Effects of Stress on Incident Teams

Posted on 26 October

This week Charlie looks at the physical effects which occur when individuals are faced with an incident and the methods that can be used to counteract them.


I was in Dubai yesterday and every time I visit the city, I always feel that it is the city of the future, with its fantastic array of skyscrapers, its driverless metro and its clean streets. So, this week I was inspired by the city to write about a technical business continuity subject.

You know the feeling, you are told the incident you never wanted to happen has just occurred, which sets off the sinking feeling in your stomach, the clammy hands and the trickle of sweat down your back. Then the adrenaline kicks in and you are ready to respond. For some, this is their moment (think Mayor Giuliani after 9/11) and they thrive on high adrenaline incidents. All the mundane planning is over and this is their moment to respond and to lead or support their organisation to survival, victory or even opportunity! Others run around in circles in panic not knowing where to start, or are paralysed “rabbits in the headlights” doing nothing, knowing that all eyes are on them and the team are looking for leadership, the response plan to be activated and the fight back to begin.

In their paper ‘Designs for Crisis Decision Units’, Carolyne Smart and Ilan Vertinsky outline the characteristics of an incident, which are:

  1. High level of emotional and physical stress
  2. Limited amount of time for response – leading to further pressure and stress
  3. Threat to high priority goals – which again leads to stress

Although some thrive on high levels of stress and pressure, the paper outlines a number of physical effects when we are faced with an incident, which include the following:

  1. Lowers our ability to think and compute information – errors of calculation and look at fewer options
  2. Can cause decision making to shift up within the organisation
  3. Leads to looking at short-term solutions rather than long term ones
  4. Information distortion, so we don’t look at alternatives and don’t look at the consequences
  5. Look at fewer channels of information as overwhelmed by the amount leading to – omission, delay in response, filtering and processing incorrect information
  6. The group looks at less options
  7. Overload of incoming information leads to more stress

If we recognise that those with roles in our incident teams are going to have the above effects to a greater or a lesser extent, how can we build in mechanisms to ensure these effects are countered?

  1. Regular training and exercise will ensure that members of the incident team are familiar with their roles, what is expected of them and how to respond. If you are comfortable with your role, this will reduce the amount on stress you will feel. You should therefore carry out high pressure, command post exercises, where you are trying to simulate the pressures of managing an incident, in order to prepare the team for dealing with the stress of a real incident. I am a great believer that you have to work up to high pressure command post exercises. Don’t start with one of these exercises as their first exercise or until they are ready for one, as you want them to be more confident at the end of the exercise than the beginning. This won’t happen if the exercise is not a success.
  2. To stop errors in calculation due to stress, get another member of the incident team or even someone not involved in the response to check your workings.
  3. One of the techniques we build into our incident team agenda (which will be the subject of another bulletin), is to give the team two minutes silence to gather their thoughts before the meeting starts, and each member of the team is asked to give a report on their key issues. This allows them to de-stress, lets them focus on their key issues and actually makes the meeting shorter.
  4. If you recognise the effects of stress on processing information and narrowing the number of options, you can take measures to combat this. This could include giving a number of people who don’t have a response role the task to actively seek out incident information, process it and then present it in manageable form to the incident team. In incident management we teach that you should have a process for decision making, so this method can ensure that decisions are not made arbitrarily and a number of options are considered.
  5. There is a tendency for decisions which can be made at a lower level to be passed up to tactical and strategic teams. Having clear roles and responsibilities for each team will help to avoid this. Exercising higher and lower teams together should be carried out, so they can understand which decisions should be made at each level.

Next time you run an exercise or are involved in an incident, see if you can observe the traits of stress in action. I think the more we understand the effects of stress and how it impacts different members of our incident team, we can harness it for the good and avoid some of its negative effects.