What is trauma?
Trauma is a human response to a terrible event that an individual finds highly stressful, for example being in an accident, experiencing a natural disaster or living in a war zone. While not everyone who experiences a stressful incident will develop trauma, the experience can cause a wide range of physical and emotional symptoms. Some people will develop symptoms that resolve after a few weeks, while others will endure more long-term effects.
“Trauma is a human response to a terrible event that an individual finds highly stressful…”
“A traumatic event may also impact not just those directly involved, but others around them too.”
Trauma can be classified into three types
- Acute trauma: This results from a single stressful or dangerous event
- Chronic trauma: This results from repeated and prolonged exposure to highly stressful events. Examples include child abuse, bullying, or domestic violence
- Complex trauma: This results from exposure to multiple traumatic events.
A traumatised person can feel a range of negative emotions both immediately after the event and in the long- term:
- In the immediate term an individual may feel overwhelmed, helpless, shocked, or have difficulty processing their experiences.
- Trauma can have long-term effects on the person’s well-being. If symptoms persist and do not decrease in severity, it can indicate that the trauma has developed into a mental health disorder called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Trauma can also cause physical symptoms, such as fatigue, headaches, chest pains, confusion, panic attacks, sleep disturbances, emotional outbursts, fear of returning to a workplace, and difficulties with concentration. A traumatic event may also impact not just those directly involved, but others around them too.
What is workplace trauma?
Workplace trauma is: “The psychological or physical response of employees to a crisis or critical incident at work and is a response that can interfere with normal functioning. Situations, which may precipitate workplace trauma may include being involved in or witnessing accidents, fires, violent acts, sudden deaths, suicides or any other situation in which security or life in the workplace are threatened. When trauma affects a member of staff, it can have a ripple effect throughout an organisation and present a variety of challenges for managers.” 1
Employers have a duty of care to their employees to ensure their health, safety, and wellbeing. In the context of trauma, this means that even if a terrible incident or experience occurs outside of the workplace, employers have a part to play in supporting affected employees in managing and recovering from the incident. 1
What should managers look for after a traumatic event?
It is reasonable to expect that there may be a level of disruption to the organisation’s working practice in the wake of a traumatic event as stress reactions can affect everything we value at work: control, growth, productivity and connections. Managers are generally the first port of call in dealing with such crises, so it is important that they are trained to be aware of, and understand, the possible impact of workplace traumatic events. There are a number of telltale signs that can alert managers to employees who are experiencing trauma. These are:
- Anger and irritability possibly leading to arguments or conflicts
- Reduced work performance, due to temporary memory and concentration difficulties
- Feeling tearful, insecure and nervous
- An initial change in work atmosphere and mood of employees
- Avoiding certain areas or tasks
- Requests for time off
- Demonstrating significant difficulties over a prolonged period of six weeks or more 2
“It is reasonable to expect that there may be a level of disruption to the organisation’s working practice in the wake of a traumatic event…”
“…as a manager or leader you can build a relationship of trust with teams and individuals who are experiencing intense stress reactions…”
How to support employees experiencing corona pandemic-induced trauma
Supporting your staff in a work setting strongly impacted by the coronavirus outbreak should involve some key adaptations to your routine. Leaders are in a position to provide accurate and timely information about the pandemic, link employees with policies that may rapidly change, foster peer support, and offer EAP resources to help manage stress and coping. Here are some ways that organisations can offer support:
- Given the many variables that can occur at work in relation to a pandemic response, as a manager or leader you can build a relationship of trust with teams and individuals who are experiencing intense stress reactions,supporting and helping employees to recover more quickly.
- Host information sessions with qualified external speakers to talk about their experience of trauma. This helps employees recognise that there is a range of thoughts, physical sensations and emotions that can change over time in response to trauma. In addition to recognising the potential exposures, employees can also learn about coping strategies and resources that have been helpful to those who have experienced trauma.
- Create a ‘safe room’ where employees can go if they are feeling distressed or just requiring a place to decompress. Take the opportunity to explain that many people have moments when they need to just get away to compose themselves and then return to their work station. Ensure managers support employees in taking this timeout for themselves.
- Consider a family support liaison in the workplace, who will take calls from family members who are concerned about an employee. The liaison can help link the family member to resources and/or bring their concerns about employee wellness forward. Ideally, this would be someone in employee health and wellness.
- Implement actions to increase social support within the organisation. When employees feel valued and supported in the workplace, they may have higher resilience that can be beneficial before, during or after a trauma occurs. Activities to bolster social support can include team-building exercises, cross team collaboration, one-on-one time with supervisors, mentoring, or volunteer activities.
- Ensure leaders are good communicators and understand the impact that they can have on employees including those who may have experienced trauma.
- Provide emotional intelligence training for all employees with a special emphasis on those who manage and support others.
- Where possible, incorporate intentional downtime in project planning after the completion of a challenging or intense project. This allows the employee time to recover their resilience and coping strategies while limiting the duration of exposure to high stress. Without this downtime, employees may be less able to cope well if trauma occurs.
- Help to ensure that contact continues with employees who are absent due to a traumatic incident. This may involve emails or phone calls by the manager or co-workers who were close to the employee at work. Such contact should do whatever is possible to help the employees feel like they are valued members of the team and not to blame for what may have occurred.