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When Words Fail:
Preparing Your Employees for a Crisis

By Dr. Andy Edelman

Imagine you are driving down the highway on your way to work. You have lots on your mind, reflecting upon your children’s progress in school, the upcoming presentation at tomorrow’s meeting and your plans for a relaxing weekend with your family. Your complacency begins to drift into autopilot.

Suddenly, the screech of tires jolts you back to reality and you are three seconds away from crashing into the back of an 18-wheeler. If you are fortunate enough to reduce your speed in time, you will survive the encounter unscathed thanks to a variety of physical and biochemical processes. This is known as the “fight or flight” response, which helps the individual take an immediate, reflexive action.

This response may also unfold during critical incident events that occur in the workplace, especially those that involve an escalation of violence, such as a robbery or an irate customer. When employees and managers are transformed from a feeling relaxed to feeling at-gunpoint terror, their ability to perceive these events in a normal manner is changed dramatically.

Contrary to popular belief, most individuals will neither flee nor fight during a critical or traumatic event: they will freeze. Once people are paralyzed with fear, their performance under pressure and their ability to make effective decisions deteriorate rapidly. They enter a quasi-altered state of perception of extreme sensory overload known as tachypsychia (speed of the mind). The overload can cause perceived slow-motion and distortions in time and sensory awareness.

How successful an individual is at coping with the critical event depends on many factors including fitness levels, psychological and spiritual resiliency, as well as preparation and training for such an event.

Proactive managers and administrators benefit greatly from educating their staff on how the human body reacts to the stress and trauma of critical events such as a physical assault or armed robbery. Here are tips for professionals to effectively cope with work-related critical incidents:

1) Plan for possibilities – Role-playing practice under the watchful eye of expert trainers is one of the most effective methods for learning how you and your staff members will react under the pressure of dealing with an angry, irate, or out of control individuals. This is the place for making mistakes and it is okay to make lots of them during this training.

2) Managing anger on the phone – Irate customers who call on the phone, often just want to vent their anger. Other times, they can escalate to verbal abuse. To bring customers back to reality, use language that controls their behavior.

“Mr. Smith, can I ask you a question?” This technique stops the customer’s tirade and interrupts their train of thought.

“I’d like to assist you with this problem, but I need you to lower your voice and not curse, otherwise I cannot focus my energies to solving this issue for you. Can you please slow down so I can work with you?” Most of the time, people will react to this language by de-escalating their behavior.

If their language continues to escalate, give them one more option. “Mr. Smith, if you would please stop yelling and cursing, I can help you. Or if you’re still upset, will you please call me back when you’ve cooled down?” If they’re not ready, you can tell them that you have other customers to work with and they can call you later. The goal is to disengage them and let them contact you when they are less upset. It is important to document these incidents as well, so if they do call back or decide to become litigious about the incident, you can protect yourself and the company with your record of the event.

3) Codeword for escalating behavior - Establishing and using a discrete codeword can help employees during an escalating confrontation in the workplace. Managers and administrators should have a ‘what if’ plan, should a critical situation arise. The codeword can be used to notify a manager or co-worker to call the security or police, in cases that are more serious than a verbal confrontation.

4) Understand the human factor - Remember that even with the best preparation, no one is truly prepared for the effects of a critical incident. If we are exceptionally skilled or resilient enough to remain calm, we respond without a significant impact on our physical or emotional well-being. For some, a bank robbery will simply be an exciting story told at dinner. For others, this event may be a life-altering self-reflection or paradigm-shifting epiphany. Unfortunately, for a few, such a traumatic event may result in short-term or long-term post-traumatic stress. Well-meaning managers may often strive to get things back to normal as smoothly and quickly as possible. Yet, not everyone may be able to bounce back in the same manner or within the same recovery time frame.

5) De-brief and document all pertinent and relevant events – Remember that conflicting versions and perspectives are commonplace during a traumatic event. Time is of the essence to avoid deterioration of memory, which can occur in 10 to 15 minutes. Anytime there is an incident in the workplace, you should be documenting the situation including what happened and how it was resolved. If anyone should come back with a lawsuit or complaint, then your company will have records about the incident for protection.

6) Implement crisis counseling for all who request it – Not everyone will want or need counseling but you should monitor changes in behavior for those involved with the incident. Those who don’t seek help may be the ones in denial and possibly needing such assistance the most.

7) Focus on re-framing the negative event into positive opportunities for growth - Remind staff that they made it through and commend personnel for their courage. Do your best to normalize the environment and enhance team-building activities during this sensitive time. Encourage your staff to focus on friend and family contact. Studies show that socialization is a very important step in the recovery process. Isolation is the enemy of post-traumatic stress recovery.

8) Watch for significant changes in emotional and behavioral indicators in your personnel and seek assistance if necessary – Crying spells, panic, feelings of “going crazy,” reoccurring nightmares or flashbacks, uncontrolled anger, depression, or feelings of or expressing desire for self-destructive or suicidal outcomes are all signs and symptoms that the individual may need additional counseling or support.

Having a sound crisis intervention plan in place can go a long way towards moving stress-affected individuals, groups, and organizational divisions to recovery. Implementing and practicing such strategies can effectively minimize the physical and psychological effects of trauma, accelerating the transition back to normalized work routines with enhanced and renewed health and productivity.

Read other articles and learn more about Dr. Andrew J. Edelman.

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