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Life Arts    H4'ed 6/26/10

A New Tool for Risk Management in the Workplace: Verbal First Aidâ„¢

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Within the last several years, particularly since 9/11 and the inception of a broad-reaching emphasis on national security, the American workplace has changed. Where at one time there was free and open intercourse, there are now multiple gateways prior to access--technological, social, and physical. Getting into a secured building requires the emptying of pockets and purses, the removal of shoes, and a sometimes more personal inspection. With that security--which is by its nature is based in the experience of fear--comes an increase in general anxiety. People are generally more hypervigilant--readier to perceive danger, more high strung, and more sensitive.

After 9/11, National Employee Assistance Programs had been virtually inundated with calls for debriefings, information sessions on trauma, and support services for employees. In the ten years since then the situation has not radically altered.

"It's more acceptable now to have emotions in the workplace," noted Kristen Nagle of Longview Associates in New York. "Corporations have been more sensitive to the psychological and emotional needs of employees virtually across the board. They know the importance of their support, particularly since 9/11. It's not only about productivity anymore. It's been about doing the right thing."

Corporate support has taken many forms--conferences, counseling services, trainings--on issues ranging from post-traumatic stress to Internet security.

Businesses have begun not only to react, but to respond proactively--giving their employees the tools they need to handle emotional and physical crises.

The Place For Verbal First Aid in the Post-9/11 World

It has been repeatedly documented that the earlier the intervention, the more likely a positive outcome. When a person at work experiences a traumatic event--whether that is a fall, a broken business deal, a heart attack in a fellow employee, or a mass layoff--the quicker we address the fallout from that experience, the better that person will respond. What that means in business terms is a quicker return to work, less rancor, better productivity, and less litigation.

The research literature on PTSD indicates that the way in which we handle traumatic incidents (whether they are personal injuries or the employee is witnessing an incident) at the moment they occur has an impact both on how the employee heals and then deals with traumas in the future.

This is the core principle of Verbal First Aid: What we say at the scene of a medical emergency or emotional crisis is as important as what we do .

Unfortunately, most crises are handled without much consideration of the impact of words. If a person is bleeding, we bandage the wound, but we don't address the fear. If a person's feelings are "hurt," we tell them to "get over it" and get back to work. There is another way, a better way--both ethically and practically--to handle any critical incident.

The Right Words to the Rescue: Verbal First Aid

According to the book, The Worst Is Over, (Acosta/Prager, 2002) there are words we can say and ways to say them that can not only calm an employee who is overly stressed, but help stop bleeding and scarring from burning, reduce the panic in a person with heart symptoms, give comfort and pain relief when an employee is angered, and perhaps save a life in more dire circumstances.

The protocol for Verbal First Aid was first developed for paramedics to use in emergency situations. It works because when someone is in a crisis or emotional state, he or she is in an altered state of consciousness in which the autonomic nervous system--the part of our brain that regulates everything from heartbeat and bleeding to body temperature and perception of pain--is open to suggestions.

A first responder can say, "stop your bleeding and save your blood," and the victim will respond by literally stopping the bleeding and saving his blood. The paramedic could say, "imagine your arm packed in cool, comfortable snow," and the burn victim can instantly feel better as he begins the healing process without scarring.

This occurred to me personally some years ago when I was preparing to give a talk to a group of firefighters in Sleepy Hollow. I had held onto a burning pot for too long and before I could let it go realized that two of my fingers on my right hand were blistering white. The pain was intense and instantaneous. I couldn't believe how foolish I'd been and I had a talk the next day on Verbal First Aid!! How was I going to go in there with a bandage around my hand because of burns?

I immediately put my hand in tepid water and gradually lowered the temperature until it was mildly cool (not icy) and repeated the words to myself, "cool and comfortable, deep, deep down." I saw the coolness as a gentle, blue stream moving through my skin, down into the muscle, all the way to the bone. I repeated this to myself all night until I fell asleep. The pain subsided fairly quickly, which pleased me greatly, although I was still concerned about having the need for bandages.

In the morning when I awoke, I took off the bandage--and even after many years of doing this sort of work what I saw surprised me. The burn was completely gone. I do not exaggerate. Where before it had been a clear secondary burn, there was absolutely nothing.I am still surprised by what Verbal First Aid can help us do--not only for ourselves but for one another.

Work, Words, and Stress

Who would argue that the workplace in America is stressful? There are layoffs, down-sizings, crunches, and closings. People are doing jobs they never imagined doing before. They are forced by circumstance to seek new professions at a time in life when perhaps they had imagined they would be preparing for retirement. To some, stress is too polite a term.

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Judith Acosta is a licensed psychotherapist, author, and speaker. She is also a classical homeopath based in New Mexico. She is the author of The Next Osama (2010), co-author of The Worst is Over (2002), the newly released Verbal First Aid (more...)
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