Responding to critical incidents in the workplace

Workplace incidents and accidents, though not common, can occur in any workplace. DEBRA BRODOWSKI explains how organisations should respond to critical incidents, in accordance to best practice guidelines.

Workplace incidents and accidents, though not common, can occur in any workplace. Incidents and accidents tend to be in the area of serious workplace injuries that may be witnessed by one or more team members, through to a fatality in the workplace. More recently, employees in the Sydney CBD were involved in a serious incident around the Martin Place siege. There are a number of potential ways in which a critical incident may occur in the workplace:

  • Witnessing a suicide/other life threatening situation/ serious workplace accident/ fatality.
  • Serious Motor Vehicle Accidents.
  • Armed hold-up.

In the case of a workplace accident/incident, even though our exposure to what occurred may be largely similar, being a direct witness/first responder, through to hearing about it from a colleague, the reaction to the event is likely to vary across individuals. Indeed, those who are likely to be more vulnerable to more distress after hearing about an accident/incident, may have one (or more) of the following features:

  • Pre-existing mental health issue
  • Rumination from the incident (“what could I have done differently?”)
  • Long lasting physical consequences as a result of the incident
  • High degree of ongoing personal threat from the incident
  • Previous history of trauma or psychological disorder

On the other hand, those with protective factors in place, are less likely to experience longstanding distress from the issue. Protective factors may include:

  • Good levels of social support available
  • Higher levels of emotional resilience
  • Higher levels of coping efficacy
  • Being resourceful and having good problem-solving skills
  • Being more likely to seek help
  • Holding the belief that there is something that one can do to manage one’s feelings and cope with the trauma from the incident
  • Self-disclosure of the trauma to others
  • Having an identity as a survivor as opposed to a victim
  • Finding meaning in the trauma

Irrespective of the event that has caused the trauma and despite the likely risks or protective factors in place that may help or hinder a person’s distress, there is a best practise response to a critical incident for the workplace to consider.

Before considering best practise, it is useful to consider previous responses taken to a critical incident. Previously, approximately 20 years ago, when a critical incident occurred, the best practise response was to have all employees sit in a group together, to discuss what they saw, heard or knew about the situation and how they felt. This approach was found to escalate the level of distress in the employees. Why? Because there was no consideration given as to what employee’s may bring to such a debriefing in relation to their risk factors and protective factors hence people were being traumatised by hearing about an aspect of the trauma that they had not previously known or remembered themselves.

Nowadays, the best practise intervention following a workplace trauma is “Psychological First Aid”. Just like first aid for a physical injury, the aim is to triage those in most need, whilst providing a basic level of care for all. As such, the timing and level of response is critical. Consider the following:

An incident occurs

For the first 24 hours, people will learn of the incident and remain in shock. During this period of time, it is important for the employer to provide a consistent message around what happened, and what support will be offered over the coming days.

Approximately 24 – 48 hours post incident

Provide psychological first aid sessions to relevant employees. These sessions are aimed to be an education tool to help employees understand:

  • What has happened
  • Normalise the mix of feelings likely to be experienced (consistent with someone experiencing the grief cycle)
  • Provide psycho-education around how an individual can help themselves recover:
    • Healthy lifestyle habits
    • Maintaining a normal routine as much as possible
    • Adequate sleep and rest
    • Accessing social support to process the incident

These psychological first aid sessions tend to be facilitated by an EAP provider/ trauma specialists, who are able to identify and respond to those most likely in need post incident occurring. For those who may need more assistance, confidential 1:1 counselling is also provided with an experienced Psychologist onsite. The provision of this counselling allows a more structured intervention for those in need, assisting in providing more tailored support in the development in coping skills for those who need it.

Approximately 1 – 2 weeks post incident

  • Provide ongoing support to those who seem particularly distressed/ vulnerable.
  • Monitor all employees to ensure that symptoms are reducing and a normal routine is returning.

Ideally, 1 – 2 weeks post incident, whilst emotional reactions may still be present, the symptoms may be more controlled and a normal routine has returned. By responding in this manner early and with sensitivity, any risk of longer term mental health issues being present in employees as a result of the critical incident is likely to be mitigated. From an organisational perspective, responding in this manner also builds trust with the employees and strengthens management and peer support during a difficult period.

Given that as an employer we never know if or when a critical incident is likely to occur, it is important to consider these key ingredients in advance so that if something does occur in the workplace, then action can be taken immediately given that the preparation had occurred in a time when there wasn’t an acute situation present. 

Contact us for more information on our Critical Incident Response services and Psychological Rehabilitation Services.