A little knowledge can be dangerous
This month we return to the subject of trauma and, more specifically, post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
Many of us are familiar with the name and the acronym. Some of us may even be “armchair experts”, having seen the odd TV programme or movie which touches on the subject. But few of us will understand in any depth its symptoms or its consequences.
In the context of our business continuity plans, however, it’s amazing how many of us think we know how PTSD should be treated – which, incidentally, usually takes the form of providing would-be sufferers with the ‘phone number of a third-party counselling service who we’ve never actually spoken to and whose capabilities, in what is after all a very specialised field, we don’t have the foggiest idea of.
The first thing to point out is that PTSD isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a normal reaction of normal people to an abnormal experience. Its symptoms include (and, by the way, the following comes courtesy of a real expert, not from the author having watched a TV programme or read a book) :
• Involuntary, intrusive and distressing recollections, images or thoughts;
• Flashbacks, where the individual feels that the event is actually recurring;
• Nightmares and other sleep disturbances;
• Hyper-arousal, such as exaggerated startle responses, irritability or difficulty concentrating;
• Emotional numbing, such as feeling detached from others or inability to experience feelings.
Anyone surviving a traumatic event (whatever their level of seniority) is likely to suffer some or all of the above symptoms. This is completely normal and, in most cases, should improve over a matter of weeks or (in more extreme cases) months.
Importantly – and this is the main thing that we armchair experts often get hopelessly wrong – the real experts agree that counselling is not appropriate in the first few weeks and may actually cause more harm than good.
They often suggest a thing called “the watchful wait”, whereby there is no psychological intervention within the first 4-6 weeks, but people are given the opportunity to talk and listen.
Should counselling be considered appropriate after that, the counsellor must be trauma trained if the sessions are to be helpful. This may sound blindingly obvious, but not all counsellors are and checking is something that’s frequently overlooked.
So by all means include the ‘phone number of a counselling service in your business continuity plan. But do be aware of when it is and isn’t appropriate to call on them. And do at least make the effort to check out the people who may be asked to counsel your people – to find out what they can offer and to confirm that they have the appropriate skills and experience to do so. The consequences, for our people and for our businesses, are far too serious to get it wrong.