A traumatic event in the workplace affects multiple people, yet reactions to that event are very individual. Referred to in some circles as critical incidents, these are traumatic events (or perceived life-threatening events) which have sufficient power to overwhelm an individual’s ability to cope. After ensuring everyone’s physical safety, it’s time to think about the stress and trauma reactions individuals may experience. Leaders want to support their employees through the process of recovery. And they often need support themselves. How do you even begin the sometimes arduous steps to recovery from a trauma? There is a useful model: critical incident stress management (CISM).


Critical incident stress management is a comprehensive program developed for organizations to deal with traumatic events. It was designed originally for military combat veterans and first responders. The model has been revised for use in any organization that experience a traumatic event. It’s a model for crisis intervention, a form of psychological first aid. It is not a substitute for psychotherapy, and it requires specific training to formally implement. 

CISM is designed with different types of services to guide survivors – from individuals to families to groups and entire communities – through the stages of recovery after a traumatic event. It’s a standard of care in many organizations, even outside of emergency services.

  1. Debriefing. With critical incident stress debriefing (CISD), employers can organize a debrief to reduce impact on team members. This is designed to mitigate acute symptoms and assess the need for follow-up. This small group discussion (with 7 phases) is usually implemented within 1-10 days after the incident.
  2. Defusing. This small group discussion (with 3 specific steps) is a more informal version of debriefing designed to stabilize survivors so they can function in their day to day lives. Defusing is designed for immediate implementation (less than 12 hours) after an incident.
  3. Crisis Management Briefing. This group intervention is used in different scenarios, where participants discuss survival skills of trauma incidents. Prior to an incident, the focus is on preparing for incidents. Immediately afterward, the focus is on sharing facts and feelings, and presenting survival skills to assist survivors in handling stress due to the traumatic incident.

CISM also includes one-on-one crisis intervention or psychological support, family crisis intervention, and follow-ups and referrals for assessment and treatment for those who need it. Setting up a formal CISM process for your workplace will help your organization prepare before a crisis. And it will position you to be ready to help employees when a crisis strikes.

For more information about CISM: