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March 29, 2010

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How to manage employee stress in a crisis

When an organisation experiences a huge crisis, who looks after those looking after the business during this difficult time? Professor Kerry Gardiner discusses the impact of stress and sleep deprivation on such individuals and suggests how health and safety practitioners can contribute to planning and executing a crisis management programme.

As George W Bush famously didn’t say: “There are few certainties in life but death and Texas.” There are, however, many other inevitable situations for those who have the heavy responsibility of running a company.

One certainty for any CEO or MD is that, at some time and in some way (despite the aspirations of subsidiarity), there will be a “crisis” that requires their full and undivided attention over a prolonged period of time. Recent examples include the financial meltdown in the banking industry, Toyota’s forced recall of cars with suspect throttle and brake pedals (the company’s CEO is pictured), hostile takeovers like that of Cadbury by Kraft, apparent corporate failure as evidenced by Terminal 5 at Heathrow, or safety disasters such as those at Buncefield and the Texas City refinery.

The corollary is that it will be profoundly stressful for the CEO or MD involved, severely disrupting their sleep, both in terms of its paucity and its lack of quality. This is neither good nor helpful in terms of resolving the crisis in any practical sense, nor in being seen to have coped with the required clarity, conviction and authority that the average CEO’s job entails. Regardless of whether it is a health and safety incident per se, the occupational health and safety professional can make a pivotal contribution to the way in which the individuals involved navigate their way through the incident and its aftermath, as well as the post-event fall-out.

Much has been written about stress and its effects, but little of it has actually been read by those with whom we try to engage, let alone agreed with by those that we need to influence. It is fair to say that the vast majority of senior executives in commerce, not to mention our political representatives, have risen to their positions because they are not hugely susceptible to the vagaries of everyday social or vocational stressors, and feel it is not acceptable to be seen to suffer from stress. However, stress generated and sustained during a crisis can be very different and its effect much more significant, both personally and corporately.

Follow the signs
When the brain perceives a threat, the body responds by releasing adrenaline and cortisol (among other hormones), which prepare the body for action and make it capable of great physical or mental feats. However, the nefarious symptoms of greater concern within this context are:


  • Memory lapses – lack of predictability of when, for how long, etc;
  • Inability to concentrate – particularly on tasks requiring attention to detail, or where there is subtlety of perception and interpretation; and
  • Poor judgement – either in terms of process/rule-driven decisions, or where understanding how actions/ inactions may be perceived.


  • Moodiness – often not related to the here and now;
  • Irritability/short-tempered – at the wrong time with the wrong people; and
  • Agitation and a feeling of being overwhelmed.


  • Sleeping too little or too much – typically, sleeping too little, with the body descending into micro-sleeps (see below);
  • Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities – not consciously;
  • Appetite suppression – along with sleep, the other fundamental of sustaining human performance; and
  • Isolating yourself from others – again, not consciously.


  • Nausea and dizziness; and
  • Diarrhoea or constipation.

The impact of sleep deprivation is less well-described and more subtle, but the evident commonality between it and the impact of stress is striking, as is the possibility for negative interaction and exacerbation as a result of the combination of the two.

Lack of sleep can have a significant effect on attention – tests have been carried out on sleep-deprived subjects via psychomotor vigilance tasks (PVT), i.e. the ability to press a button in response to a light at pseudo-random intervals. The outcomes are striking, in terms of how short the duration of wakefulness needs to be before attention is compromised.

Impairment of ability is also an issue. Not surprisingly, most research has focused on those who operate a vehicle, either for personal or professional reasons, with the research being reactive in terms of ascertaining the proportional role of sleep deprivation in catastrophic incidents, or in simulators, where variables can be controlled. The structured research suggests that sleep deprivation has the same impact as being drunk, e.g. performance starts to become affected after being awake for 16 hours; those awake for 17-19 hours performed worse than those with a blood alcohol level of 0.05 per cent; and being awake for 21 hours or more was equivalent to having a blood alcohol level of 0.08 per cent. Just think how quickly you would be removed from your job if you were seen to be drunk?

In other research carried out among trainee medics, a 2004 American study found that the “residency” medics with fewer than four hours sleep a night made more than twice as many quantifiable errors as the residents who managed to sleep for seven hours, or more.

Microsleeps are a big concern. These occur when an individual has significant sleep deprivation; the brain shuts down automatically, inducing a state of sleep for 10 to 60 seconds. So, the individual falls asleep regardless of what they are in the middle of doing. Unfortunately, as these are similar to blackouts, the individual is unaware that they are occurring. If the state of sleep deprivation persists, then the effects might mimic psychosis, with distorted perceptions leading to inappropriate emotional and behavioural responses.

Plan to succeed
So what can health and safety professionals do to identify, design, plan, and implement to avoid – or at least ameliorate – the impact on those dealing with an incident, often under the 24/7 scrutiny of the media? Having assisted a number of large corporations with various crises, I have identified a number of consistent factors that compromise performance:

  • Most organisations have an inadequate, or no emergency response plan. Many have a protocol of ‘who will tell who, within what timeframe, etc’ but not a plan of actually who is doing what when, who is responsible for what, where the authority resides, etc;
  • Of those that do have a plan, few test it with sufficient frequency or thoroughness to ensure that it is sufficiently familiar, or have a trigger-mechanism to test it (i.e. changing personnel in key roles, or the addition/loss of products/ plants);
  • The state of panic induced consumes everyone involved and everyone responsible;
  • The interest of the media is pervasive and shockingly urgent, and their ability to see/create “angles” not previously considered internally is something best not discovered at the time. What’s more, the instantaneousness and global reach of the media via electronic distribution channels mean that discretion and local containment are not possible;
  • Despite the modern availability of instantaneous electronic communication, internal dialogue always becomes intermittent, imprecise and, ultimately, unclear;
  • The ability of the senior people to identify, collate, assimilate, rationalise, interpret and act upon the constantly changing mass of information wanes rapidly as the crisis unfolds;
  • An unseemly row breaks out between the PR consultants and the lawyers about who is in charge and which approach to take; the PR people are keen to engage with the media while the lawyers don’t want to say anything to anyone in case it is/could be incriminating;
  • No one ever seems to have the responsibility and/or authority to pull senior individuals out of the front line – whether in terms of dealing with the crisis internally, the external stakeholders, or the media – when it is evident that their performance is becoming affected by the stress, hours of work, and lack of quality sleep. For example, in mine rescue, there would be seven in a rescue team, with one individual detailed to calculate heat stress indices so that when the limit of physical endurance has been calculated, the team is replaced with a fresh crew. The reason for this is that, in such circumstances, the self-motivation to go past the point of safe activity is overwhelming but likely to create a greater danger to all if not artificially and externally terminated.

Interestingly, the impact of September 11 on New York’s emergency response professionals catalysed the US Department of Health and Human Services to write a document entitled ‘A Guide to Managing Stress in Crisis Response Professions’. Although it concentrates almost exclusively on post-traumatic stress disorder, the realisation and proactive production of such a document is welcome.

There are various important and fundamental actions that health and safety practitioners – regardless of the nature of the incident – can take, for which our training and skill-set make us very suitable:

  • Ensure that there is a robust and comprehensive crisis-management plan, which has the capacity and capability to deal with all foreseeable crises, and is sufficiently structured yet flexible to deal with anything;
  • Ensure that it is deliberately tested at the least convenient time, in the most extreme way, and with the fewest people aware that it is a test. To some extent, the actual process of testing should involve some elements of “psychological flooding” capable of slightly desensitising the individual for when it is actually called in to practice;
  • Consider what crises the senior management team has faced before – there is some evidence that we only have one crisis of any substance “in” us, i.e. the psychological impact on an individual of a crisis is substantial, yet I doubt it is a question asked at interview, or pre-employment screening;
  • Consider using one of the many and readily available computer-based data-management tools, which allow different levels of access, knowledge, action, etc. depending on the tier of management. This means that everyone has access to up-to-date incident information, to various degrees, and eliminates the problem of HQ not knowing exactly what’s going on at any given time;
  • Integrate appropriate sleep programmes into the crisis response plan and the means by which they will be set in motion and enforced;
  • Integrate a balanced dietary plan into the overall crisis response plan; and
  • Always look for lessons during the event and challenge the organisation afterwards to learn from them – culturally, health and safety professionals do not subscribe to the adage that “the only thing that one ever learns from history is that no one ever learns from history”.

Across our broad discipline there is a shared maxim of “prevent rather than cure”, but given the appetite of the world for taking risks and the rewards from balancing these as precariously as possible, there will always be crises in one form or another.

As a profession, we have both a duty and a significant opportunity to contribute to the organisations for which we work in a manner that is not always immediately obvious but, if we fail, the ramifications can be personally or corporately significant.

The hope must surely be that while death and taxes may indeed be certainties, we can prepare for and minimise some of the other effects of stress during times of crisis. As for Texas, who can tell?

About the author
Prof Kerry Gardiner advises the World Health Organisation and the UN on health and safety issues.


What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.

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