VanCity’s Robbery Intervention Program Wins US Award

Vancouver City Savings Credit Union has been named the winner of the American Psychological Association’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace: Best Practices Honours award, the first Canadian company to garner the prize.

The country’s largest credit union won for its Robbery Intervention Program, which offers employees a unique response to robbery trauma. The program is a necessity since, according to the Canadian Bankers Association, Vancouver is the bank robbery capital of Canada.

Vancouver averages a robbery every business day with 237 incidents in 2003 (up from 170 incidents in 2001), followed by Toronto with 114 incidents and Montreal with 45 incidents, according to the Canadian Bankers Association.

The American Psychological Association said VanCity’s program stands out for contributing towards a psychologically healthy workplace.

Russ Newman, executive director for professional practice at the APA, said the companies that win the best practices award “serve as a model for corporate America, which is beginning to understand that employees are their most valuable asset.”

VanCity launched its Robbery Intervention Program 18 years ago in response to concerns for safety of staff, for whom the threat of armed robbery always exists – and a desire to prevent violence in the workplace.

Prior to 1986, VanCity had no organized policy to cope with staff who had experienced a bank robbery. To find out how robberies affected staff, the company did a study of absenteeism rates following a robbery. It found that the average absenteeism rate after a robbery was 35.9 days for each affected worker – over a month of days taken off. But after implementing the Robbery Intervention Program, the rate dropped to an average of 10.6 days per robbed worker.

Staff were able to return to work faster when the company supported them after a robbery. VanCity’s average days lost due to robberies continues to be lower than the industry norm. Between 2001 and 2003, VanCity staff, on average, missed 1.8 days following a robbery. According to the Workers’ Compensation Board, other financial institutions report losing an average of 66 days per worker post-robbery, when staff take time off to recover.

The most common trauma to follow a robbery is adjustment disorder with anxiety. It’s a reaction to a stressful incident such as being fired, going through divorce – or being robbed at work. People who suffer from this disorder may report feelings of nervousness, worry or jitteriness and in the extreme, intense fear, helplessness and horror. They may have difficulty falling or staying asleep, feel angry or have difficulty concentrating.

Some people have recurring recollections of the incident or distressing dreams. Sufferers may avoid conversations about the traumatic event or activities associated with it. Sometimes people may have difficulty recalling important details about what happened and show signs of withdrawal from others. They may be unable to feel their emotions or see no future for themselves in their work or personal lives. They may have trouble functioning at work or socially.

VanCity believes that the Robbery Intervention Program helps to prevent these problems and increases its employees’ resilience and determination to recover from a bank robbery.

The program works like this: Once a robbery occurs employees access a “tear sheet” that gives simple instructions on what to do, such as: “Lock front door”, “Call security”, or “Phone the alarm company.” Once internal security is called to deal with the robbery investigation, the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is notified along with the team leader of Health, Safety and Wellness.

A representative from the EAP goes to the site along with audit and security personnel, to work with police. Sometimes a neighbouring branch manager comes to the branch to handle outstanding business, while the manager of the targeted branch handles staff issues.

Once the counsellors arrive, they watch for signs of trauma such as shallow breathing and physical symptoms of shock or stress. The counsellors provide a debriefing for the entire branch.

If required they follow up with phone calls in the evening to various personnel and their families, since, after all, families will have been very worried about their safety. The counsellors help to mitigate concerns about personal safety, provide an empathic ear and help people understand the natural responses to a traumatic event. They help employees manage their emotions post-incident and give them tools to understand their experiences.

Within a day or two of a robbery, an executive from VanCity will call the branch to ask after the personnel’s well-being. Health, Safety and Wellness staff will also call the branch to follow-up with any claims for Workers Compensation Board due to the robbery and offer robbed employees additional support such as massage therapy, reflexology, or shiatsu.

“We find that positive, safe touch helps to deal with the reduced trust that comes from a robbery,” says Rose Weber, Team Lead, Health, Safety and Wellness at VanCity.

Employees report that they feel supported by the organization and appreciate the acknowledgement from their employer that they’ve gone through an emotionally painful event.

Because it’s common for staff to second-guess their responses to a robbery, the intervention program helps them understand they acted appropriately and effectively. Over half of VanCity’s staff have benefited from the Robbery Intervention Program either through receiving support following a robbery or via training in how to deal with robbery violence.

Donna Wilson, vice-president of Human Resources at VanCity, said the program has been refined every year in response to employee feedback and “we know we’re on the right track when we look at our low WCB claims and sick leave statistics resulting from robberies.”

Daniel Stone, whose company is VanCity’s EAP provider, says the program works because it provides “corporate empathic responding” which recognizes that staff who have been robbed have to be cared for and acknowledged as having been traumatized.

VanCity’s Robbery Intervention Program will be highlighted in the APA’s Best Practices magazine to offer other companies in Canada and the US helpful strategies in the creation of their own psychologically healthy workplaces.

The program was one of 10 honoured among 179 US entries. VanCity was the only Canadian company entered into the competition. Awards were also give to Bank One Corporation in Ohio, Sysco Food Sevices of New Mexico, the City of Albany and South Carolina Bank and Trust.

VanCity’s, Robbery Intervention Program is an example of how caring for employees not only makes good business sense but results in a more engaged, healthier, loyal and committed work force, even after a traumatic event like a bank robbery.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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