London bombings are changing workplaces forever

Jul 25 2005 by Nic Paton Print This Article

Employers and workers in London are now in grimly uncharted waters. Forget the mutterings about "we remember what it was like during the IRA campaigns" or, even worse, "remember the Blitz", the terrorist attacks of the past fortnight have changed London, and how Londoners work, forever.

For those not directly affected by the July 7 bombings or last week's attacks there has been a distinct sense of "OK, it's happened, let's deal with it".

Certainly there has been a desire to show defiance through carrying on as normal, but for many Londoners there has also been a sense that, however reluctantly, they have no choice but to carry on going to work and using the transport networks.

As one London commuter, Noreen O'Connor from Ealing, told the BBC after the second attacks last week: "Last night I was more nervous than I was two weeks ago. It is worrying that it keeps happening but sometimes you just don't have a choice but to use the Tube."

There are even some who have argued, as Janice Turner pointed out in The Times after the July 7 attacks, that people now feel safer because what they have dreaded for so long has actually happened, and they have survived.

But as O'Conner's rising fear levels made clear, as the attacks, scares, alerts, false alarms, evacuations and delays go on; as, yet again, you find yourself having to find a way around a police cordon or negotiate your way home on foot, attitudes can change.

A stressed weariness can replace the stoicism, nerves can fray, tempers flare and the daily commute can become not so much a grind as an ever worsening knot in the stomach.

All this pent up emotion, even before workers get into work, is something employers will need to start addressing
Then, too, much like for workers from Ireland in London in the 1970s and 1980s, for Muslims or others from ethnic minorities there will be the constant fear (particularly if you happen to be travelling with a large bag or rucksack) of "do they think I'm a bomber" or, in the office, "do they all think, deep down, that I support these people?". There may be comments, asides, even "jokes" to deal with.

All this pent up emotion, even before workers get into work, is something employers will need to start addressing as time goes on, experts are warning.

If the attacks and alerts continue, employers would be wise to recognise a need to pull back on the reins in some areas, suggests Jon Denoris, managing director of health and well-being consultancy Catalyst Health & Fitness.

"They will need to be looking at things such as allowing people to work more flexibly, perhaps allowing people to arrive or leave slightly earlier or later," he explains.

Inevitably employers will need to tread a fine line between letting the discipline of office life go completely and making concessions to the new climate.

One employment law firm, Berg Legal, has warned that employers will need to be particularly sensitive to how they deal with issues of staff discipline, notably short-term absence.

It may also be wise for employers to look at alternatives to the daily commute on the Tube or bus, perhaps through staggered hours or car share schemes or, more environmentally friendly, using Government tax saving schemes to buy bikes for employees.

Encouraging more use of home and remote working is another constructive alternative.

"Yes, there is stoicism at the moment but really it is just that people have to get on with their lives, people feel they have to work," adds Denoris.

While being more flexible makes good practical sense, it is also true that keeping office routines, albeit with more flexibly built in, can help to restore a sense of normality.

Encouraging workers to exercise can also help to reduce stress, Denoris argues. Managers may find it useful too to get in some coaching or specialist advice on stress reduction techniques to pass on to workers for when they travel or if they find themselves in an emotionally fraught situation.

Communication is another key factor. The type of reassuring and practical communication often needed in such circumstances can be something for which managers in particular need extra training, argues James Bradley, head of legal services at employee assistance programme provider Employee Advisory Resource.

Interest in, and demand for, EAPs and confidential counselling programmes rose sharply in the wake of the July 7 attacks, he adds.

Alongside support and help for staff, such services can also often provide advice on the sorts of messages managers should be putting out to workers, either verbally, on paper or on internal websites, he suggests.

Nurses, too, have warned employers that they need to be on the lookout for symptoms of post-traumatic stress among workers who have been affected by the bombs, with some nurses predicting that as many as half of those involved could be affected.

Yet it need not all be negative. As Denoris, who's consultancy is based in central London, points out, there is a recognition that everyone - manager, employer etc - is in the same boat and facing the same adversity.

"There is definitely a feeling of camaraderie, people are being more friendly," he says.