AccessEAP blog

Supporting employees through a Critical Incident

While it is something that most managers won’t have to deal with in their career, at times situations can arise in the workplace which can be traumatic to employees or have the potential to be traumatic for managers. We call this type of situation a Critical Incident and examples include armed robbery, assault, threats of harm, accidental injury or death. These incidents tend to be rare in most jobs however if they do occur, they can cause psychological distress, or trauma. There are some things you can do as a manager to support staff early after one of these events to reduce the chances of prolonged trauma.

It is normal for people to experience some distress following a critical incident. Each person's reaction will be different and some of the more common reactions tend to include 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, and 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. Often people will initially experience shock and disbelief, and so their reactions to the event will only emerge after a period of time. The important thing for managers to understand is that these are normal reactions to an abnormal event. These responses are usually temporary as people find ways of coping.

Here are some suggestions for supporting your staff following a critical incident:

    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 all staff receives 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, e.g. contacting a family member or friend, seeing a counselor and 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. The sense of safety and security are re-established with whatever sense of routine and normality 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’s possible for stress responses to develop over time and follow up support may be required by some workers or groups.

It is also critical for managers to look after themselves while supporting others as they may also be affected by what has happened. If you require additional support or are concerned about an employee, contact your case manager for additional information.