Having facilitated hundreds of Critical Incident Group Debriefings (CIGD), there’s always a magical moment during the intervention when I reflect to myself, “this process really helps people heal from trauma exposure”. I have used this model in many workplaces, and with many different occupations. The CIGD model is transferrable to any workplace and for most critical incidents.  My own experiences with conducting CIGD range from supporting first responders during 9-11 to more recently, public health units during the pandemic. It is also effective for single events such as a workplace that suddenly loses a key member of their team to a motor vehicle accident.

What Defines a Critical Incident?

Critical incidents are situations that occur outside of our normal frame of reference and challenge us to understand and cope with what has happened. For example:

  • Experiencing violence
  • Loss of someone from a terminal illness, accident, or suicide
  • A natural disaster that devastates a workplace and community

When we come face to face with the possibility of our own death or, when we experience a profound sense of loss of control from a situation occurring, this can have a lasting impact. These critical incidents sometimes occur within our workplaces. For example, the sudden death of a colleague may result in a shift in how we understand ourselves, our relationships, and the world around us as we struggle to make meaning from this sudden event. When critical incidents occur, they challenge our basic beliefs such as everything happens for a reason, or good things happen to good people. Critical incidents are powerful teachings that bad things do happen to good people, and that tragic events happen for seemingly no reason whatsoever.

How Might a Critical Incident Affect Someone?

When critical incidents occur, people experience a wide range of reactions. We have emotional reactions such as shock, guilt, fear, or sadness. Cognitively, we can lose focus, have intrusive thoughts, or replay the experience.  Many people experience physical reactions such as sleep disturbances or exaggerated startle responses. Our behaviors are impacted as we seek closeness to loved ones or push people away entirely. For many people, a spiritual wound occurs as they seek meaning or feel abandoned by their creator. One can imagine how difficult it would be to concentrate at work when trauma symptoms are severe and difficult to manage. When individuals can’t understand where the source of their distress originates or how to manage their symptoms, they suffer in isolation. It’s not long before workplaces have increased sick time and reduced productivity.

What is a Critical Incident Group Debriefing?

Critical incident group debriefing or CIGD is a short-term group intervention process that focuses on the effects of the immediate event. CIGD is one of several methods that may be utilized to lessen the likelihood of people experiencing symptoms of trauma and stress after a critical incident. This group debriefing process provides a place for participants to talk and share experiences, and for the facilitator to teach and provide information about the impact of critical incidents. A CIGD helps re-establish emotional and physical safety with the key message being that you are normal people having normal reactions to an abnormal event.

The CIGD model focuses on providing a structured environment for people to talk about their emotions and reactions to the event. The purpose of this is to lessen the likelihood of symptoms of trauma and stress after a critical incident. A structured process can aid individuals to understand and possibly start to process the event that occurred. It helps to eliminate misinformation, support individuals in the natural healing process, and identify those who may need additional support. Trained facilitators guide the process in a structured format and end by providing education about common reactions to critical incidents, and identifying healthy and unhealthy coping patterns.

4 Benefits of CIGD in the Workplace

The workplace can become disrupted when a critical incident occurs. People may become anxious about returning or distracted from the workflow as they try to manage their traumatic stress reactions. Offering a critical incident group debriefing in the workplace offers so many benefits.

1. Participants begin to normalize their reactions and learn they are not alone; others share similar reactions. They are often hesitant to share with others that they are having these feelings. They may fear judgment and even worry that supervisors think they can no longer do their jobs.  Through a CIGD, individuals hear others share similar reactions, and the isolation is now replaced with a feeling of normalcy.

2. A CIGD offers an opportunity for the workplace to normalize traumatic stress reactions and in doing so, gives the message, we care about our staff. Staff feel validated that the workplace offers an intervention that is solely aimed at helping them recover and that “someone took the time to help”.

3. The CIGD includes teaching about traumatic reactions and resources for coping. Facilitators provide teaching opportunities to normalize traumatic stress reactions. Further, the process involves offering healthy coping strategies and identifying unhealthy coping strategies. It also provides an opportunity to share workplace benefits such as employee assistance programs or local resources. These additional resources are directly placed into the hands of staff, aimed at offering immediate accessibility and ongoing support, if needed.

4. The incident is acknowledged within the workplace. Often, critical incidents are felt yet not discussed. It is common for individuals to struggle to find the words to discuss strong feelings of grief, loss, or shock. When words don’t come easy, we often say nothing. This leaves people feeling confused, with long-lasting emotional wounds from unacknowledged grief or traumatic stress reactions. A critical incident group debriefing offers an opportunity for individuals to express their experience with the incident or their unique relationship to the individual who has, for example, died. A CIGD offers validation and aids in helping people put words to strong emotions. Through this experience, they often come together and work on creating shared meaning or memorializing events for an individual who has died.

Why Use a Trained Facilitator?

A trained CIGD facilitator can aid in identifying any unique challenges the workplace may need to consider. For example, creating a physically and emotionally safe environment must be considered prior to implementing a CIGD and during the facilitated group process. A CIGD is not intended to be an operational debriefing that focuses on procedural responses or blame-seeking. Further, a trained facilitator is aware of the potential for vicarious traumatization and will consider the impact of sharing too many details and its potential effect on others.

When a critical incident occurs in the workplace, we can be impacted and forever changed. A place that once felt safe can now feel uncertain awaiting the next potential traumatic event. Or, when we lose a dear co-worker suddenly, we can fear our own mortality, or grieve deeply for someone we saw daily. As a facilitator of CIGD, I have witnessed the incredible benefits of this guided group process that brings co-workers together,  to share common reactions or shared sorrow. In doing so, we find strength, hope, and healing. 

Joddie Walker
MSc, RP – Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute



Joddie Walker, MSC, RP


As CTRI’s Clinical Director, Joddie (she/her) oversees the development of our trainings. She provides clinical guidance to ensure the materials embody trauma-informed principles and are consistent with our values.

Joddie also has her own private practice, where she supports people of all ages through grief, loss, stress, and anxiety. She is passionate about working with first responders and their families who are experiencing PTSD or secondary traumatic stress.

Joddie takes a multidisciplinary, strengths-based approach to counselling and uses evidence-based, trauma-informed practices. She believes curiosity and the desire for change can result in creative solutions for her clients. As a trainer, Joddie draws on the strength and resilience she has seen throughout her 30 years in the field to bring the workshop content to life.