Supporting Your Employees: The Importance of Post-Crisis Debriefing

Tasks can be delegated, but responsibilities cannot. Leadership means having responsibilities and taking responsibility. Abdicating or avoiding your responsibilities by assigning tasks to your employees is never acceptable.

One of my duties in my previous role as an officer in the armed forces was making sure both soldiers and officers supported each other emotionally – especially after colleagues returned from a demanding mission. Everyone in the group helped out with this, but, as the unit’s chief executive, it was ultimately my responsibility.

Taking care of employees who have been exposed to challenging situations requires comprehensive planning – it's a critical part of successful crisis management.

Your organisation can get an overview of the types of events and risks employees may be exposed to by conducting a risk analysis and mapping potential hazards.

Possible risks and hazards include:

  • Personally threatening situations while on assignment in high risk locations
  • Fire in or close to the workplace
  • Natural disasters
  • Emergency personnel performing their duties during a major incident

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It's also important to follow up on near misses and communicate the risk picture clearly. In order to be practically and mentally prepared for any crises that may arise, employees must proactively practise dealing with situations as close to the actual risk scenario as possible. Developing a strong security culture within your organisation is also essential when it comes to safeguarding employees after a demanding incident.

The Importance of Debriefing

Those involved with handling a crisis should be debriefed as soon as it's practical to do so. You want to avoid leaving your team members to deal with strong emotions and potentially traumatic stress on their own. A robust debrief can help alleviate this. Your organisation must plan time for this important post-crisis stage and have the necessary resources available to carry it out – even if your company works by shift and rotation. 

There's a wide variety of opinion amongst professionals regarding how debriefs should be handled. My recommendation is to break the debrief into two parts: the individual debrief and the group debrief.

Individual Debrief

People involved in handling a crisis situation should first be debriefed on a one-to-one basis in a secluded area, away from any disruptions or distractions. This debriefing session will offer your colleagues a chance to articulate their particular experiences, thoughts, and feelings concerning the incident, and, because it's private, they shouldn't feel embarrassed to express themselves freely. If they don't feel comfortable talking about their experience, asking them to write down their reactions and thoughts may help them come to terms with what's happened instead.

Group debrief

The group debrief should be conducted with as large a group as practically possible. Although your team members should have already had an individual follow-up by this stage, in many cases it's helpful to encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings in a group setting. Colleagues often have identical experiences and gain legitimacy for their own reactions by hearing others convey similar thoughts. 

Once everyone's emotions have been taken into consideration, you can then progress to the technical component of the crisis debrief. This should focus on who did what, at what time, and with what resources, allowing you to paint a detailed picture of what's actually happened. Mapping out the sequence of events and actions taken will help you evaluate your team's management of the incident and allow you to consider ways to improve your crisis management capability in the future.

Summary

Colleagues who have been involved in, or exposed to, demanding incidents should be safeguarded via thorough and thoughtful follow-ups. No, it's not necessary to call in the priests and psychologists, but caring for your teams' mental health is a leader's responsibility – their duty, if you will. Be sure that this level of support is considered when you write your contingency plan.

By Eivind Moen

Eivind is head of project assistance and customer deliveries. He earned his degree from the Air Force Academy, NTNU and BI. He has worked with both preparedness and crisis management, and with project and quality management. Eivind has written most of the guides for training and instruction. He is a member of the executive group.

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