Helping employees after critical incidents in the workplace

by Chloe Taylor02 Mar 2015
Following the Sydney siege in December, the Lindt Café at Martin Place remains closed.
Most workplaces will never experience incidents this extreme, but situations can arise in the workplace which have the potential to be traumatic for employees and managers.
These types of situations are referred to by experts as critical incidents, with examples including armed robbery, assault, threats of harm, accidental injury or death.
Although such incidents are rare in workplaces, if they do occur they can cause psychological distress to those present.
Experts at AccessEAP, an organisation dedicated to enhancing workplace wellbeing, shared advice with HC about what employers can do to provide early support after a critical incident to reduce the likelihood of prolonged trauma.
Of course, it is normal for people to experience some distress following occurrences such as these – employers should not expect their actions to completely eradicate trauma in response to critical incidents.
Each person’s reaction will be different, although common responses tend to include:
  • A heightened state of anxiety
  • Being more aware of potential danger
  • Not wanting to return to places that are reminders of the incident
  • Distressing memories of what happened
  • Difficulty relaxing
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of appetite
 “People who witness critical incidents can also often experience feelings of guilt and helplessness, believing they could have done more to help or to prevent the situation,” explained Marcela Slepica, client services director at AccessEAP. “Often people will initially experience shock and disbelief, and so their reactions to the event will only emerge after a period of time.”
Slepica outlined some suggestions for helping employees to cope with these ordeals:
1. Put their sense of safety first
Ensure that employees are removed from danger or further exposure to distressing circumstances. Reassure them and keep as calm as possible. It is important to react immediately after the incident and ensure that all members of staff receive support as soon as possible.
2. Acknowledge the seriousness of what has occurred
Make sure they understand their distress is normal and to be expected, given the circumstances. Help to put them at ease. Clarify worker’s questions and any concerns they may have, and encourage workers to talk about what has happened.
3. Understand what support they might need to help them recover
Ask them what is going to assist them, for example contacting a family member or friend or seeing a counsellor. Assist them in getting this support. Often speaking to someone who is completely objective and understands what you are going through without judgment can be very helpful.
4. Promote a return to normal routine
Emphasise those things which are reliable and stable in their life and where possible, encourage them to maintain usual routines. A sense of safety and security is re-established simultaneously with the sense of routine and normality that is possible under the circumstances.
5. Monitor and follow-up
Reactions can vary between individuals, so be aware of changes in people’s work performance or attendance at work over time. It is possible for responses to develop over time and follow-up support may be required for some workers or groups.
It is also critical for managers to look after themselves while supporting others, as they may have also been affected by what has happened.
“The important thing for managers to understand is that these are normal reactions to an abnormal event,” Slepica added. “These responses are usually temporary as people find ways of coping.”


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