Stressful Incidents – Information for Managers

by Michelle Everson Artius Psychologist, Oxenford

Often psychologists refer to sudden, stressful events as “Critical incidents”.  These are usually challenging, sudden events that may create significant distress and overwhelm an individual’s ability to cope. What really defines, the critical incident is that there are usually strong emotions attached to the event, which have the potential to interfere with an employee’s ability to functional work.

As soon as possible after an event:

  • The management team/s should meet to discuss the event and how it has impacted employees. The major focus should be on ensuring safety and providing support to employees
  • Line managers and supervisors should be instructed to be aware of signs that people have had difficulty coping with the situation. Examples of possible reactions are outlined below
  • A decision should be made to make contact external supports such as Artius
  • The most appropriate person/ people should (if possible) communicate their feelings of concern to all relevant staff- expressing the appropriate level of reassurance for workplace safety
  • Managers should be sensitive to employees who may have a real or perceived connection to the event. Often, critical events can rekindle memories of past experiences. This may result in some staff having strong reactions to the incident, regardless of whether they were “directly” involved
  • It may be appropriate for managers and supervisors to play the role of facilitator. In this sense, they should try not to overshare personal experience, or express views of blame or guilt
  • It is important to recognise that the next few days may not be productive (depending on the incident)

Each person within the organisation will “deal” with the incident differently. Typically, most employees will resume their normal work routine within a week. However, there may be some people who continue to experience problems and require additional support. Managers should be on the lookout for the following indicative behaviours:

  • Employees who do not return to work 3 days after the event, despite have a safe place to work
  • Employees you’re concerned may be under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Employees who miss deadlines, work assignments, client meetings, department meetings etc.
  • Employees who display impaired judgement and/ or inability to concentrate on tasks or assignment. These employees may repeatedly request instructions where previously once would be enough
  • Employees who spend extended periods of time missing from the work area, either on breaks or in the bathroom
  • Employees who display noticeable changes in personal hygiene or physical appearance
  • Employees who display unpredictable and unusual behaviour, who overreact to situations (both social and work related), or who appear unusually emotional or volatile
  • Employees who engage in inappropriate conversations with other employees or clients regarding violent or self-damaging behaviour

If a manager or supervisor is concerned about a particular employee they should gently approach them and encourage them to access support such as the Artius Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

If you decide to suggest contact with an EAP, it is important to be non-judgmental and supportive. The most important thing a manager or supervisor can do is to “normalise” the employee’s feelings. Explain that what they are experiencing is not unexpected given the circumstances. Reassure them that the EAP is confidential, and that if they decide to access the service you will support them in any way you can.

How to respond:

  1. Be tolerant of a wide range of individual responses and emotions among employees and each other
  2. Encourage acceptance and sensitivity among individual members and work groups regarding these different responses
  3. Be visible and available to employees
  4. Allow for a continuing need to talk and share events
  5. Encourage employees to communicate their feelings and what has been helpful for them
  6. Create/ support activities that re-establish a sense of control (e.g. allow people to set goals and determine priorities and allow people flexibility to “pace” themselves in returning to work)

The number for the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is 1300 986 886 or health@artius.com.au