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This week I look at stress and the impact it can have on teams and individuals during incidents.

I am busy reading a paper by Mica Endsley titled ‘Towards a Theory of Situational Awareness in Dynamic Systems’, which I have been looking forward to reading for a while! I find the whole process of incident management and how to improve a team’s ability to effectively manage incidents fascinating and I am very keen to use academic work to improve the quality of mine and my clients’ training in the subject of incident management. I hoped to bring you a synopsis of the paper in this bulletin, but there is proving to be a lot more content and elements to think through than I initially thought. So, some more work is required before I can write the key parts of the paper in a bulletin.

Instead, what I thought I would do this week is share some thoughts on stress and its impact on the ability of teams and individuals to manage incidents, which is discussed in a section of the paper.

What are the causes of stress?

  1. The physical environment, such as ‘noise, vibration, heat/cold, lighting, atmospheric conditions (e.g. weather), drugs, boredom or fatigue’.
  2. Social psychological stressors, such as ‘fear or anxiety, uncertainty, importance or consequence of events, aspects of task affecting monetary gain, self-esteem, prestige, job advancement or loss, mental load and time pressure’.

As we know, many of these factors will be present during an incident, so in combating stress during incidents the first thing you should do is to make sure that you or the team responding recognises that you are liable to be affected by stress. Secondly, I think it is important (if possible), to try and find a suitable physical environment for responding. If you are outside, caught in inclement weather or close to the scene of an incident, trying to manage the response to an incident, it may well be worth spending some precious responding time to move to a more suitable location which will reduce the amount of stress on you or the team. Thirdly, if senior managers say that they have full confidence in your ability to respond to the incident and you are doing a good job, this can help reduce some of the psychological stressors on you.

It is also important to note that stress impacts people in different ways and they will respond differently. For example, an item which stresses one person may have little impact on another.

So, what are the effects of stress on your ability to conduct situational awareness, to make decisions and to manage an incident?

  1. People narrow their field of attention and take in fewer inputs than if they weren’t stressed.
  2. Premature closure, where someone arrives at a decision without reviewing all the relevant information or takes into account less information than they would normally.
  3. Situational awareness and understanding of the environment is scattered and poorly organised.
  4. Complex tasks with multiple inputs sources appear to be particularly sensitive to the effects of stressors.
  5. Stress disproportionately impacts the early stage of the decision-making process that is involved in the assessment of the situation.
  6. Working memory is what we use for processing information and making sense of a situation if we have not seen the situation before. Working memory capacity and ability for retrieval is reduced by stress.

If we accept that these will, to a greater or lesser extent, effect most team members during an incident, we can start to think through mechanisms to deal with the effects of stress.

Many people can recognise that they get stressed during incidents and have developed mechanisms for dealing with it. These can vary from short-term methodologies, such as taking a short time out, spending a short time alone and playing a game on your phone or tablet to take you mind of the incident. Combating stress over the longer term in a longer incident may include methods such as heathy eating, exercising, not watching the news and taking time out from managing the incident.

We are all managing the response to COVID-19 at the moment, so it is important to recognise the impact of stress and to be aware of the effect it has on you and the people you are working with. If you recognise and understand the effects, you can then take steps to make sure that you reduce the impact it has on your ability to manage an incident.

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