Critical Incident Stress: How to Cope with It on the Job

Typically, when we talk about experiencing trauma it’s usually associated with life events. For instance, during your childhood, you grew up with parents who were both emotionally and physically abusive.

However, what doesn’t always get as much attention is critical incident stress related to your work. This too is trauma. And just as with any kind of emotional trauma, work-related critical incidents are just as likely to lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

That’s why early intervention for critical incidents is so important. So is practicing self-care before such an incident arises so that you are better prepared to cope.

What Is a Critical Incident?

According to the U.S. Government’s Department of Health and Human Services, there are three types of incidents. They are:

Special Incidents: Traumatic events that happen to an employee that are not connected to work. For instance, getting involved in a traffic accident or having your home destroyed in a fire.

Critical Incidents: These do happen on the job and do affect the workplace. For example, a convenience store clerk is robbed during their shift, another employee makes violent threats to others, or someone dies while working.

Catastrophic Incidents: Catastrophic incidents are very severe and unexpected. Some of these may be connected to work; others not. For example, it could be that that a natural disaster strikes, such as a hurricane. Or there may be a workplace shooting with mass causalities.

The government considers critical incidents and catastrophic incidents to be most relevant to employees and workplace critical incident stress. They also note that workers may need more tools to best cope with critical incident stress and that employees are usually receptive to learning those skills once an event has occurred.

Building Positive Coping Skills

One way to cope with critical incident stress is to already have a set of healthy coping skills and tools. These are not complicated therapeutic practices or models. They are the things that you do every day to stay both physically and mentally healthy.

For example:

  • Exercising regularly
  • Cooking your own meals
  • Drinking water
  • Practicing mindfulness such as deep breathing
  • Developing healthy relationships with people who you care about

You can use these tools when an incident does occur to better cope with the stress. Instead of feeling like you need to drink alcohol and retreat inwardly, you may go for a run or talk to a close friend. Knowing and applying these skills will really help when coping with the aftermath of a critical incident.

Coping with Critical Incident Stress

When a critical event does occur, it’s important for employees to know that they need to talk about what happened.

The intent isn’t to dwell on the incident or rehash what you could or could not do. The reason why you need to talk about the incident is to help your brain process what happened to you. That way you don’t continue to dwell or ruminate on the event weeks or months later.

For many professions, there is already a structure in place for this; it’s called critical incident stress debriefing. Careers that are more prone to critical incidents (fire departments, EMS, police, etc.) will require employees to go through critical incident stress debriefing after an event has occurred.

But what if your workplace doesn’t have critical incident stress debriefing?

Of course, many businesses don’t have a critical incident stress debriefing plan already in place. For example, it’s far less likely that a lawyer who owns their own, one-person practice or a small coffee shop owner will have developed such plans. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t get professional help if something does happen.

If this applies to you and an event occurs, don’t hesitate to get professional help from a therapist or counselor who understands trauma and PTSD.

Critical incident stress can happen regardless of your career or workplace. The key to coping with that stress is to build healthy coping skills beforehand. Also, when an event does occur, be willing to talk about it with a professional.

If you’ve already been through a critical incident or want to better prepare for one, consider call / text us 256-686-9195.

AuthorJoshua Howell, MS, LPC, NCC, AADC, ICAADC, SAP, SAE

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