Dealing with critical incidents all about support, support, support

Managers should be made aware of 5 different categories of reactions
By Renee Jarvis
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/23/2012

Traumatic events often occur without any notice and can affect an entire workplace, so timely assessment of the situation and decisions surrounding next steps are critical.

When a critical incident occurs — such as a co-worker’s death, a violent incident at a factory or a disaster affecting a workplace — most traditional methods a manager uses to support and motivate employees can fail. Bonuses, extra vacation days, contests, recognition — almost no incentive can undo the grip the incident may have on an individual.

In a critical incident, employees may lose their sense of security and their ability to cope. Their careers, for a time, are out of control. Their stress levels can skyrocket and they may have trouble concentrating on work.

People traumatized by a critical incident may be difficult to manage. They may be angry or preoccupied with the event, their sick time may increase and internal employee conflict may occur.

Before you can support an employee in crisis, you must understand the impact a critical incident can have on an individual. Critical incidents can produce a wide range of stress symptoms and the more symptoms experienced, the more powerful the stress reaction. The longer the symptoms persist, the more potential there is for lasting harm.

5 categories of symptoms

The symptoms manifest in five different categories:

Cognitive: Poor concentration, poor attention span, slower problem-solving, difficulty with calculations and making decisions, memory disturbance.

Emotional: Guilt, depression, grief, anger, feeling lost or overwhelmed, anxiety or fear, loss of emotional control.

Physical: Muscle tremors, gastrointestinal distress, headaches, chest pains, difficulty breathing, elevated blood pressure.

Behavioural: Excessive silence, extreme behavioural change, withdrawal from contact, sleep disturbances, changes in eating habits, changes in work habits.

Spiritual: A sense of isolation from place of worship, loss of meaning or purpose, withdrawal from place of worship, anger at spiritual leaders, questioning basic beliefs, faith practices seem empty, uncharacteristic religious involvement.

Minimizing impact

When employees experience significant stress from a critical incident, there are some steps an employer can take to help minimize the impact, including:

• providing immediate medical attention if required

• limiting their exposure to sights, sounds and odours that may trigger further stress reactions

• reassuring them their confidentiality is being protected

• maintaining a calm attitude

• speaking in a confident but controlled manner

• providing physical needs, such as rest, hydration and clothing

• listening carefully and using good eye contact

• validating their experience in an assuming, non-judgmental manner

• providing accurate information and updates concerning the event

• reassuring them that most stress reactions are normal

• assisting them with immediate decisions, if necessary

• protecting them from both public and media attention.

In addition, be sure to:

Communicate: If an incident occurs at the workplace, communicate what’s going on. Don’t keep employees in the dark. Employees are frightened by uncertainty. They need to know as much as they can about the nature of the crisis. If they are told less than the whole truth, they will likely imagine the crisis to be much more severe than it actually is.

Encourage: Encourage open communications and dialogue. Whether informally or formally, the more individuals are allowed to vent emotions and normalize feelings, the easier it will be to process the event.

Use outside resources: Bring in an outside facilitator to help employees vent their emotions. Many employees who have been through a crisis have said this is one of the most helpful tools their company used to keep employee motivation high. Employees often don’t realize other employees feel as fearful as they do. Talking about their emotions in a group makes them feel less alone.

Use internal resources: Peer programs can help. Although not mental health professionals, peers trained in individual and group crisis intervention techniques can provide a safe and supportive environment for co-workers. Peers who may have experienced similar situations are in a better position to understand the psychological and emotional toll. Peer support also provides an opportunity to speak in confidence to someone, without fear of being stigmatized, losing their job or stalling career growth.

Celebrate: Once the initial shock and seriousness of the crisis is over, celebrate successes. A few hours of structured downtime following the chaos can relieve tensions and convey the impression management cares about morale. In helping employees handle the traumatic stress of the crisis, an employer demonstrates it cares about their emotional and psychological well-being.

When employees feel supported and valued, they experience lower levels of distress and burnout. Similarly, researchers have determined that social support from both the workplace and the individual’s personal network is related to lower levels of trauma symptoms following exposure to a critical event.

However, sometimes support goes beyond words. Here are some practical and respectful ways of helping an employee through a crisis:

• Offer them rides to work.

• Assist them with tasks that may require too much energy.

• If they have a young family, find ways that co-workers can assist with the day-to-day activities.

• Have outside resources available, such as an employee assistance program (EAP) or community resource information.

If you don’t ask, you won’t know how to support the employee. However, an employer cannot take on all the worker’s responsibilities and its involvement will, in some part, be based on the existing relationship. To support effectively, it is important to manage your involvement and not become exhausted yourself.

The importance of having support from all levels of an organization cannot be emphasized enough. Senior management must communicate proactively to employees the importance of reaching out for help when needed. Validation and support from top management is one of the most important and critical success factors following a critical incident. When individuals feel supported, they take a more proactive approach with regards to their own emotional well-being.

Renee Jarvis is president of the Canadian Critical Incident Stress Foundation in Ancaster, Ont., and she can be reached at For more information, visit

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