How to Respond to Workplace Critical Incidents
10 tips for managers to support employees following workplace trauma
It’s not every day that you face a traumatic incident in the workplace. When you are, it’s hard to know how best to support your employees.
What is a critical incident? A critical incident may involve a death in the workplace, a suicide, a serious injury, sexual assault, severe verbal abuse or armed hold-ups. Employees may be confronted with a situation that causes them psychological distress. However, what may be traumatic for one employee may have little impact on another.
So, how do you deal with the immediate aftermath of a critical incident? How do you support your employees and minimise long-term impact on morale, productivity and attendance?
Well, you can ensure your employees are well taken care of by doing this: implement a critical incident plan, understand typical stress responses, provide psychological first aid following an incident and enable access to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP).
10 tips for managers responding to critical incidents
1. Pre-incident preparation
It’s never too early to think about how critical incidents can be managed in the workplace.
One easy way to do this is to develop a relationship with an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). EAPs can provide once-off or ongoing psychological support and counselling following a critical incident.
It makes sense to have a pre-incident plan so at times of crisis everyone knows there’s a process to follow.
2. Ensure physical safety
First things first, you must ensure the physical safety of your staff following an incident. People who have experienced trauma need to regain a sense of safety and security as quickly as possible.
3. Defer or delegate operational responsibilities
Make appropriate arrangements for any operational responsibilities affected by the incident, so staff don’t have to worry about their duties. For example, reallocating workload or duties to other employees, or temporarily suspending services.
4. Identify relevant employees affected by the incident
Historically, debriefings were provided to all staff in a workplace following a traumatic incident. However, research now suggests this can be more traumatising for employees. Especially for people who knew little about the event, they can become distressed upon learning more details.
Also, some people don’t feel comfortable talking about what happened immediately and need time to process the incident.
5. Open communication
Provide a consistent message to staff about what happened. Be open and transparent by providing the facts about the incident to relevant employees. Encourage employees to ask questions and discuss how they are feeling, but only if they feel comfortable.
Ask your staff what will help them to recover. For example, contacting a family member or friend, talking to a psychologist.
Inform your staff what will happen next regarding operations and access to support. Knowing what happens next will help people feel secure and trust that someone is in charge during this stressful time.
6. Be aware of typical stress responses
A stress response is usual when faced with an unusual stressful event. These may include:
- Loss of appetite
- Headaches, muscle tension, fatigue
- Difficulties concentrating
- Feeling anxious
- Emotional outbursts such as anger or distress
- Troubling memories of what happened
- Experiencing guilt or denial
People manage stress differently. Some people initially withdraw and don’t want to talk about what happened, while other people do want to talk and actively seek out others.
7. Psychological first aid (24 – 48 hours after incident)
Let’s face it. Following a traumatic incident, employees will be in shock. They may not be able to take in all the information you want to provide. So, your sensitivity and understanding are essential in helping them move through this initial period of shock.
Psychological first aid extends beyond debriefing staff following a critical incident. The aim here is to minimise distress and increase staff resilience.
What does psychological first aid involve?
Important elements of psychological first aid include:
- Acknowledging the seriousness of the event
- Validating and normalising feelings
- Education on normal stress responses
- Information on how to support recovery (for example, peer support, maintaining a ‘normal routine’, sleep and rest, and a healthy lifestyle).
- Informing staff what to expect next (regarding operations and ongoing support)
Who provides psychological first aid?
Psychological first aid is usually provided by an EAP service or another trained professional. Someone external to the workplace can encourage people to open up and discuss how they feel without fear of judgement.
Remember, debriefing is not counselling.
8. Psychological interventions and counselling
EAPs provide confidential, one-on-one counselling for staff. This offers a more individualised intervention for those in need. If an acute stress response persists, it can develop into post-traumatic stress disorder.
9. Post-incident (1-2 weeks later)
Continue to monitor and follow up on how your staff is coping. Look for signs of ongoing distress such as a change in work performance or attendance.
Remember to look after yourself too.
It’s not unusual for people to experience a delayed stress response. If you are preoccupied with ensuring there is support in place for your staff and managing operational demands, it may be later that the reality of the situation hits home. Ensure you access professional help if needed.
In short, it’s best practice to have a pre-incident plan in place, a relationship with an EAP service, provide psychological first aid to staff following a critical incident and to monitor over following weeks.
As long as you provide sensitive and timely support to your staff, then you will give them the best chance of overcoming the trauma with little long-term effects.
Brisbane Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
At Ahead Psychology, we provide workplace trauma counselling to small and medium-sized businesses based in Brisbane and regional areas.
Ahead EAP is easy and fast to set up and can tailor to your specific needs. Read more about Ahead EAP.