How to handle a critical incident in the workplace

Unexpected stressful events can have a negative impact on employees, so it’s important to have a supportive crisis intervention process, says Colin Frensham

An acute stress reaction happens in response to a particularly stressful event, which causes symptoms of stress to emerge. The response is usually swift and severe, but typically does not last long. If a critical incident happens at home, your employees have time to process, adapt and work through their acute stress and may even qualify for compassionate leave. 

But what happens when an incident happens at work and affects your wider team? What happens if members of that team are already suffering from chronic or cumulative stress? It is essential for employers to deal with the aftermath of critical incidents in order to support individual mental health, maintain team cohesion, and secure your culture as a supportive workplace. 

A critical incident is an unexpected event that causes a period of acute stress in a workplace environment or group. It can range from the unexpected death of a colleague through to a workplace accident, loss of a patient in a long-term care scenario, or a large-scale violent event such as a mass shooting, fire or bombing – the incident at Liverpool Women’s Hospital on Remembrance Sunday being a prime example. 

It can affect those directly involved, those involved in the aftermath (for example the emergency service providers) and those in the wider region or community who feel the shockwaves of the event. 

Critical incidents can create strong emotional reactions and responses which disrupt group cohesion, productivity, and/or morale. There is a natural stress response which can lead to overall distress, something that occurs when a person has demands or expectations that do not match their abilities, skills and coping strategies at the time, leading to an overall decline in their wellbeing and performance in any situation. 

Workplace mental health frameworks often focus on the individual and on tackling cumulative stress, and while of use, these frameworks regularly omit processes and procedures for acute stressors that impact an organisation’s group or team. By incorporating post-critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) into an organisation or group’s mental health framework, businesses can be as equipped as possible to deal with a critical incident when it occurs. 

As a supportive crisis intervention process, CISD is designed to support groups or teams to help demobilise, defuse, and debrief, directly following an acute stress incident. It should be carried out by individuals who are trained to be facilitators of stress reduction within this specific type of situation. 

It is important that an organisation seeks to identify individuals best suited to debriefing and facilitation and to look for volunteers who are keen to take an active role in supporting group dynamics, in the same way it would identify a nominated first aider or mental health peer. The objective of CISD is to show care and support, provide access to help and information, encourage communication and continued group cohesion, and deliver coping strategies during unfamiliar circumstances. 

CISD offers numerous all-encompassing benefits, first of course in supporting staff mental health and enhancing wellbeing, but it also helps strengthen work relationships, create a culture of support and reduce long-term sick leave among staff, in turn boosting business productivity. 

Stress is now the primary cause of long-term sickness absence for employees. A key point to bear in mind is that CISD is not an alternative to psychotherapy or counselling, and is designed to be delivered as a group outlet rather than an individual one, aimed at reducing distress and restoring group cohesion.

It should deal with the immediate aftermath, but in doing so encourage and direct individuals to further one-on-one support if they need it, such as those experiencing an incident of acute stress on top of an ongoing challenge of cumulative stress. CISD also provides a framework to identify and refer those who have delayed emotional responses for further support. 

Colin Frensham is director of Tidal Training