When critical incidents occur, by their very nature, they are shocking and outside the usual realm of expectancy and normality, even for those whose occupations often involve high-threat situations.
Going from the banal and mundane to a split-second moment of shattering terror, can leave people stumbling and trying to make sense of what just happened to them. Of course, for the most part, people will naturally recover over time as they understand more about what happened, and what it means for them. Often, people use such experiences as sources of developmental learning and growth in the long-term.
What is clear, is that when disaster strikes, leaders can do a lot to enhance the psychological recovery of their colleagues. Not only is this important from a moral and humane point of view, it’s also vital if organisations are to maximise resilience and enhance business continuity. The financial effects of poor mental health on business are well documented, we need not labour those points, but it’s worth noting that organisations do have a very clear responsibility to adhere to Health and Safety Executive (HSE) standards on stress in the work-place.
So, what can leaders do to support colleagues following a critical incident?
Call the professionals. Be aware of your limitations.
First and foremost, ensure that you’ve got the best specialist help to support your people through the psychological aftermath of the incident. Critical Incident Stress Intervention and Support is highly specialised work – leaders often feel great responsibility for their people, and sometimes even feel responsible for the incident itself. A rescue mentality will not help in such a situation. It’s also important that recovery operations begin as soon as possible – ‘Watchful waiting’ periods are not helpful, can be considered neglectful, and will not optimise recovery.
Be available, be seen.
During or following a period of crisis, leaders will have a million tasks to undertake, from damage mitigation, to corporate communications and a myriad of procedural demands as prescribed in organisational policies. It is also of important that leaders are clearly visible on the front line too. Colleagues will be grateful to see the leader digging in like the rest of them and the maintenance of a high profile close to those in crisis will help the distressed to feel valued, and the angry to see a clear and decisive response. If the critical incident is of such a nature that it requires a lot of resources, then a leader should be specifically appointed to be available for colleagues.
It’s easy but wrong to minimise the distress and suffering of others in order to try and ‘bump’ people through a crisis. If colleagues’ thoughts, feelings or reactions are devalued then so would we devalue the person. Let people experience their upset, without criticism, without judgement, and without penalty. Be sensitive.
Be aware of people’s reactions, know what they mean.
In the aftermath of a critical incident, a range of emotions and reactions will be displayed – it’s a leader’s job to try and understand what’s going on with their people and get help when it’s needed. Anger, sadness, guilt, and shock are all typical examples of critical incident stress responses – but what’s the normal disposition of your team members? look out for extreme reactions of either a positive or negative nature – they may indicate a colleague needs some support.
Appreciate the people around you, give them some time, check in.
This may sound silly and obvious, but it’s surprising how easy it is to get so wrapped up with crisis management that leaders forget to just have two minutes timeout with a colleague. Thank them for their efforts, ask how they’re doing, listen to them, and talk with them. Share your thoughts and concerns about the incident with them too, make sure that they feel valued as a colleague, and valued as a human being.
The value of formal and informal briefings cannot be under-estimated. Your people will be thirsting for information which could help them make sense of what happened, what’s happening now, and what’s going to happen in the future. Maintain an open-door policy and be prepared to explain what’s what frequently, and with patience.
Provide health and well-being information.
For colleagues, their significant others, and for families. Help them to know the signs of a more serious traumatic reaction, and provide guidance on exercise, diet and alcohol use following the incident.
Don’t forget you.
Monitor yourself – If you aren’t firing all cylinders, then you will not achieve the best for your people. Know yourself, and know when to ask for support.
Put the needs of your people first.
Managing corporate risk does not help people recover – supporting them does.
Sean McCallum is a veteran of the Iraq War of 2003 and an operational fire-fighter who co-led psychological recovery operations following the London terror attacks of 2017 and the Grenfell Tower disaster.