Providing support to workers after a serious incident can help them recover faster, according to a study by the IRSST in Montreal. Researchers assessed the intervention protocols for critical incidents in the rail sector to determine which elements have positive effects on the recovery of employees who have experienced significant stress.
“We realized that besides individuals presenting with suicidal behaviour, there were locomotive engineers who were completely overwhelmed by the situation, through no fault of their own, and who were seriously suffering,” said Cécile Bardon, a suicide researcher. “This took us somewhat by surprise because we naively thought we would be talking about suicide, when, in fact, most of our work ultimately consisted of understanding and identifying the immense distress in which employees could find themselves when confronted with this type of event.”
According to 2007 figures, some 100 people die in railway accidents in Canada every year — but that number is rising, said Bardon.
“In fact, each death is just the tip of the iceberg, because in reality, many accidents do not cause death, but injuries, or the people die some time after the accident. And this is without counting accidents involving equipment or animals on the tracks.”
Most train engineers and conductors experience this type of critical incident at least once in their careers, either as victims, witnesses, participants or first responders. Anywhere from four per cent to 17 per cent of these employees will suffer severe disorders, including depression, acute stress, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or anxiety disorders.
With the help of incident management and support protocols, most employees recovered after a critical incident within a six-month period, found the IRSST’s research.
“But the speed of recovery varied from one person to another,” said Cécile Bardon, “and the management of the return to work was of vital importance.”
The researchers stressed the way that critical incidents are managed, as well as the work context in which they occur, have a major impact on the recovery and well-being of employees.
“The company has to care about its employees, listen to them and validate them in what they are feeling and experiencing, offering them assistance as they need it. These things don’t cost a lot. Ask how the person is and really listen to the answer. Accompany the person home, have a psychologist who they can talk to when things aren’t going well, or on site, do a briefing as soon as possible, provide support when the person goes home, call them the next day to ask them how they are,” said Bardon.
She also cautions employers against asking when the individual will return to work. It’s better to provide the time off and follow up regularly.
Three-quarters of the workers who participated in the study said they felt a feeling of powerlessness after the accident — a significant risk factor in the development of post-traumatic effects.
“Each person is affected differently; we just have to understand and recognize how things get to us and to never, never hesitate to ask for help when we feel the need,” said Bardon. “This is a message that we can’t repeat enough, especially in very masculine work environments.”
The study points out the importance of training workers on potential difficult incidents, so they know what could happen, what they may feel and what others around them may do. This training can help reduce feelings of having no control and being powerless.
Education is yet another important element.
“We have to educate them,” said Bardon. “We have to explain to the guys, and I say guys, because it’s still mainly men, that it’s okay to feel affected. It doesn’t mean that you’re weak if you’re shaken after seeing someone suffer or die. It’s better to talk about it and to ask for help."