Looking back over the past 30 months since March 2020, in addition to any localised or organisation-specific critical incidents, South African employees have had to contend with the upheaval of COVID-19 contagion and lockdown, civil unrest in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, and repeated flooding in KZN, both of which extensively damaged infrastructure. All in all, South Africans are increasingly becoming victims of overwhelming critical incidents that affect both their home and work lives. While each person will react differently, without intervention the most common response to such an ordeal will most likely lead to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), stress and depression.
“Africans are increasingly becoming victims of overwhelming critical incidents that affect both their home and work lives.”
“Most people would be severely shaken by a critical incident but are likely to recover from its impact with appropriate support.”
What is a critical incident?
The World Health Organisation (WHO), describes a critical incident as “an event out of the range of normal experience – one which is sudden and unexpected, involves the perception of a threat to life and can include elements of physical and emotional loss. Often such events are sufficiently disturbing to overwhelm, or threaten to overwhelm, a person’s coping capacity. Most people would be severely shaken by a critical incident but are likely to recover from its impact with appropriate support.”
Organisations’ role in moderating critical incidents
One benefit that has come from the recent cycle of critical incidents is the normalisation of mental health challenges at work, so that more employers are making their employees’ health a priority. On one hand, it is essential for an organisation to create a culture that is not only proactive in having measures in place that can safeguard work continuity in the event of a traumatic event, but also in having a good response mechanism in place to restore the wellbeing of employees should such an incident occur. There are a range of measures that can moderate traumatic effects and support recovery. For example, primary measures such as routine employee resilience and stress management training as well as secondary measures, such as the availability of leadership and peer support. On the other hand, there may be factors that escalate the level of distress experienced, for example continued exposure to disruption and the distress of the victims or pending investigations.
EAPs role in Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM)
While general EAP services are designed to address personal employee challenges on a day-to-day basis, EAPs are also equipped to offer an immediate, specialist response to the acute needs of employees and organisations after a critical incident. EAPs provide a framework for effective intervention on different levels to intercede in possible reactions to critical incidents, typically through a formal Critical Incident. Stress Management Programme (CISM). CISM programmes are designed to enhance and support the resilience of the organisation and its employees and their families, and facilitate their return to productive work after experiencing distressing incidents.
“EAPs are also equipped to offer an immediate, specialist response to the acute needs of employees and organisations after a critical incident.”
EAPs mitigate business risk by:
- reducing the likelihood of workplace violence or other safety risks;
- managing the effect of disruptive incidents in the workplace, such as violence, injury or other crises, and facilitate a swift return-to-work after adverse workplace events;
- supporting disaster and emergency preparedness and minimising disruption after such an event;
- smoothing the adjustment to mergers, acquisitions, site closures or other workforce change events;
- reducing the likelihood of legal action or liability; and
- promoting and supporting drug- and alcohol-free workplace policies and programmes.
Source: Critical incidents and critical incident stress management (CISM) – an employee assistance programme (EAP) perspective; Prof. Lourie Terblanche & André van Wyk; Social Work (Stellenbosch Online) vol.50 2014.
Click here to read the EAPASA article, Back to Basics: The Role of EAP in Disaster Management.
It is advisable that organisations should become more aware of the potential fall-out from a critical incident in the workplace and understand the importance of instituting effective measures to intervene and restore healthy psychosocial functioning of employees – and thus restore productivity. When employers focus on their employees, especially in times when they are struggling, it sends a message to the employee that they are cared for and valued. Not only is this the right thing to do, it makes good business sense.
Photo by Engin Akyurt