Responding to Workplace Trauma

Workplace trauma is a difficult thing to prepare for; by its very nature it is unpredictable and varied. The response by an organisation to workplace trauma is important in order to contain, heal and prevent further traumatisation.

Workplace trauma affects individuals, teams and organisations as a whole. Traumatised staff are compromised in their ability to learn, think, manage change and relate to others – in this way the affected individual goes on impact those around them. With numerous traumatised individuals in relationship with each other, as is the case in a workplace trauma, these knock on effects can overlap and cause widespread confusion and secondary trauma.

Whilst it is impossible for an employer to guarantee that employees will never be exposed to trauma in the workplace, appropriate preparation can help prevent the above debilitating effects. This preparation includes the proper response in the moment and ensuring access to the vital coping strategies and social or professional support needed afterwards.

Training those that are most like to be responsible for responding to a workplace trauma (i.e. managers or human resources personnel) to understand and recognise the stress responses to trauma is profoundly useful. This not only puts them in a more secure position for supporting others but also works to increase their resilience to such events, preventing the possible spread of effect.

Other useful things to remember whilst responding to workplace trauma are:

  • Put employees in touch with your EAP to access support, counselling referrals and assistance with basic needs.
  • Understand that the effects can take weeks and even months to fully appear, remind employees of EAP support at regular intervals following the event as stress affects the ability to process and retain information.
  • Provide open and factual information regarding changes decided upon as a result of the incident, keep employees regularly informed of change so they have a good sense of understanding and control.
  • As a leader, seek your own emotional support to allow you to provide robust support to others.
  • Understand and remind others that we all respond differently to traumatic events – patience with others is vital in the aftermath.
  • Returning to normal work routines is generally preferred and helpful to employees, the structure is useful whist in a time when change can be difficult. Pay attention to those employees who are struggling to return to the normal routine, offer them support and direct them towards the EAP as appropriate.

There are also a number of things to avoid following such incidents, these include:

  • Do not require employees to take part in any ‘debriefing’ activity or ask them to share their stories with others. Similarly do not require participation in remembrance or memorial events as these can also cause re-traumatisation.
  • Avoid offering support to those in need of it personally, instead ask how you might help them find support – try to steer clear of phrases such as “everything will be all right”.
  • Do not keep information from employees where possible. Communicate clearly and regularly will all those involved and the wider workforce.

In conclusion, a good awareness of the range of responses to workplace trauma can provide the best preparation for an organisation. Understanding what can happen and how long it can take will make all the above suggestions easier to carry out quickly and calmly in the event of a traumatic incident.

If you do have any questions about responding to workplace trauma, do contact your Employee Assistance Programme for advice on supporting yourself and others.