Magazine article Risk Management

Coping with Crisis

Magazine article Risk Management

Coping with Crisis

Article excerpt

An explosion rocks a federal building in Oklahoma City, causing 168 deaths and hundreds of injuries.

An earthquake measuring 6.4 on the Richter scale strikes a densely populated area of Los Angeles. Schools and businesses are closed for days, and some residents decide to leave the area immediately.

In New York, a bank robbery traps 40 customers and bank employees during a police stand-off that lasts for several hours.

These three events, although seemingly disparate, have one crucial element in common: The people present during these incidents experienced a traumatic shock that can have severe emotional effects for days, months or possibly even years. When a crisis strikes the workplace, the effects on employees may include significant emotional distress that can lead to physical or mental disability.

As a result, public and private organizations must be prepared to implement strategies that will alleviate the traumas of employees who are victims of, or witnesses to, a crisis. One such strategy is critical incident debriefing, a counseling method that tries to help employees in a group setting understand their emotional reactions to a crisis. According to organizations that have used it, critical incident debriefing can produce significant psychological and financial benefits. "In my experience, when employees undergo a critical incident debriefing, workers' compensation claims are likely to be reduced," says Michael R. Mantell, Ph.D., a clinical and corporate psychologist in San Diego who successfully used critical incident debriefing to reduce disability claims among members of the San Diego police force who responded to a plane crash. "Companies that demonstrate a lack of concern for employees can compound the trauma of the original incident. Regardless of the magnitude of the problem, there are fewer claims when a company helps its employees cope."

Debriefing is an option worth exploring in the aftermath of a critical incident, Conducted properly, it can help stabilize the workplace after a crisis; improve the productivity and retention of staff affected by the incident; reduce workers' compensation stress claims and hasten return to work; lower the long-term incidence of generalized anxiety, panic attacks and substance abuse among survivors; and decrease the likelihood of litigation. Ultimately, risk managers who play a role in their organizations' crisis management teams will find that critical incident debriefing can help reduce the long-term costs of a crisis to the organization by helping traumatized workers return to healthful productivity.


Because the symptoms suffered by crisis survivors can be severe, it is no surprise that they can lead to psychological and even physical debilitation. Physical symptoms may include chest pains, headaches, gastrointestinal distress, elevated heart rate and blood pressure, muscular soreness and fatigue. Emotional and psychological symptoms may include grief, depression, anxiety, flashbacks, emotional numbness and the inability to concentrate or to make decisions. Victims may also experience a change in eating habits or suffer from panic attacks, insomnia or nightmares.

One of the most serious symptoms is a feeling of isolation that many victims experience after a disaster. A survivor may believe that he or she is the only person experiencing painful emotions, comparing their internal distress to the ostensible calm of those around them. Although this belief is completely mistaken--virtually all survivors of a crisis will experience some negative emotions--it forces the individual into further isolation that can ultimately lead to social withdrawal, problems with interpersonal relations and alcohol or drug abuse. Disaster survivors may also experience intense, frightening reactions to any sounds that remind them of the disaster, such as a backfiring truck that mimics the sound of a gunshot.

Also, risk managers of hospitals and other medical institutions must be aware that caregivers such as paramedics and emergency medical technicians may suffer from critical incident: stress as much as (and sometimes more than) survivors. …

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