Survivors of disasters or traumatic events are at significant risk for developing such problems as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression and substance abuse. To address this risk, organizations that have suffered a traumatic event often arrange for critical incident stress debriefings (CISD) for affected employees, hoping this short-term psychological intervention will prove helpful. But it’s not that simple.
Research reported by the Association for Psychological Science and published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, shows that the majority of employees who suffer workplace trauma recover fully within a few months or, in extreme cases, years. However, about 30% will exhibit emotional dysfunction at a significant level that, if left untreated, can become chronic.
Basically, this and other research suggests that individuals respond emotionally to disasters or traumatic events in very diverse ways. Some victims will heal without any mental health intervention. Others will require assistance in the form of “psychological first aid.” But what form should this “first aid” take?
Many organizations rely on CISD in this regard, sometimes encouraging or even requiring employees who have been traumatized to participate in individual or group “debriefings” designed to help them express their feelings and “process” the emotional impact of their experiences. However, research shows that certain individuals who participate in a CISD can actually increase their odds of developing PTSD or other emotional challenges.
Employees who respond adversely to CISD often have a coping style that involves “out of sight, out of mind.” They effectively put the event behind them and move on, sometimes fairly rapidly. However, if they are compelled to participate in a CISD, there is increased risk that the mental images and emotional responses associated with the traumatic event will be reinforced in their minds, essentially “locking in” these painful and disturbing memories.
Consequently, organizations should never require their employees to participate in a CISD. Instead, they should emphasize that each individual exercise her or his own judgment and intuition in deciding whether to attend a debriefing. If an employee seems uncertain, simply asking, “Do you feel like talking about it or not?” may help him or her make the best decision. It is important that no peer or managerial pressure be applied in these situations.
Bottom Line: If your employees suffer a traumatic event, it’s good to offer them access to CISD. However, there should be no requirement or pressure that they participate. Individual employee preferences should be respected and affirmed.