Events in the workplace that involve real or perceived risk of serious physical harm or potential death, are often referred to as Critical Incidents.
These may include accidents, near misses, emergencies, natural disasters and assaults. Critical incidents differ from other stressful workplace events in that they are potentially traumatising to both victims and witnesses.
Although it is reassuring to know that most people will not go on to experience long-term mental health problems, there is much that workplaces can do to help their staff to cope following these types of events.
Practical Strategies for Workplaces and Managers
Immediately after a critical incident:
- Ensure physical safety: remove people from the incident site and treat their physical injuries.
- Avoid unnecessary exposure of other staff to the critical incident site, particularly where it may be potentially distressing.
- Provide shelter, food and comfort: Ensure that the physical needs of those involved are met and that they have the ability to contact loved ones. This may include simple things such as providing shelter, appropriate clothing, food, showers, and access to phones.
- Reassure staff about their safety: Let them know that it is normal to experience a wide range of reactions, and how they can access support if they need to.
- Keep staff informed and prevent the spread of rumours. Provide information about the status of the event, any ongoing emergency support, and the health status of anyone who has been injured.
- Watch for people who are very distressed: This may include those who are acting out of character, who appear to be “in shock” or who are “out of it”. People experiencing acute stress reactions may require individual support in the days to weeks following an event.
Days to weeks after an event:
Early intervention has been shown to lead to improved mental health outcomes. If your staff have been exposed to a significant incident it is important to get advice on what post-incident support would be appropriate as soon as possible.
Formal and Informal Responses:
There is no one-size fits all solution to supporting staff after traumatic events. What is appropriate will depend on the nature, severity and duration of the event; the number, skills and cohesiveness of those involved; and the severity of their physical and emotional symptoms.
At times, no formal interventions may be required and you might simply be encouraged to help staff make use of existing social supports, provide them with information regarding signs that they may need further help, and ways to easily access more help if required.
Individual counselling can be useful and should be offered to those who desire it, and those who are experiencing strong, ongoing reactions. It should only be conducted by an experienced mental health professional with training in post-trauma support. Sometimes people who are not coping well don’t want to have formal assistance and it is best to seek advice on how you can best fulfill your duty of care to these people with your mental health care consultant.
Debriefs and Investigations:
People without appropriate training should not “debrief” staff about their experiences. Where formal investigations are required, it is advisable that you get advice as to how these can be conducted in the safest manner.
As our memories tend to change over time and with discussion, mental health responses will need to be coordinated with any investigation process to ensure that people’s memories of the event are not influenced by the counselling processes, or discussion of their experiences with others.
Critical Incident Debriefing or Group Debriefing?
Group-based critical incident debriefing used to be commonly employed following critical incidents. These processes are no longer recommended as they can be harmful to some people, effectively re-exposing them to the event or to other people’s upsetting experiences.
If you require advice on supporting your staff following a distressing event, or you have experienced one yourself and want some more support, then consider seeing us at M1 Psychology.
Author: Kelly Gall, BSc (Hons), M Psych (Health), M Clin Psych, MAPS, MCHP.
Kelly Gall is a Health Psychologist who is passionate about helping clients improve their physical and emotional wellbeing. Kelly develops tailored, holistic and evidence-based treatment plans that incorporate psychological, physical and social strategies aimed at empowering her clients to achieve relief from psychological symptoms and improve their health. Find out more on her website, Healthy Inside and Out.
To make an appointment with Health Psychologist Kelly Gall, please call (07) 3067 9129 or you can book online today.
- Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health (2013). Australian Guidelines for the Treatment of Acute Stress Disorder and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. ACPMH. Melbourne, Victoria.