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Personal and Organizational Predictors
of Posttraumatic Adaptation
and Growth in Police Officers

The Australasian Journal of Disaster
and Trauma Studies
ISSN:  1174-4707
Volume : 2007-1

Personal and Organizational Predictors of
Posttraumatic Adaptation and Growth in Police Officers

Douglas Paton & Karena J. Burke, School of Psychology, University of Tasmania, Launceston, Tasmania, Australia. Email: Douglas.Paton@utas.edu.au
Keywords: critical incidents, adaptive capacity, posttraumatic growth, police, training, teams, organizational culture

Douglas Paton & Karena J. Burke

School of Psychology,
University of Tasmania


Police officers are in the front line for exposure to critical incidents. This paper argues that while critical incidents can challenge psychological equilibrium, this circumstance should be conceptualized as a catalyst for change rather than as an automatic precursor of posttraumatic pathology. Following a discussion of the relationship between posttraumatic growth and future adaptive capacity, evidence supporting two approaches to examining the relationship between critical incident experience and salutary outcomes is reviewed. One considers how police officers’ mental models can be developed prior to exposure to increase their adaptive capacity and reduce the likelihood of an experience becoming a critical incident in the first place. The second accommodates the fact that officers will continue to experience novel, unexpected, challenging incidents, and discusses how personal, team and organizational factors interact to render challenging experiences coherent and meanings. The notion of conceptualizing the relationship between traumatic experience and growth and adaptive capacity as a form of punctuated equilibrium is discussed, as is the need to include non-traumatic challenging events in the assessment of posttrauma outcomes in police populations.

Personal and Organizational Predictors of
Posttraumatic Adaptation and Growth in Police Officers


Police officers are in the front line for exposure to critical incidents. While the potential for this exposure to result in posttrauma pathology has been recognized (Violanti & Paton, 1999), research is increasingly demonstrating that a focus on pathology provides only partial insight into the range of posttrauma outcomes that police officers can experience, with many officers endorsing beneficial outcomes from their critical incident experiences (Burke & Paton, 2006; Huddleston, Paton & Stephens, 2006). Recognition of the existence of such diverse outcomes has implications for how critical incident stress in police officers is conceptualized, researched and managed.

While a need to understand and manage posttraumatic pathology must remain a high priority on research and intervention agenda, there is a compelling need for the complementary investigation of salutary and adaptive outcomes, with the latter, in particular, being elevated in importance as a result of the fact that police officers can expect to encounter challenging circumstances several times throughout their careers. Furthermore, if the factors that influence growth and adaptation are amenable to change through the efforts of officers and police agencies, it becomes possible for them to make choices regarding the nature of the critical incident outcome experienced (Paton, 2006). From an organizational perspective, duty of care will be exercised more responsibly if police agencies act to increase the likelihood of salutary outcomes.

The potential for critical incidents to result in either positive or negative outcomes (Linley & Joseph, 2004) means that while a given incident can create psychological disequilibrium, this circumstance should be conceptualized as a catalyst for change rather than as an automatic precursor of posttraumatic pathology. That is, the critical incident represents a context in which pre-existing ways of understanding are challenged. However, whether the new equilibrium state that emerges is characterized by growth or pathology will reflect how an officer deals with the challenges posed by the experience. This paper focuses on identifying the mechanisms used by officers to render novel, challenging experiences meaningful. Once identified, this knowledge can be used to proactively influence officers’ ability to experience adaptive and salutary outcomes from critical incident experience (Paton, 2005, 2006; Linley & Joseph, 2004; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2003; Kumpfer, 1999).

Mental Models and Posttrauma Outcomes
Through their training and operational experiences, officers develop mental models that determine their ability to impose meaning on the incidents they attend (Paton, 1994). Furthermore, officers respond to incidents as members of law enforcement agencies whose organizational culture influences their thoughts and actions and represents the context in which challenging experiences (through interaction with colleagues, senior officers, and organizational procedures) are made sense of (Gist & Woodall, 2000; Paton, et al., 1999; Paton et al., 2003; Weick, 1995). The mental models that render critical experiences meaningful thus represent the interaction between personal, social and organizational sources. The importance of understanding the sources of mental models derives from their role in the etiology of critical incident stress.

An event becomes critical when incident characteristics fall outside expected operational or response parameters and officers’ mental models (reflecting assumptions/expectations derived from routine training, experience and organizational practices) are unable to make sense of such novel, challenging events (Janoff-Bulman, 1992; Paton, 1994). Before discussing how meaning may be imposed on such experiences, it is pertinent to consider the implication of repetitive exposure to critical incidents for how the positive consequences of experiencing psychologically challenging events are investigated.

In their definition of posttraumatic growth, Tedeschi and Calhoun (2003) emphasized how growth reflected a change that exceeded prior levels of adaptation. When exploring the application of this construct with police populations that face repeated exposure to challenging events, any sustained benefit will reflect the degree to which new insights, perspectives, knowledge and relationships become embedded in officers’ mental models and in the culture of the organization in ways that enhance future adaptive capacity. It thus becomes important to conceptualize growth and adaptation as interdependent and to assess posttrauma outcomes in police populations accordingly.

According to this view, the relationship between repeated exposure to challenging critical incidents and officers’ psychological states can be conceptualized as a form of punctuated equilibrium. That is, this relationship is characterized by periods of stability (defined by the ability of existing mental models to facilitate adaptation to the incidents officers attend) that can be punctuated by period exposure to suddenly-occurring, critical incidents whose characteristics exceed prior levels of adaptive capacity and stimulate change. It is not, however, appropriate to assume that the ensuing change will be negative. While not precluding the possibility of negative outcomes (e.g., PTSD), the focus in this article is on identifying predictors of positive change.

Thus, while the assessment of posttraumatic growth is manifest as a quantitative estimate of change that exceeds previous levels of adaptation, once change occurs these benefits are only sustained if they contribute to qualitative differences in levels of adaptive capacity manifest in changes in officers’ mental models, inter-personal processes, and characteristics of police agency culture (Paton, 2005; Paton & Jackson, 2002; Paton et al., 2004). An event that challenges (punctuates) psychological equilibrium can lead to growth. Once that new equilibrium level is established it defines a new level of adaptive capacity, characterized by more sophisticated mental models, that represents a new baseline (equilibrium) against which the meaning of future experiences can be evaluated. This represents the mirror image of the ‘stair stepping’ analogy used by Williams (1993) to describe the progressive intensification of posttrauma pathology that occurs if repetitive exposure to traumatic events occurs prior to earlier experiences being satisfactorily resolved.

Consequently, comprehensive analysis of ‘growth’ in populations that can face repeated exposure to challenging critical incidents involves examining the interaction between growth and adaptation. The question then becomes one of identifying the circumstances and interpretive mechanisms that influence the capacity for adaptive reintegration and growth and the ability to incorporate new, challenging experiences into qualitatively different and more sophisticated mental models.

This paper reviews evidence in support of two approaches to examining the relationship between critical incident experience and salutary outcomes. The first considers how the scope of officers’ mental models can be developed prior to exposure. In this strategy, the objective is to increase the range of circumstances officers can adapt to (i.e., reduce the likelihood of an incident becoming a critical incident in the first place). However, the nature of police work means that officers will continue to experience novel, unexpected, challenging incidents. Consequently, the second approach examines how officer, team and organizational characteristics interact to develop new mental models capable of rendering critical experiences coherent and meaningful. We begin with a discussion of the development of adaptive capacity that first addresses the need to commence analysis from officers point of entry into police work.

Interpreting Critical Incident Experiences

Influence of pre-employment experiences
When working with police populations, it is pertinent to ask when the process of developing adaptive capacity commences. For example, given the prevalence of traumatic experiences within the general population, (e.g., Norris, 1992), police officers may enter their chosen profession with a history that includes experience of one or more traumatic incidents that could reflect the kinds of events (e.g., physical or sexual assault, road traffic accidents) they know they will have to confront as serving officers. Such experiences could influence, for example, the nature/content of mental models with which they enter police work, their capacity to experience benefit from the critical incident experiences they encounter as sworn officers, and thus their future adaptive capacity. From a methodological perspective, it is important to examine the relationship between critical incident experience and growth/adaptive outcomes from the point of entry into police work in order to capture how pre-employment experiences influence well being (Paton & Smith, 1999). Analyses of this transitional period in the life of a police officer have raised some interesting issues regarding the relationship between challenging experiences and psychological growth.

Burke (2007) compared posttraumatic growth (PTGI) scores (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996) in groups that differed with regard to their pre-employment and operational experiences of traumatic incidents (Table 1). These data provide some interesting insights into the relationship between traumatic experiences and its consequences for officers

Table 1. The contribution 'no trauma', pre-employment trauma, and operational traumatic experience to PTGI scores.

Gp Traumatic Experience N PTGI Score
(at 12 months operational experience)
1 No Trauma at Point of Entry & No operational trauma
2 No Trauma at Point of Entry & Operational trauma
3 Trauma at Point of Entry & No operational trauma
4 Trauma at Point of Entry & Operational trauma

These data (Table 1) can be subdivided according to whether officers had (groups 3 & 4) or had not (groups 1 & 2) experienced traumatic events prior to entering police work. The existence of significant differences between groups 3&4 (collectively) and 1&2 (collectively) provides tentative support for the contention that pre-employment traumatic experiences can ‘prime’ officers capacity to interpret critical incidents experienced early in their career in ways that increase the likelihood of their experiencing posttraumatic growth. Furthermore, the fact that no significant differences were evident between the scores for members of group 3 and group 4 (both groups had pre-employment traumatic experiences, but members of group 4 also had operational traumatic experience), raises the possibility that pre-employment experiences could exercise a more significant influence on officers’ ability to realize posttraumatic growth outcomes than their operational experiences, at least during the first year of police work.

These data also raise an important methodological issue. Group 1 (Table 1) recorded PTGI scores despite having experienced neither pre-employment nor operational traumatic events. They did, however, undergo a major life transition by commencing police work. It can be inferred from these data that it was the life transition that represented the source of their reported growth. These findings of positive changes being recorded on the PTGI in the absence of experiencing a traumatic event raise a question concerning what the PTGI actually measures. That is, while the PGTI can measure personal growth resulting from involvement in a traumatic event, can it also measure positive change from events appraised as challenging but that cannot be defined as traumatic? These results suggest that this may be a real possibility.

A similar argument, concerning the concepts measured by the PTGI, can be made when considering what level of positive change represents a qualitatively different level of functioning. For example, the PTGI has 21 items with scoring ranging from 0 to 6. Can the relatively low level of change reported by groups 1 and 2 (Table 1) be considered to represent changes in officers’ mental models capable of influencing how they perceive future exposure to traumatic, stressful and/or challenging experiences?

While additional work is required to examine these issues in more detail, this interpretation has implications for the assessment of posttraumatic outcomes. It implies that, when assessing posttraumatic growth associated with officers’ operational traumatic or critical incident experiences, given that growth outcomes associated with a specific operational experience may take weeks or months to manifest itself (Linley & Joseph, 2004), it will be necessary to control for other life events occurring within the same time period that could have had salutary consequences for them (e.g., getting promoted into a position of increased responsibility). It is also important to ascertain whether officers appraise these life events as challenges from which they can learn and grow as a consequence. It then becomes pertinent to ask whether this challenge appraisal increases officers’ capacity to adapt to (routine) police work and, if so, whether or not any ensuing benefit extends to the critical incident domain.

The above data (Table 1) highlight the importance of including pre-employment experiences in the process of developing understanding posttrauma outcomes. Evidence of the benefits that can accrue from so doing is available from other sources.

For example, Huddlestone et al. (2006) discussed anecdotal accounts of how interaction between pre-employment traumatic experiences and police training influenced benefit finding in serving officers. That is, training provided a medium for imposing meaning on earlier (pre-employment) traumatic experiences, with the interaction between them contributing to officers’ well-being and future capabilities.

This interpretation introduces two issues. The first reiterates the potential importance of pre-employment traumatic experiences, but raises the possibility that it is how this earlier experience interacts with operational training processes that contributes to officers’ adaptive capacity. In light of the data discussed above (Table 1), this question deserves more detailed, systematic consideration. The second issues relates to the potential for training to be used not just to develop technical competencies, but also to influence officers’ ability to impose meaning on and experience adversarial growth from their critical incident experiences.

T raining and Adaptive Capacity
Incidents become critical when, for example, their circumstances (e.g., deliberately flying a passenger aircraft into a building, dealing with large numbers of dead, injured and suffering, performing body recovery duties, dealing with shocked and stressed populations), and levels of uncertainty (e.g., regarding the nature and duration of a threat, length of involvement), personal danger (e.g., rescuing people from badly damaged buildings, being secondary targets of terrorist attacks, exposure to biological or radiation hazards), or operational demands (e.g., crisis decision making, inappropriate performance expectations, inter-agency role stress) fall outside the expected parameters of officers’ operational mental models (Paton, 1996; Paton & Violanti, 2007). Consequently, it is pertinent to ask if it is possible to develop officers’ adaptive capacity by increasing the breadth and nature of the parameters of officers’ mental models. One way in which this can be done is through training.

By incorporating characteristics such as those introduced in the previous paragraph into a training program, and by comparing the experiences of a group who had received this training with a control group who had not (both of whom responded to the same disaster), Paton (1994) demonstrated that training increased the range of events officers could render meaningful, reduced the risk of posttrauma pathology, and contributed to officers realizing a sense of personal and professional growth from critical incident work (Table 2). Training significantly enhanced officers’ capacity to effectively deal with, for example, the demands encountered when responding to the needs of survivors, the circumstances of the disaster, and the role stress and ambiguity associated with the non-routine multi-agency response environment.

Training thus increased officers’ capacity to adapt to the circumstances they encountered. Training also contributed to their capacity to realize salutary benefits and a sense of personal and professional growth from their experience. This was manifest as a stronger sense of individual and professional competence, a greater sense of the importance of family and work relationships, increased empathy with those they assist, and a stronger sense of life appreciation that persisted over time (Paton, 1994).

Table 2: An assessment of the extent to which training increased adaptive capacity when responding to a disaster

Reported Stressors Team Received
Disaster Training
Team Received
No Disaster Training
Likelihood Ratio
Inability to perform to expected level
22.01 ***
Feeling immune to others suffering
7.47 **
Being pushed to the limit
4.00 *
Overwhelmed/shocked by disaster
4.03 *
Overly dependent on others
11.63 ***
Role conflict/uncertainty
6.68 **
Being unable to help
4.88 *
Being unable to access survivors
IES Scores

(* p<0.05; ** p<0.01; *** p<0.001)

Similar findings have emerged from several subsequent studies. Tugade and Frederickson (2004) demonstrated how ‘challenge appraisal’ reduced the likelihood that critical incident demands would exceed the person’s perception of the resources available to them to cope and increased their ability to adapt to challenging circumstances. Similarly, Linley and Joseph (2004) discussed how interaction between perceived threat (i.e., critical incident demands) and controllability (i.e., the capacity of mental models to render experiences coherent) predicted adversarial growth. Importantly, from an organizational perspective, a capacity for challenge appraisal or positive reframing can be developed by providing officers with training designed for this purpose (Paton, 1994).

Training to develop adaptive capacity and stress resilience should address three areas (Inzana, Driskell, Salas, & Johnston, 1996; Dunning, 2003; Paton, 1994; Paton & Jackson, 2002; Paton & Violanti, 2007). Firstly, it should be designed to ensure that officers have realistic outcome and performance expectations, and learn to differentiate personal and situational constraints on effective response. For example, it is important that officers understand how the magnitude of an incident places limits on what they can do rather than attributing an inability to respond at expected levels to personal or professional inadequacy. Secondly, training should develop officers’ interpretive processes and their capacity to review experiences as learning opportunities that enhance future competence. Finally, training should prepare officers for the sensory and experiential aspects of critical incident response by providing systematic exposure to the sights, sounds, and smells associated with the disaster environment (e.g., using morgue visits, reviewing accounts of experienced personnel and specially prepared training videos), facilitate their understanding of the stress response and provide opportunities for them to rehearse stress management strategies. This component of training should also address officers’ ability to understand what constitutes normal emotional reactions and feelings under atypical circumstances (Paton, 1994) and how to use training and support mechanisms to create positive emotions (Frederickson, 2003).

Frederickson argued that positive emotions broaden peoples’ attention and thinking in ways that encourage more creative, integrative and flexible thinking and facilitates the development of social (e.g., sense of cohesion), intellectual (e.g., problem solving), and psychological (e.g., sense of identity, optimism) resources that contribute to a capacity to experience growth following crisis events (Frederickson, 2001; Frederickson et al., 2003). This process can also be implicated in the development of positive threat appraisal that facilitates the development of flexible mental models capable of imposing a sense of coherence on atypical, complex and threatening crises (Flin, 1996; Paton, 1994; Tugade & Frederickson, 2004). The incorporation of these training elements within realistic simulations that challenge existing mental models and operational assumptions increases the effectiveness of training and contributes to the development of adaptive competencies, such as self-efficacy, that have been implicated as predictors of posttraumatic growth (Linley & Joseph, 2004; Paton & Jackson, 2002).

While training can reduce risk by increasing the scope of schema to render challenging events meaningful, it is not possible to predict all eventualities that officers could be called upon to confront. Consequently, a need to prepare for the unexpected means that critical incident stress management must also build officers’ capacity to render challenging experiences meaningful. Research has implicated several personal, team and organizational factors in this process.

Personal Influences on Meaning

The personal characteristics that officers bring to bear on their interpretation of their critical incident experiences are strongly influenced by the selection procedures used. While selection procedures are not regulated, and are by no means universal, these procedures are employed, in part, to select into the profession people whose individual characteristics indicate they are more likely to be resilient to constant, routine exposures to traumatic experiences (Goldfarb & Aumiller, 2004). Thus right from the start, recruits are acknowledged as having the characteristics necessary to be successful police officers, and thus the potential to cope with the unexpectedness inherent in policing in effective and positive ways.

There are well documented relationships between personality, individual coping mechanisms and satisfaction outcomes within police personnel (e.g., Burke, Shakespeare-Finch, Paton & Ryan, 2006; Kaczmarek & Packer, 1997, Thompson & Solomon, 1991). Personality and dispositional characteristics such as extraversion, hardiness and self-efficacy, have also been identified as contributing to officer’s resilience and their ability to impose meaning on novel experiences (Affleck & Tennen, 1996; Linley & Joseph, 2004; Paton, 2005; Thompson & Solomon, 1991).

Training not only plays an important role in developing resilience resources such as hardiness and self-efficacy, and providing opportunities to capitalize on these personal characteristics, it also helps socialize officers into the fabric of the organizational culture that defines the context in which police agency responsibilities are exercised. This introduces a need to consider how sense making occurs in teams and in relationships with senior officers.

Team Influences on Meaning
The ability to adapt to atypical circumstances, and the potential to find benefit from challenging experiences, is influenced by the fact that police work takes place in highly cohesive teams. Team factors influence how meaning is imposed on critical incidents during both the period of response and with regard to how officers review their experiences.

With regard to the former, extensive joint planning and teamwork activity involving team members can enhance stress resilience (Brannick, Salas & Prince, 1997; Flin, 1996; Paton, Violanti & Smith, 2003), with good information sharing being a prominent element of this strategy. In effective teams, members provide more unprompted information, increasing a capability for proactive response management through better decision making and resource allocation (Entin & Serfaty, 1999). For this to occur effectively, team members must share a “team mental model” that facilitates the provision of goal-related information required by decision makers at critical periods (Cooke, Salas, Cannon-Bowers & Stout, 2000; Paton & Jackson, 2002; Stout, Cannon-Bowers, Salas, & Milanovich, 1999). As the level of teamwork and planning activity increases, personnel develop progressively similar mental models of response environments and the roles and tasks performed within them. This, in turn, increases implicit information sharing during high workload periods, enhancing team capacity to respond to the complex and emergent demands encountered when responding to critical incidents, and reducing critical incident stress risk (Paton, 1994).

The training program introduced above (Paton, 1994) also included team building and team planning and decision making components. It also facilitated the development of peer support and consultative leadership practices. By reducing the likelihood that team factors represented critical incident stressors (Table 3), this training facilitated officer’s ability to adapt to the team demands encountered when responding to a highly challenging incident and to use team resources to develop response strategies that contributed to their experiencing a reduction in critical incident stress risk (Tables 2 & 3).

Table 3: An assessment of the extent to which training in team skills and support increased capacity
to deal with the demands made on teams by a disaster

Reported Stressors Team Received
Disaster Training
Team Received
No Disaster Training
Likelihood Ratio
Team response problems
13.96 ***
Lack of support from team members
3.85 *
Team leadership problems
5.38 *

(* p<0.05; ** p<0.01; *** p<0.001)

These findings reiterate the benefits that can accrue from developing the sophistication of mental models (e.g., developing team capacities to plan and execute actions in response to evolving events) and the capacity of team members to support one another. Furthermore, the inclusion of factors that tap into team processes in a measure of organizational climate (Anderson & West, 1998) used in the data presented below (Figure 1) provides further insights into the importance of team factors as a predictor of well-being. The benefits of this work can be complemented by developing the capacity of team members to review their experiences and its consequences.

Lyons, Mickelson, Sullivan, and Coyne (1998) discussed how ‘communal coping’ in cohesive teams could contribute to finding benefit from challenging experiences through, for example, the shared acceptance of psychologically challenging events and facilitating cooperative action to resolve problems arising from responding to critical incidents. Acknowledging and building on effective collaboration during a crisis, and working together after it to develop understanding and better preparedness for future crises, they argue, contributes to personal and team growth and future adaptive capacity. However, realizing the full benefits of personal and team resources is a function of the quality of the organizational culture in which officers work and the relationships they sustain with their senior officers who implement the organization policies and practices that reflect the organizational culture.

Organizational Influences
The police organization, and its culture in particular, exercises an overarching influence on how officers make sense of work-related experiences (Paton, et al., 1999; Weick, 1995). In the context of this paper, this is an important level of analysis. The police organization defines the context within which emergency professionals experience and interpret critical incidents and their sequelae and within which future capabilities are nurtured or restricted (Paton et al., 2003; Violanti & Paton, 2006). It does so by, for example, influencing the operational mental models officers develop through their socialization into the organization, the training they receive, how teams are constituted, and the practices that define how officers respond to the incidents they attend (Alexander & Wells, 1991; Paton, 1994).

For example, in the study of disaster workers discussed above (Paton, 1994), a key predictor of officers’ ability to derive meaning from their experience was the switch from the autocratic management style normally prevailing within emergency organizations to one in which greater responsibility for decision making and planning was devolved to those at the front line. Similar findings by Alexander and Wells (1991), illustrates how organizational practices, that are independent of the traumatic event per se, influence posttrauma outcomes. Indeed, not only do organizational characteristics influence interpretation of traumatic events, they may represent stronger predictors of posttrauma outcomes than traumatic incidents per se (Huddlestson et al., 2006; Paton et al., 2000).

The police organization, and the culture and associated practices it sustains, thus has the potential to exercise a significant influence on whether or not officers experience beneficial outcomes from their critical incident experiences. In this section, how the relationship between organizational culture and operational and organizational practices, the transmission of cultural characteristics through managerial behavior and attitudes, and issues relating to the development of a resilient organizational culture are discussed. This can be done in several ways, and two are used to illustrate this important relationship here.

Britt et al. (2001) discussed how finding meaning and benefit in emergency work is manifest as increased satisfaction. This allows job satisfaction to be used as a proxy measure of meaning and benefit finding. The second is to focus on the relationship between organizational characteristics and posttraumatic growth.

Figure 1: The relationship between personal characteristics, organizational climate, work experiences
and job satisfaction. Adapted from Burke and Paton (2006).

With regard to the former, in the context of officers critical incident work experiences, Burke and Paton (2006) examined the relationship between personal factors, organizational climate, positive and negative organizational experiences and job satisfaction in emergency responders (Figure 1). In addition to organizational climate having a direct effect on satisfaction, and thus on the meaning and benefit officers derive from or attribute to their work, the influence of culture was also mediated by positive and negative organizational experiences (measured using the Police Hassles and Uplifts Scale (Hart, Wearing, & Headey, 1994)), with positive experiences (uplifts) contributing to and negative experiences (hassles) detracting from satisfaction (Figure 1).

The importance of probing the implications of the positive and negative aspects of organizational experience separately is reiterated when their respective implications for posttrauma outcomes is examined. Huddlestone et al. (2006) discussed how traumatic experience interacted with organizational hassles (e.g., lack of consultation, poor communication, red tape) and organizational uplifts (e.g., having responsibility, empowerment, recognition of good work) (Hart et al., 1994) to influence posttraumatic growth in a sample of 314 police officers. The finding that organizational uplifts had direct (Beta = .18, p<.05) and moderating (Beta = .14, p<.05) effects on posttraumatic growth was used highlight the contribution made by the experience of organizational life to positive posttrauma outcomes.

Figure 2: Interaction between the number of traumatic events (Traumatic Stress Schedule (TSS: Norris, 1992)
and organizational uplifts influences officers’ posttraumatic growth.
Adapted from Paton, Huddleston and Stephens (2003).

The relationship was not, however, a straightforward one. Rather, an interactive relationship between organizational uplifts and posttraumatic growth was evident, with the frequency of critical incident experience playing a significant role in this process. When officers experienced one traumatic events (Low TSS: n = 116, 37%), uplifts did not influence posttraumatic growth. However, for officers with high exposure (High TSS: 2 or more traumatic events; n = 148, 47%), uplifts had a significant effect on posttraumatic growth (Figure 2). As the number of critical incident experienced increased, the more important became the positive elements of organizational culture for officers’ well-being. The importance of increasing opportunities for officers to experience uplifts, given the high probability for multiple traumatic experiences, cannot be underestimated.

How does this translate into practice?
Growth outcomes are more likely if managers work with officers to understand traumatic experiences within an organizational climate of care (Best et al., 2000; Dunning, 2003; Gist & Woodall, 2000; Lissak & Roos, 1999; Paton & Stephens, 1996; Paton et al., 2000). This includes assisting officers to identify the strengths that helped them deal with the emergency, and building on this to plan how future incidents can be dealt with more effectively. These actions also contribute to the development of an organizational culture that nurtures strengths, provides a context conducive to increasing social support, and builds a capacity for challenge appraisal.

Acknowledging the fact that support practices are offered within an organizational culture, Dunning (2003) adapted the Lissack and Roos (1999) model of coherences to identify a set of principles to guide the integration of support resources with organizational practices to increase the likelihood of officers deriving benefit from their experience. These principles include, for example, recombining information to rehearse potential new situations, recognizing the multiple roles and cohesive team ethos of emergency responders, allowing procedural flexibility, and ensuring managers have field experiences that enhance their empathy.

Senior managers can also increase the likelihood of beneficial outcomes by helping officers appreciate that they performed to the best of their ability, accept the impact of uncontrollable situational constraints on performance, learn about their reactions and support positive expression of emotion. Because the kinds of relationships discussed here reflect the tenets underlying the police agency culture, the wholesale adoption of the competencies and practices necessary to increase the likelihood that officers will experience salutary outcomes from their critical incident exposure cannot be realised without some complementary organizational change.

Consistent with the tenets of posttraumatic growth at the individual level, Berkes, Colding and Folke (2003) argue that, to develop new conceptual frameworks and enhance the organizational contribution to resilience, experience of events that challenge organizational assumptions is essential. This can be achieved by critically reviewing crises and using simulations to challenge complacency. This, in turn, provides the foundation for the collaborative learning, creative decision making, and sense of coherence that characterize an organizational culture that facilitates resilience (adaptive capacity) and growth outcomes (Berkes et al., 2003; Paton & Jackson, 2002; Paton, 2006). This reiterates the point made earlier that sustained benefit will only occur when the new perspectives, knowledge and practices associated with a growth experience become embedded in the organizational culture and its practices in ways that contribute to sustained future adaptive capacity.


The issues discussed here point to the need for, and the benefit that can accrue from, proactive approaches to critical incident stress management. Evidence was presented that demonstrated that incidents could cease to become critical if their characteristics are encompassed by officers’ mental models. This calls into question the feasibility of developing objective criteria for critical incidents. Rather, the degree to which an incident is critical is a function of the relationship between incident characteristics and the capacity of officers’ mental models to render them meaningful.

In addition to its role in informing understanding of posttrauma outcomes, defining posttraumatic growth as a precursor to new levels of adaptive capacity raised several other issues. One concerned the need for additional research into the level of positive change required to drive a change in personal and organizational capacity. The other involved the relationship between the PTGI sub-scales and the total score.

The possibility that each sub-scale must be investigated independently was raised in another contribution to this special edition. If confirmed, this has additional implications for assessing growth and its relationship with future adaptive capacity in protective service populations. For example, it may be necessary to revise the content of the scale to include more specific measures of relationship change. Because changes in the perceived quality of relationships with team members and family members could have very different implications for perceptions of growth, it may be necessary to develop measures that tap into team and family domains of emergency worker life rather than using one global measure of relationship change to assess growth (Paton, Violanti, Burke, & Gherke (in prep). Similar questions would have to be asked of the other dimensions of growth.

While a critical incident can challenge psychological equilibrium, it is possible to provide officers with the resources required to interpret the experience in ways that lead to their developing a new equilibrium state that is characterized by growth and that contributes to their future adaptive capacity. This outcome reflects complex patterns of interaction between critical incident characteristics (that challenge adaptive capacity defined by prevailing mental models) and the personal (dispositional and coping resources and mental models), team (competencies and mental models), and organizational (culture and procedures) factors that influence officers’ capacity to render challenging experiences meaningful and to incorporate them in ways that contribute to future adaptive capacity.


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Douglas Paton & Karena J. Burke © 2007. The authors assign to the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies at Massey University a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The author/s also grant a non-exclusive licence to Massey University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the authors.

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