Mental Health Support is Critical for Crisis Managers and Employees in High-Stress Roles

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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has accepted an advisory report recommending expanding mental health monitoring, support and assistance programs for pilots. The move appears to be motivated by a recognized need for assistance networks to enhance the detection and intervention of mental or emotional stress. The nature of such efforts is largely focused on confidential, peer focused intervention. Up to this point, pilots are evaluated in physical exams and indirectly observed for how the stress of their jobs is handled or managed. No psychological exam is currently mandated, but this new emphasis will likely lead to expanding both the testing and support mechanisms. Further, longer-range plans include research into and recognition mechanisms to better understand the psychological and cognitive stress pressures that affect pilots who perform significantly critical roles in risk contexts.

This move should spur a spotlight on cognitive, emotional and psychological support steps for other professionals in high-stress and critical function roles; including those in crisis management, disaster recovery and other contexts where job performance impacts others and operations. For some time now, I have called attention to the impacts of stress, high stress and (even brief periods of) hyper-stress on individuals. The effects (both chronic long term stress and acute short term stress) can erode cognitive functioning, create emotional issues and generate psychological dysfunction that should be better understood and mitigated through support and assistance. stress


According to National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), “stress” can be defined as the body and brain’s response to systemic demands. Many things can trigger this response. Emotional, cognitive, physical and psychological stress may be recurring, short-term or long-term and may be caused by a wide range of stressors. Some stressors are major, other stressors can be extreme, such as exposure to violence, and can lead to traumatic stress reactions.

NIMH lists at least three different types of stress, all of which carry physical and mental health risks:

  1. Routine stress related to the pressures of work, or the nature of duties and responsibilities.
  2. Stress brought about by witnessing or observing a sudden negative emotional experience, critical episode or life-changing event.
  3. Traumatic stress, experienced in an event like a major accident or a natural disaster where one may be seriously hurt or in danger of being killed or where others are at risk of being seriously hurt or in danger of being killed.

The body and/or mind responds to each type of stress in similar ways; although, different people may feel it in different ways. Some effects of stress manifest in cognitive or psychological symptoms. Other effects may manifest as physical symptoms. For example, some people experience dysfunctional digestive symptoms, while others may have headaches, sleeplessness, depressed mood, anger and irritability. People under chronic stress are prone to more frequent and severe viral infections, such as the flu or common cold, and vaccines, such as the flu shot, are less effective for them.

NIMH warns that of all the types of stress, dysfunctional changes from routine stress may be the hardest to notice at first. Because the source of stress tends to be more constant than in cases of acute or traumatic stress, the body gets no clear signal to return to normal functioning. Over time, continued strain on your body and brain from routine stress may lead to serious health or mental health problems.

Firestorm Crisis Stress business person 2

Psychological Trauma

According to the National Institute of Mental Health “trauma” is often thought of as physical injuries. Psychological trauma is an emotionally painful, shocking, stressful and sometimes life-threatening experience. It may or may not involve physical injuries, and can result from witnessing distressing events. Examples include a natural disaster, industrial accidents and terrorism. Disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes and floods can claim lives, destroy homes or whole communities and cause serious physical and psychological injuries. Psychological trauma can also be caused by acts of violence.

Reactions (responses) to trauma can be immediate or delayed. Reactions to trauma differ in severity and cover a wide range of behaviors and responses. People with existing mental health problems, past traumatic experiences and/or limited family and social supports may be more reactive (less resilient) to psychological trauma.


Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a real and serious illness. PTSD can occur after living through or seeing a dangerous event, such as a war, a hurricane, tornado, violent crime, serious or fatal injuries or a bad accident. PTSD makes one continue to experience stress and fear even after the danger is over and the event is in the past. It can affect one’s life and work performance as well as cognitive and emotional functioning.

Greater Mental Health Support Recommended

Those in the crisis management and disaster response/recovery fields should prioritize the creation and expansion of assistance networks to enhance the detection and intervention of mental or emotional stress for workers in these disciplines. There should also be more research into and recognition mechanisms to better understand the psychological and cognitive stress pressures that affect those who perform significantly critical roles in high risk contexts and who themselves are vulnerable to these effects.

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