PTSD, Acute Stress, Performance and Decision-Making in Emergency Service Workers [2017]

Despite research identifying high levels of stress and traumatic stress symptoms among those in the emergency services, the impact of these symptoms on performance and hence public safety remains uncertain. This review paper discusses a program of research that has examined the effects of prior critical incident exposure, acute stress, and current post-traumatic symptoms on the performance and decision-making during an acutely stressful event among police officers, police communicators, paramedics and child protection workers. Four studies, using simulation methods involving video simulators, human-patient simulators, and/or standardized patients, examined the performance of emergency workers in typical workplace situations related to their individual profession. Results varied according to level of acuity of stress and the nature of performance and decision-making. There was no evidence that PTSD had a direct impact on global performance on tasks for which emergency responders are highly trained. However, PTSD was associated with assessment of risk in situations that required professional judgement. Further, individuals experiencing PTSD symptoms reported higher levels of acute stress when faced with high acuity situations. Acute stress in these studies was associated with performance deficits on complex cognitive tasks, verbal memory impairment and heightened assessment of risk.

Cheryl Regehr and Vicki R. LeBlanc

Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online, June 2017, 45 (2)