and Staff College