Colleagues in crisis – a safety risk

A person in the middle of a crisis may be able to ”turn on the autopilot” and appear to manage their job quite well. In reality though, he or she may be a time bomb that should be taken off the ship as quickly as possible.
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A person in the middle of a crisis may be able to ”turn on the autopilot” and appear to manage their job quite well. In reality though, he or she may be a time bomb that should be taken off the ship as quickly as possible.

Most of us have been through one or more crises during our lifetime. They may be triggered by accidents, an act of crime, the death of somebody close to us or a divorce. Even though most people manage to get through a crisis, it may be overwhelming and mean that the person affected loses their grip for a while. Suffering a serious physical or psychological event while at sea makes the situation even more complicated. In many cases it is not possible to leave the ship directly and go home to family members or close friends, and instead the person is forced to handle the crisis onboard.

Arto Nordlund
Arto Nordlund

–  Debriefing is a straightforward and beneficial method which I think should be used after a serious accident has occurred. But you must be careful when you as a colleague approach a workmate after such an event. Show that you are there for them, but do not try to force yourself on somebody who does not want to talk, says Arto Nordlund, psychologist at the Sahlgrenska Academy at Göteborg University.
Irrespective of background, profession or life situation, the reaction patterns of the human body after a serious accident are the same for everybody. First we are shocked, then sad and despairing, and later we start to work through the crisis and recover before finally moving on. But how long this process takes and what situations trigger the body’s crisis system vary from person to person. An event which causes one person to shrug his shoulders may cause a huge amount of anxiety and trauma for another person.
Arto Nordlund has many years of experience working with people in crises and he also lectures on the Campus Lindholmen courses in ”Crowd and crises”. He says that our reactions are based on the experiences we carry with us, from our childhood onwards.
Crises can give lifelong strength
– It depends partly on how secure and stable you are as a person, but also on how you have handled earlier crises in your life. A person who has emerged strengthened from a crisis has better chances of managing difficult situations later in life.
A person going through a crisis may appear to function relatively well and to manage their tasks at work. She or he may be slightly forgetful and not fully concentrated, but may not show any alarming symptoms. This apparent calmness may be deceptive however, and under the surface the person may be in chaos and complete confusion.
– In their professional role, people may be able to operate on autopilot and do what needs to be done. But they cannot function optimally in such a situation and may be like a time bomb that suddenly explodes. It is by no means certain that a person in these conditions understands how bad she feels or is aware of what a safety risk she is. In such a situation it is vital that the captain as well as others onboard are observant about how people feel and behave after an accident.
Working at great heights may be risky if crewmembers are not in balance.
Working at great heights may be risky if crewmembers are not in balance.

The first phase of a person’s chain of reactions is shock. You do not understand what has happened, misinterpret things or refuse to accept that what took place really happened. You may suffer from shaking, shivering, palpitations; you may behave completely irrationally or become totally apathetic. Shock often lasts only between a few minutes and a few hours before it disappears. When what has happened sinks in, the reaction phase starts. You then understand what happened and may be overwhelmed by strong emotions.
– You feel sorrow and pain. You perhaps start to cry and feel strong anxiety. Many people have a great need to talk. You may repeat the question ”Why?”, ”Why?” and for those around you it may appear to be a pointless repetition. How­ever, it fulfils an important function and it is by repeating things and putting words to them that they become real, explains Arto Nordlund.
Common to dampen feelings
The reaction phase may be both confusing and painful, and it is not uncommon that victims try to dampen their feelings with alcohol or pills.
When the outburst of emotions dies down, the phase of working through can begin. By now you have reached the stage of accepting what has happened, even though sorrow and pain may still be very present. The last phase is called re-orientation. It is then that you step out of the crisis and attempt to carry on. But how you emerge on the other side is individual and depends to a large extent on how well you have managed to work through the different phases of the crisis.
– If we have coped with the crisis well, we can be strengthened by it and feel more confident. We can feel that we have learned something about ourselves and the world in general, and we know that we are a person that can manage crises. But a person who has not been able to work through what happened in a constructive way will emerge from the crisis as a weaker and more vulnerable individual. The next time something happens that reminds the person about the previous crisis, even if it is only a small incident, may cause the person to react even more strongly than the first time, says Arto Nordlund.
He explains that a person living with an unresolved crisis or extreme stress for a long time may be affected psychologically and physically. As well as decreased memory functions and difficulty in concentrating, the person may also suffer from heart disease, diabetes, depressions, infections or anxiety syndromes.
Linda Sundgren
Footnote: Arto Nordlund was one of the lecturers at the autumn SAN conference.  Read more about his lecture on debriefing.

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