To debrief, or not to debrief

23 09 2011

licenced under creative commons from umami typepad

I’m chatty.

Yes, I know that will surprise you. But I am.

While my Myers Briggs personality type puts me as quite evenly balanced between Extrovert and Introvert, most people who meet me would say I was definitely an “E”. (I like to say I am evenly balanced and can move across both aspects. However, I digress.)

So when it comes to the question of whether debriefing is beneficial or not, for me it sits firmly in the yes column. I both gain energy from interaction with others, and defray anxiety in the same way. (My mother tells a story of me changing schools. As she drove me to school I chattered away nervously and by the time we got there I was fine and she was a bundle of nerves. Very effective from my point of view!) While I realise this is a trivial example, the same applies in some of the traumatic workplace incidents I have experienced – including suicides and the murder of a colleague.

So for me debriefing – talking out stressful and traumatic situations – works. However the research demonstrates that debriefing is not for everyone.

The aim of debriefing in instances of trauma is to allow the person to acknowledge and work through the events and their emotions and thoughts about the events. It aims to prevent Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is about bringing into the open, acknowledging and processing how you have reacted, responded and recorded the events and its impact upon you.

Does talking about it work for everyone? The literature is divided. Some studies however go as far as saying it can be damaging. A Cochrane review also recommends that the practice cease. (This study was based on single session interventions however.)

In the absence of a single agreed position in the literature, I introduce opinion and speculation….

I suspect that whether debriefing works for you depends on a number of things, including the type of personality you are. And I mean that in a much more in-depth manner than the personality profiles proposed by Myers Briggs.

If you are an extrovert in the true sense of the word (as opposed to the pop-psych sense), and respond to stressful situations by becoming more extrovert, then interaction with others is how you work through your thoughts. Debriefing may work for you.

If you are an introvert (or respond to stressful situations by becoming introverted) and you prefer to work things through in your head without the distractions and inputs of others, then it may make it worse.

On top of that, it requires a skilled debriefer – and possibly the right person for the right job. I have had debriefings following traumatic workplace incidents where I did not connect with the counsellor at all. It was a waste of time and instead I debriefed with colleagues (and they with me) who had a much better understanding of what was going on and who were going through the same thing. It worked well for us because we were a tight team, all had a fairly well developed sense of EQ and felt the same way about what had occurred.

But there came a point in the debriefing process when I needed to stop talking about it. It was time to move on. I couldn’t stay in the horror and pain. Part of the debriefing process for me was realising that life did go on, and getting on with my life.

Letting go was important, when the time was right. Perhaps for some people that was where they started. Sublimation, denial and suppression are genuine survival techniques, and they work. Sometimes it is just better not to think about it.

Does talking about it help for you? Or would you prefer to retreat to quietness and work it through yourself?

If this post interested you, you might also like Where are they now? and Life and Death on the Office.

Life and death in the office

27 08 2011

I blogged recently on a study linking workplace rudeness with lowered work performance. This study demonstrated that you didn’t need to be the actual victim of the rudeness, you only had to witness it happening to someone else and it affected the ability to perform higher order tasks.

Well, hard on the heels of that one, I have been sent two more studies, and reminded of another.

The following Stress Reduction Kit has been provided in case you need it.

1. Professor Arie Shirom at Tel Aviv University led a team of researchers tracking 820 participants over twenty years. What they found was, after controlling for a number of health risk factors such as smoking, the risk of death strongly correlated with the perceived niceness of co-workers. The nicer you felt your co-workers were to you, the lower your mortality rate. The more obnoxious they were, your risks went up. This was published in the American Psychological Association journal, but for non-members, access the information here.

2. The same source also makes reference to the rather famous (in public health circles) Whitehall Study. This was another 20 years study conducted on 28,000 public servants in the UK. It found that risk of a number of diseases and premature death was correlated with being lower down the pecking order. They hypothesized that this was related to the degree of negative stress – stress where the person had no control over effecting the solution. This was more prevalent at the bottom of the ladder than the top of the ladder, where there might be a high degree of stress but there was also power and control to do something about it.

3. And from an American Psychological Association conference – research that workplace incivility is on the rise. The paper presented stated that between 75 and 80% of people have experienced incivility at work, and that it is on the rise.

Is this your experience of the workplace?

Feel free to print and use the stress kit provided free of charge to you at the top of the blog. We are happy to be of assistance.

Alternately you might like to read about the benefits of red wine and dark chocolate.

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When enough is enough

19 08 2011

We’ve all had them – the complaint that won’t go away.

Abusive, persistent, threatening, unreasonable, manipulative, obsessive. We won’t name names, but a name just popped into your head. Perhaps several.

Just when you think you have made a breakthrough – you have resolved what you can resolve, or they have understood that you can’t fix the unfixable or turn back the hands of time – they are back.

The fall-out can be enormous. Staff stress, team stress, productivity drops, other customers getting the short shrift from stressed staff, time and resources taken away from legitimate business. And often the fall-out happens in the complainant’s life as well – family breakdowns, job losses, bankruptcies. There is no win here for anyone.

Last week I attended an excellent training session from the NSW Ombudsman’s Office on Managing Unreasonable Complainant Behaviour. The handbook is available for download here. This guide includes some sample letters and scripts for dealing with complainants, as well as some principles from the people whose job is to be the end of the line for complaints that escalate.

The highly entertaining Paddy and Sheila took us through the principles and some practice exercises. Well worth the time.

Some thoughts from the text:
1. Remember even the most unreasonable and irrational complainant may actually have a point. Look at the evidence first and impartially, irrespective of the manner in which the complainant has approached you.

2. The complaint and how it is to be handled is your decision according to your agency protocol. It is not the role of the complainant to dictate how their complaint will be handled.

3. Don’t make any promises you can’t keep.

4. Ask yourself if you are behaving the way you would respond to any other complainant. If you are doing things you wouldn’t do for others then you are probably being manipulated.

5. Call the behaviour. (The text refers to making it overt.)

6. Clearly set the rules. If it is an hour’s meeting, then it is an hour and nothing else. If you will not accept swearing and abusive language then be clear about that, give a warning and what your response will be if it continues.

7. Take into account the complainant’s background. If their normal language is swearing (and the swearing is not aggressively aimed at you) then you may need to accept it to an extent. If they are illiterate, then don’t expect them to fill in your forms.

8. Having a mental illness does not preclude someone from having a genuine complaint. Again, look at the evidence first.

9. Deal with the behaviour as unreasonable, not the person. On another day and another issue, they may be easier to deal with. On another day and another issue, you might be the unreasonable complainant. They could just be having a bad day.

10. Always treat the complainant with respect no matter what. Two wrongs don’t make a right, you need to set the standard of behaviour you expect.

11. Document, document, document. Take notes on phone conversations. Email follow-ups and summaries of conversations and meetings for confirmation.