About 3 years ago I flew to a city to attend a tradeshow and to stay with my adult son who lived there. But when I got to his apartment, he didn’t answer the door. I finally walked around the building and looked in a window and saw him slumped over on the couch, unconscious. I called 911. An hour later at the hospital emergency room, the doctor on call told me that my son had suffered anoxic brain injury and they didn’t expect him to live.

As I was given the news, I became very calm. But I was not in a “heightened state of awareness” nor were things “suddenly clear.” I went into shock, as we all do when experiencing trauma or given information that overwhelms us. My son lived, albeit after a long recovery. In the time since, I’ve reflected on my state of mind in those moments and the uncertain days that followed.

Going Beyond Fight or Flight

We all know about the primal “fight or flight” state that changes our heartbeat, narrows our peripheral vision, slows down our digestive system and other organs, and floods us with adrenaline. But we’re less aware of what happens in our brains: Our mood changes, our access to memory becomes limited, and our perception of reality is altered. Concentration is extremely compromised, or more correctly, we are so focused on what has happened that we can think about little else. That night I looked normal from the outside, but I was not remotely in a normal state of mind.

People who are actively dealing with personal troubles are often unwilling to draw attention to them, so detecting extreme emotional distress in another person can be difficult if they are intent on hiding it. Within workplace environments, especially in companies with high-risk or precision work, more and more companies are using a new method to make sure that when employees are struggling with their ability to focus or stay alert, others become involved so that everyone stays safe. It’s called cognitive impairment testing

Emotional Distress

 Cognitive Impairment Testing in the Workplace

A cognitive impairment test is a brief psychomotor vigilance test, or a PVT. It can provide a top-screen indication for when someone’s state of mind is deviating significantly from their normal state, suggesting impaired cognitive function. Causes could include extreme fatigue, illness, unintended consequences of medication, drugs or alcohol intoxication, and emotional distress. The person’s condition has to be fairly extreme before it is flagged as possible impairment.

In the workplace, that doesn’t mean that if someone is flagged, they have to be sent home. Supervisors are already making these types of decisions when they visually observe an employee behaving unusually. Perhaps after a discussion with the employee, they put the person on another job for the day or have them take an early lunch or break so they can regain their composure. For night shifts, some companies who use cognitive impairment testing have installed nap stations for workers who can’t postpone a high-risk task for more than a few hours, but their impairment scores indicate a serious level of fatigue.

Workplace impairment testing helps supervisors do the job most of them want to be doing, which is managing their employees well. In our experience, thankfully, employees who have temporary cognitive impairment are rare. But when something does happen to someone and they can’t stay focused and alert for any reason, a company who cares about the employee and the people around them should know.

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