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Critical Incident Stress: How to Help Employees Cope Long-Term

A critical incident is a traumatic event in the workplace that leaves employees feeling stressed and overwhelmed. A wide range of situations can be qualified as critical incidents, ranging from a fire in the workplace to a mass shooting in the community. Some of these incidents affect only a handful of workers, and others will have a massive negative effect on almost all employees. Not surprisingly, there are many signs and symptoms associated with critical incident stress. 

What is Critical Incident Stress? 

Often, companies have implemented various programs and protocols to deal with a critical incident as it is happening. For example, most companies conduct regular fire drills, and many companies also regularly have active shooter drills. 

However, these same companies may not be as well-equipped to deal with the physical and emotional stress that impacts employees after the event. Following these incidents, the after-effects, both physical and mental, are described as critical incident stress. This stress can be short- or long-term and range from relatively minor symptoms to life-altering conditions. 

Leadership team members need to remember that post-incident stress responses among employees can vary and that all post-incident stress symptoms are a normal response to a distressing or traumatizing situation. 


What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Critical Incident Stress? 

The signs and symptoms of critical incident stress will look different in different employees. For example, some employees may experience more physical manifestations of their stress, such as gastrointestinal upset and chronic headaches.

Other employees may struggle with depression or anxiety as they work through what happened to them and their colleagues. Still, others may have post-traumatic symptoms such as nightmares and intrusive thoughts or flashbacks of the incident. 

Even for employees suffering a relatively well-understood mental health challenge, like depression, it can look dramatically different from person to person. Below are some common symptoms of depression: 

  • Anxiety;
  • Concentration challenges; 
  • A loss of interest in one's usual activities; 
  • A dramatic loss of appetite;
  • Sleep disturbance

Grief is also a common emotion following a critical incident. Yet, many American workplaces aren’t effectively dealing with significant losses. It is not uncommon for a single employee to struggle to come to terms with the loss of a family member. When multiple employees face grief, these challenges become compounded. 

It’s essential to keep in mind that when employees contend emotionally with grief, loss, depression, or anxiety, they may be distracted and much less focused on their job. These mental health challenges can result in a loss of productivity or other workplace issues. Thus, following a critical incident, the focus should not be on productivity. Instead, the focus should shift to helping workers regain a sense of wholeness and mental health well-being. 


Critical Incident Stress Management 

Critical incident stress management, or CISM, is a comprehensive program. It is a multi-dimensional plan established before an incident that aims to reduce stress should an incident occur. If an incident does occur, the program also includes immediate and short-term counseling and other services to help those impacted. 

At Pathways at Work, we do not offer CISM services or critical incident stress debriefing. Fortunately, numerous companies do an excellent job of filling this niche. Unfortunately, however, these companies tend to focus on the immediate aftermath of a stressful event. They don’t consider that the trauma and after-effects can occur for weeks, months, or even years after the event. 


The Long-term Effects of a Critical Incident 

Often when organizations and their management team think about critical incidents, they think about the emergency response. But, there is no time limit or expiration date to stress. Therefore, it is essential to think about the long-term signs and symptoms that may plague some workers. 

Workers who have experienced a critical incident may, for example, struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD happens when stress has lingering effects on people who have experienced a trauma, and sometimes everyday events can trigger unpleasant memories of the past trauma.

The diagnostic criteria for PTSD dictate that the impact must get in the way of a person's ability to carry out daily functioning. Often, it negatively impacts functioning and effectiveness at work. In some situations, depending on an employee’s role, it could also hurt overall workplace safety and health. 

Another issue to consider is that people who have PTSD or extreme anxiety may try to self-medicate their way through the problem, which frequently involves substance abuse. Currently, no hard statistics illustrate what percentage of people involved in a critical incident will develop substance use disorder. Still, anecdotal evidence indicates that the problem is real and significant. 


Provide Long-term Support for Employees

Pathways at Work recognizes that the stress of being part of a critical incident can linger for months and even years. This stress can negatively impact a business, as well as individual employees, in countless ways. Unfortunately, there are not always sufficient resources to help a company and its employees rebuild long-term health after a trauma. 

If your organization needs long-term support for employees, Pathways at Work can lay the foundation for healthy coping strategies with a custom-built workplace mental health program. A proactive approach to helping employees deal with the long-term impact of critical instances can ensure your organization heals together. 



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