Psychological Risk Management

By: Jeff Baierlein, Viristar

The whitewater paddling trip had been on the river for days. They were about to follow the river into a giant canyon with 1500 foot walls and dangerous rapids—and where calling in for a swift rescue was all but impossible.

In the nights before the group was to descend into the canyon, one client started waking up in the middle of the night with panic attacks, causing difficulty breathing. They had asthma, and were afraid of having an asthma attack in the depths of the canyon, where advanced care was not immediately available. Their friend had recently had a severe asthma attack and was rushed to the hospital but died before arriving.

The guides calmly described the options for evacuation and rescue. They showed the client the epinephrine in the first aid kit for severe asthma. They explained the client’s options—work on reducing stress, continue onwards, skip the canyon section and rejoin the group later, or go home. They said they would support any decision the client made.

The guides skillfully managed the risks—both physical and psychological—in this incident. 

Managing psychological risks has two components: 1) building a psychologically safe environment, and 2) managing major psychological incidents.


Fostering Psychological Safety

In a psychologically safe environment, people feel they will be treated respectfully, and won’t be humiliated or punished for speaking up. They can acknowledge fears and mistakes, and ask for help. They feel comfortable being themselves.

How can guides can foster psychological safety in their group?

Set Clear Expectations

Clients need to know what’s expected of them. Guides can incorporate psychological safety in their initial safety briefing, before the group sets out on their trip. This can include:

  • Introducing the concept of psychological safety, and its importance

  • Describing what behaviors are acceptable and not

  • Discussing how guides will respond to inappropriate behavior such as harassment

  • The idea of “challenge by choice,” permitting clients to sit out certain activities if they wish

  • Sharing the pronouns guides use to refer to themselves, providing space for others to share theirs, and encouraging respect for all gender identities

Provide Ongoing Support for Psychological Safety

During the trip, guides can make a point to check in with each client, every day. This helps build trusting client-guide relationships, which makes it easier to identify issues early and address them effectively.

Issues that arise—such as sexism, racism, ageism, or ableism—should be addressed promptly, with the guide specifically describing what’s observed, why it’s not okay, and what’s expected for future conduct.

Guides should also be good role models, by interacting with all clients equally, getting to know clients as persons, and expressing warmth and appreciation.

On trips where clients participate in camp activities like cooking and cleaning, a ‘chore wheel’ or other structure can help eliminate gender-based role stereotypes. Likewise, on a hiking trip, the fastest hikers can be asked to be at the end of the line, so the group can stay together without pressure on slower hikers to rush.

Guides can ask about psychological safety at end-of-the-day evening debriefs—and can model openness and vulnerability by sharing their own uncertainties and stresses. Group conversations should be facilitated so that all have an equal opportunity to share.

Guides should also be aware of warning signs like individuals who appear withdrawn or unhappy, the formation of cliques, or the presence of behaviors like disordered eating or extreme anxiety.


When inappropriate behavior that degrades psychological safety is observed, guides should promptly intervene. Ideally, behavior expectations established earlier—for example, in a conduct agreement made during the enrollment process, or on a day one safety briefing—can be referenced.

Interventions should attempt to preserve the dignity of the person exhibiting inappropriate behavior, when possible, and to help ensure they have the knowledge and skills needed to demonstrate respectful behavior.

Consequences for continued inappropriate behavior—up to and excluding removal from the trip, in the most extreme cases—should be outlined.

Administrative Practices

Administrators of outfitting and guide businesses have an important role in fostering psychological safety on trips too.

Enrollment materials can talk about the importance of psychological safety, give examples of expected behaviors, and include a conduct agreement where prospective clients agree to act in appropriate ways, and acknowledge consequences if they don’t.

Extended expeditions may include a psychological screening procedure during the enrollment process. And staffing practices—from recruitment and hiring to training and performance evaluation—can incorporate elements that support psychological safety.

Customer feedback forms and processes can ask about psychological safety, and staff can be encouraged to document psychological safety incidents on incident reports.

Guides can be provided with training on how to identify and address issues of psychological safety during trips—from microaggressions to harassment, abuse and self-harm.  

Administrators can also build plans for addressing long-term mental health impacts after a critical incident like a permanently disabling injury or fatality. This can include providing employees or others access to therapists with expertise in psychological stress injury, crisis help lines, and options for employees to take time off.

Psychological First Aid

If a major psychological safety incident occurs, guides should be able to provide basic psychological first aid.

The goal of psychological first aid is to provide emotional support and help a person come to a place of psychological stability and relatively normal functioning.

General approaches are presented below, in no particular order.

  1. Address physical safety threats immediately, if these also exist.

  2. Separate the individual from stressors like sounds, sights, or smells of a perceived threat.

  3. Move to a physically protective space like a shelter to provide psychological comfort and protection from environmental extremes.

  4. Attend to basic needs, like sufficient food and hydration, and (physical) first aid.

  5. Consider other group members to ensure appropriate supervision and care as needed.

  6. Practice active listening by being fully present in the conversation, making eye contact, asking open-ended questions, paraphrasing, and withholding judgment.

  7. Empathize by honoring a person’s feelings and experience.

  8. Encourage deep, slow breathing, which can help reduce psychological stress.

  9. Consider medical history, to uncover possible contributing factors.

  10. Enlist group support, so group members can provide emotional support.

  11. Support connection with allies, such as friends, family members, or the person’s therapist.

  12. Stay calm; your calm presence reduces anxiety in others.

  13. Project a positive attitude—be realistic but hopeful and optimistic.

  14. Help the person identify coping methods, rather than imposing your ideas.

  15. Support predictability by discussing anticipated next steps.

  16. Support a sense of control by asking the person what they need and how you can help.

  17. Support emotional expression such as crying, or talking with others.

  18. Connect to immediate additional support such as a mental health professional when needed.

  19. Document observations and actions to help track changes and care given.

About the Author

Jeff Baierlein is the Director of Viristar, a consultancy providing resources to support safety and quality for outdoor, travel, experiential and adventure programs.


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