Critical Incidents: Weathering the Unexpected


Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) planning builds organizational resiliency

The Hippocratic idea of first doing no harm is driving a reinvention of workplace critical incident response. A decade ago, a group debriefing was standard when a natural disaster, severe injury or death affected a workplace.

An evolution

Now, CISM practices are moving toward a more appropriate set of services supporting a wider range of individuals and their unique reactions. Each employee’s experience—how involved they were in the incident, the effect on their ability to function and the longer-term emotional impact—is highly individual. As a result of this shift in approach, fewer people become newly traumatized by the response effort itself.

Lessons from a national tragedy

The case for updating crisis management response is apparent in creative expression exercises conducted with children after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. Those with media exposure or privy to adult conversations expressed their thoughts in a way that demonstrated an intense emotional response. Those who had not been exposed to traumatic details showed more resiliency.

For the most part, people are resilient. A targeted response rather than a blanket response takes this into account. Those more exposed to the incident can be offered more intervention than those who may only have heard about it after the fact.

Preplanning matters

While critical events are by definition unforeseen, organizations can plan ahead to better understand what their organizational response will look like.

Addressing possible future incidents, assigning roles and anticipating what internal support and outside resources will be needed helps organizations build resiliency. In the absence of preplanning, unforeseen events have the potential to blindside leadership, adding to the chaos. Employee well-being following an incident is an important area that preplanning can address.

We recommend employers become familiar with the services available by consulting with their EAP provider. Take time to prepare. It’s much more difficult to make decisions in a chaotic environment.

One company we assisted in creating a response plan had a workplace death soon after that. After a quick consult, they were able to carry out their plan to support their employees. They had already anticipated how they would make those services available. They brought one of our counselors in to assist onsite, and arranged followup through their EAP. The incident was unfortunate, but the response was excellent.

Having the Employee Assistance Program in place before the event is key. It’s that holistic approach to emotional wellness that provides a level of resiliency to an organization.