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The usefulness of pre-employment and pre-deployment psychological screening for disaster relief workers: a systematic review

Publication date: 

11 May 2020


BMC Psychiatry volume 20, Article number: 211 (2020)


Opie E, Brooks SK, Greenberg N & Rubin GJ

Publication type: 



Background Individuals who conduct disaster relief work overseas are exposed to a variety of traumatic events that can cause distress and trigger psychological illnesses. Identification of which disaster relief workers may be at risk of experiencing psychological distress or mental health disorders is frequently carried out through pre-employment or pre-deployment psychological screening. The primary objective of our review was to assess the evidence for pre-employment and pre-deployment psychological screening of relief workers who work in disaster situations. We aimed to identify specific pre-employment and pre-deployment characteristics that predict impaired wellbeing of an individual following engaging in disaster-related work. Methods A combined list of search terms was composed relating to disaster-related occupations, screening methods, psychological disorders, and study design. The databases used were PsycINFO, MEDLINE, EMBASE, and GlobalHealth. We included studies that used cross-sectional or longitudinal study designs; were published in the English language in peer-reviewed academic journals; reported on the association between pre-employment and pre-deployment features and post-deployment psychological disorders or distress; considered any occupational groups responding to a specified, discrete crisis; and used at least one validated measure of distress or disorder. We extracted data on the author; year of publication; disaster description; country of study; study design; population sample; disorder(s) outcome and the measures used; and results. Results Sixty-two, high-quality studies were included in the review. Forty-one potential predictors were identified. Of these, only volunteer status and previous history of mental illness and life stressors emerged as reliable predictors of distress or disorder. Conclusion The results suggest that whilst it is attractive to screen for pre-employment and pre-deployment indicators of resilience, the evidence base for doing so is weak. At best, this sort of screening can only weakly suggest vulnerability and at worst may result in discrimination. Until better evidence about its usefulness becomes available, employers should exercise caution over its use.