Managing Workplace Trauma: Part 1 of 2

Responding to a Traumatic Event

       An important feature of an employee assistance program is the ability to quickly respond with onsite intervention services when employees are exposed to a traumatic event such as the sudden loss of a colleague, acts of violence, robbery, or a workplace accident. These sudden and extremely stressful events, referred to as critical incidents, overwhelm the normally effective coping skills of the individuals affected.  Facility closures and significant reductions-in-force (lay-offs) are sometimes treated as critical incidents due to the high levels of stress, strong emotional reactions and large percentage of the workforce impacted.  

 Critical Incident Stress Management

       A comprehensive employee assistance program offers a specific intervention package for these situations.  It is called Critical Incident Stress Management or CISM.  CISM consists of an array of crisis intervention procedures and processes designed to help employees cope and recover.  Included in a CISM package are pre-incident education, individual crisis intervention, small group critical incident stress debriefing (CISD), family support services, follow-up services, referrals for professional care, and post-incident education programs, if needed.  Which procedures and processes are utilized will depend upon the needs of the workplace.  The focus throughout any CISM process is recognizing and strengthening one’s natural resiliency.  Employees who participate in an onsite CISM process tend to “bounce back” more successfully than those who do not.

       Of the CISM procedures and processes listed previously, a critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) is popular and efficacious.  It is a supportive process for small groups, the goals of which are to normalize group members’ reactions to the trauma, reduce distress, facilitate recovery and identify individuals who may need additional help or referral for counseling.  

 How the CISD Process Works

       A CISD is a structured group story-telling process where a small group of employees who work together in similar capacities talks about their shared experience with the help of a trained leader or facilitator.  Participants are encouraged to describe the event from their own points of view and to discuss their reactions.  The facilitator informs the group that the discussion is confidential and that the views of each member are to be respected.   The facilitator helps members of the group to understand their feelings and emotional reactions. If someone needs to talk one-on-one, the facilitator can arrange to meet with that person apart from the group.

       Participants are told they may experience symptoms of anxiety, inability to concentrate or focus, sleeplessness, nightmares, or flashbacks following a traumatic event.  Facilitators offer practical information for managing stress and encourage participants to lean on their support systems during this time.  Anyone continuing to struggle with issues following the CISD is advised to contact the employee assistance program for confidential individual counseling and ongoing support. 

       A CISD may run from 1 to 3 hours.  Time involved will depend on the intensity of the event and the number of participants.  One or more follow-up sessions may be necessary.  A CISD is not psychotherapy nor does not take the place of psychotherapy.       

 Part 2 of 2:  Role of Management and Human Resources in a Traumatic Event

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