Occupational stress and methods of managing stress in organizational environments are popular objects of empirical analysis. Much has been written and said about the role of occupational stress in organizations and their effects on the quality of employee performance. Occupational stress is one of the most serious problems in western organizations. There is an emerging consensus that workplace stress leads to negative organizational outcomes, from higher levels of absenteeism to increased disability costs (Hek & Plomp, 1997). The best methods of managing stress in the workplace are yet to be discovered.
The current research emphasizes the relevance and importance of continuity in stress management in organizations. Simultaneously, how to manage stress during and after critical incidents remains poorly understood. This paper sheds light on the complexities of stress management in organizations following critical incident events. The paper discusses and evaluates the current state of literature about psychological debriefing in organizations and their effectiveness in managing acute occupational stress.
Occupational Stress: Problems and Solutions
That occupational stress is the main problem in western organizations has been abundantly established. The seriousness of occupational stress and its effects on organizational performance is difficult to estimate. According to Hek & Plomp (1997), occupational stress is associated with diseases and health complications and results in vast socio-economic consequences, which include but are not limited to labor turnover and absenteeism, productivity losses, and increased disability costs. In the United Kingdom alone, half of the absenteeism is due to workplace stress (Hek & Plomp, 1997).
Workplace stress places additional demands on employees and Human Resource professionals. Organizations seek effective ways to reduce occupational stress. Many organizations provide counseling support and implement stress management training programs (Reynolds, 2000).
However, not all of them are sufficiently effective. Contemporary literature provides a wealth of information regarding various stress management techniques and their appropriateness in organizational contexts. Organizations have vast opportunities to reduce and successfully manage employee stress in the workplace. Researchers and HR practitioners evaluate the relative efficacy of different stress management techniques, trying to choose the most suitable and reliable instrument for reducing employee stress.
Hek and Plomp (1997) compared and gave a practical overview of the occupational stress programs developed and published between 1984 and 1994. The researchers concluded that the number of studies of occupational stress programs constantly increased, but it was impossible to determine whether specific techniques and programs were the most effective (Hek & Plomp, 1997). By contrast, Reynolds (2000) reviewed several studies and techniques in the field of stress management and suggested that formal psychotherapy was the best approach to managing occupational stress. Other researchers proposed and evaluated the effectiveness of one particular stress management program.
For example, Greenberg, Langston, and Jones (2005) proposed and tested the Trauma Risk Management (TRiM) system of post-incident management in the UK Armed Forces. The TRiM stress management system proved to be a relevant element of post-incident stress management in hierarchical organizations like the Army (Greenberg et al, 2005). Jones, Roberts, and Greenberg (2003) evaluated the effectiveness and organizational implications of the peer-group risk assessment.
The latter was developed by the British military and was successfully applied in other hierarchical organizations (Jones et al, 2003). Jones et al (2003) write that the discussed model keeps employees performing and functioning after a serious traumatic event and provides education and psychological support to those, who need it.
It is interesting to note that armies and military organizations are frequent objects of stress management analysis. Military personnel is believed to be suffering from psychological traumas and self-stigma (Greenberg et al, 2005). Therefore, complex systems of stress management in the military forces must be developed and implemented. The results of these studies may not be easily transferable to other organizational contexts. Thus, future research must concentrate on the analysis of acute stress situations and stress management approaches in organizational environments other than the military.
Stress, Organisations, and Critical Incidents
The significance of stress management programs in organizations can hardly be overstated. Organizations and HR professionals emphasize the role of continuity in managing employee stress. Simply stated, the best stress management programs are those which take a form of a policy, are regularly updated, and reflect the most recent developments in the empirical literature (Deville & Cotton, 2003). There is little argument that organizations do not always pay attention to critical incidents and their effects on employee psychology. In this situation, critical incident stress management programs must become an indispensable ingredient of successful performance in organizations.
The seriousness of critical incidents and their traumatizing effects are well-documented. Attridge and Vandepol (2010) write that “critical incidents are sudden, unexpected, often life-threatening time-limited events that can inhibit an individual’s capacity to respond adaptively” (p.133). The effects of critical incidents on employees can be debilitating (Attridge & Vandepol, 2010). Employees may experience continued stress, recurrent images, isolation, fear, and guilt (Attridge & Vandepol, 2010).
These experiences and effects are disruptive to workplace and business operations (Attridge & Vandepol, 2010). Critical incidents adversely affect profitability, productivity, and other performance measures in organizations (Attridge & Vandepol, 2010). Critical incidents have far-reaching implications for HRM: while dealing with the technical aspects of workplace strategy, HR practitioners must also address the human needs of the employees affected by the crisis (Attridge & Vandepol, 2010).
The topic of managing acute stress in organizations is becoming particularly relevant, as organizations are trying to reduce the risks of terrorism and its effects on employee performance. The long-standing concerns about commonplace workplace disasters, including violence and technological failures, are becoming less relevant (Schouten, Callahan & Bryant, 2004). Recent events have turned the workplace into an attractive target of terrorism: the events of 9/11 and the attacks on the Pentagon exemplified a deliberate effort to disrupt workplaces (Schouten et al, 2004). After these or similar attacks, employees may lose commitment to the organization (Schouten et al, 2004).
The psychological effects of terrorism are much greater than those of natural disasters or workplace accidents (Schouten et al, 2004). When employees witness their colleagues being killed or injured as a result of a terrorist act, they may develop stressful reactions that persist over time (Schouten et al, 2004). The impact of terrorist acts on employee psychology is exacerbated when employees cannot understand their motivation (Schouten et al, 2004). Under the influence of mass violence, employees are more likely to perceive workplace accidents as a potential act of terrorism (Schouten et al, 2004). All these effects and complexities turn acute stress and stress management into the most popular object of empirical research.
It should be noted that, while HR and psychology professionals seek the best ways to reduce stress in the workplace, little is known of what acute stress is and how it manifests. Kleber and Velden (2002) suggest that, whenever individuals are required to do something they cannot or do not want, they experience stress. In other words, stress is a natural consequence of a discrepancy between environmental demands and individual resources and desires (Kleber & Velden, 2002).
Acute stress implies that such discrepancy is unexpected and sudden; it may not be extreme, but this is usually the case (Kleber & Velden, 2002). Kleber and Velden (2002) list several forms of acute stress in the workplace. First, violence and accidents cause extreme experiences in organizations during work (Kleber & Velden, 2002). Second, radical changes in organizational structure, involving collective discharge, profound reorganizations, or even bankruptcy, create a situation in which “persons suddenly lose their security about work and have to deal with a completely changed situation” (Kleber & Velden, 2002, p.368).
Third, employees may find themselves involved in dramatic situations and experiences in their social networks, namely, their relationships with colleagues: for example, a coworker’s suicide is a good example of extreme experiences (Kleber & Velden, 2002). Finally, extreme experiences may come from the outside – environmental disasters, technical failures, natural catastrophes create a situation, in which employees are confronted with diverse but inevitably stressful experiences at work (Kleber & Velden, 2002).
This information justifies the development and implementation of complex stress approaches in the workplace. The effects of acute stress on organizations place new demands on HR practitioners and supervisors. The situation is further complicated by the fact that traditional theoretical approaches can hardly be used for the development of critical incident response programs in the workplace (Kleber & Velden, 2002).
HR professionals must move beyond familiar training methodologies and address the human needs of employees through a full range of programs, which involve risk management and contingency planning, business continuity measures, and evidence-based crisis solutions (VandePol, Labardee & Gist, 2006). This is one of the reasons why originally psychological interventions are becoming widely accepted in organizational stress management systems. The current state of literature treats psychological debriefing as one of the most relevant techniques of acute stress management in organizations. Therefore, the appropriateness and effectiveness of debriefing in organizational environments should be examined in detail.
Debriefing: Managing Acute Stress in Organisations
Despite the paucity of research, debriefing is slowly becoming a popular topic of organizational analysis. The growing incidence of traumatic events in the workplace calls for the development and implementation of novel stress management interventions in organizational environments. Psychological debriefing is a generic term used widely in the professional literature but rarely applied in organizational and HRM decisions. The definitions of psychological debriefing vary.
Deville and Cotton (2003) define psychological debriefing as a form of emotional first-aid in organizations, following trauma. By contrast, Jones (2002) suggests that psychological debriefing is a posttraumatic therapeutic intervention that aims at reducing and preventing long-term psychological consequences of trauma. In organizational contexts, debriefing is usually extended to include three different intervention protocols: didactic, psychological, and therapeutic (Jones, 2002). Didactic, or “teaching”, protocols are informational rather than therapeutic and involve education about stress and self-management techniques (Jones, 2002).
However, whether or not didactic debriefing is the most appropriate in organizational environments is yet to be defined. Future research must help to delineate the benefits and complexities of all three protocols. In the meantime, HR practitioners must realize that debriefing is essentially about ventilating employee emotions through a catharsis that reinforces and speeds up the process of healing (Jones, 2002).
In modern organizations, psychological debriefing comes in a variety of forms. For example, Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) provides education about possible responses to stress and available coping strategies (Jones, 2002). Jones (2002) writes that CISD allows employees to process and address their responses to the traumatic event. The enhanced debriefing model (EDM) is another, a group-based form of psychological debriefing used in organizations that places special emphasis on the workplace support of employee recovery (Jones, 2002). The current state of research suggests that organizations continue using psychological debriefing as a form of stress management.
For example, organizations in the U.K. willingly accept psychological debriefing as the basic element of acute stress management. London’s Metropolitan Police uses the CISD model of psychological debriefing to evaluate facts, feelings, and the future after a traumatic event (Regel, 2007). However, in light of emerging research, many organizations re-build past approaches to psychological debriefing and develop new models of CISD (Regel, 2007).
Some apply to the benefits of Trauma Risk Management (TRiM), which was also described by Greenberg et al (2005). Regel (2007) suggests that TRiM is one of the most favored stress management techniques in British Royal Marines. Again, psychological debriefing is extensively used in hierarchical organizations like Army and police, and it is difficult to imagine that its benefits could be easily transferable to other organizations and contexts. Regel (2007) supports this concern. Nevertheless, researchers and HR practitioners persistently try to evaluate their effectiveness and appropriateness in organizations.
Effectiveness of Psychological Debriefing in Organisations
The effectiveness of psychological debriefing as a form of stress management was evaluated in a variety of organizational contexts. There is an emerging consensus that psychological debriefing does offer certain benefits to HR practitioners and employees but produces only short-term effects (Cawkill, 2004; Reynolds, 2000; Regel, 2007). The most interesting are the results of psychological debriefing in organizations other than the military.
Here, Jones (2002) studied the perspectives of psychological debriefing following a bank robbery trauma. Jones (2002) found that the respondents were dissatisfied with the process of psychological debriefing; moreover, many of them continued to be symptomatic in long-term periods. Actual recovery lasted between 3 and 12 months (Jones, 2002). This is partly because, in the case of workplace trauma, employees return to the scene of the crime every day (Jones, 2002). As a result, psychological debriefing does not help to reduce trauma-related stress in employees (Jones, 2002). Nevertheless, psychological debriefing could become a helpful element of managing stress in employees, when followed by other stress management policies and solutions.
Psychological debriefing produces modest effects on occupational stress. Reynolds (2000) reviewed the evidence for the effectiveness of various stress management techniques and concluded that the effects of debriefing in managing acute stress were but few.
Attridge and Vandepol (2010) come to a promising conclusion that acute stress management techniques, including debriefing, can lead to considerable financial savings in organizations since they reduce disability payments and workers’ compensation claims. Attridge and Vandepol (2010) also found that debriefing improved the rates of employee return to work following a critical event. Yet, these results are not without controversy: that employees return to work after a critical event does not necessarily mean that they successfully cope with stress. Rather, they may do so because they have but return to work, not to lose their earnings.
The current state of the empirical literature is extremely pessimistic about the effects and potential benefits of debriefing as a form of stress management in organizations. Rose, Bisson, Churchill, and Wessely (2002) analyzed the results of several randomized trials and concluded that single session debriefing could not prevent the development of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Debriefing produced no effects on psychological distress (Rose et al, 2002).
“There was also no evidence that debriefing reduced general psychological morbidity, depression or anxiety, or that it was superior to an educational intervention” (Rose et al, 2002, p.2). The use of debriefing is particularly problematic in cross-cultural contexts, as most debriefing interventions and stress management propositions are rooted in Western contexts and may not be applicable in other cultural environments (Regel, Joseph, and Dyregrov, 2007).
The reasons behind the paradoxical effects on stress in organizations are difficult to explain. That psychological debriefing is an appropriate form of stress management in organizations is difficult to deny (Deville, Gist & Cotton, 2006). Simultaneously, the current body of information relating to debriefing and its role in managing occupational stress is very conflicting by itself (Deville et al, 2006). Numerous studies present the results of secondary analyses and avoid using empirical study designs. As a result, the task of evaluating the quality and efficiency of psychological debriefing becomes virtually unachievable.
The lack of empirical findings relating to psychological debriefing and its applicability in organizations creates and intensifies a schism between practice and primary research (Deville et al, 2006). Academic psychologists are often detached from the realities of occupational stress. Consequentially, their recommendations and assumptions are of little validity. Others are becoming progressively distanced from the empirical underpinnings of the occupational and organizational psychology discipline (Deville et al, 2006). This is one of the main reasons why HR practitioners and occupational psychologists fail to adopt the best models for managing acute occupational stress.
For example, Wessley & Deahl (2003) cite secondary information and claims that debriefing worsens the symptoms of stress in employees after a traumatic event, but possible limitations of the secondary information are beyond the scope of Wessley and Deahl’s analysis. In its current state, empirical evidence cannot suffice to establish a clear vision of debriefing and its potential contribution to stress management in organizations. Future research must focus on the analysis and validation of the previous findings and their subsequent reassessment in various organizational environments.
Certainly, the situation with debriefing is not as bad as it seems. Debriefing reminds organizations that they are obliged to promote health and workplace safety and prevent traumatic incidents in the workplace (Deville & Cotton, 2003). The main question is what organizations can do to improve the health and wellbeing of their employees. First, HR professionals must ensure that they have a critical incident response policy, which is regularly updated to reflect developments in the research literature (Deville & Cotton, 2003).
Second, HR practitioners and HRM departments must facilitate employee access to immediate, first-aid psychological support following an incident (Deville & Cotton, 2003). Psychological debriefing is just one form of stress management that could be made available to employees. Third, whenever a critical incident takes place, HR practitioners must provide the surviving members with the fullest information about the incident – this form of psycho-education is believed to normalize their reactions to the incident (Deville & Cotton, 2003; Mulligan, Fear, Jones, Wessely & Greenberg, 2010).
Eventually, it is within the scope of the HR function to monitor the staff, identify individuals at risk of distress, and provide immediate support to those reporting enduring distress (Deville & Cotton, 2003). Whether HR professionals assume the role of psychologists or hire professional counselors to deal with the post-incident crisis depends on a multitude of factors. Professional psychologists and HR professionals must focus on the development of novel stress management techniques that will incorporate the best features of psychological debriefing and provide employees with relevant stress management support during crises.
Occupational stress is one of the major problems in western organizations. HR practitioners are particularly concerned about the effects of various stress management techniques on employee performance. Debriefing exemplifies a complex approach to managing stress in organizational environments. Contemporary researchers are mostly pessimistic about the effects and relevance of debriefing in organizations.
Simultaneously, the body of information relating to debriefing and its role in managing occupational stress is very conflicting. Professional psychologists and HR professionals must focus on the development of novel stress management techniques that will incorporate the best features of psychological debriefing and provide employees with relevant stress management support during crises.
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