Sumaya Kroger, FEI EAP Counselor

What do the unexpected death of a co-worker, natural disasters or employee restructuring and layoffs have in common? They’re examples of traumas that can affect an employee’s sense of physical and psychological security.

An individual is more likely to perceive an event as traumatic if it is unexpected, unpreventable or uncontrollable, so it’s important employers understand how to support employees should a traumatic event occur in the workplace. Left unaddressed, the residual effects of trauma can manifest in several ways including increased anxiety and/or depression, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse or self-injury (in addition to myriad physical symptoms).

To generate discussion, here are some recommendations to consider when dealing with workplace trauma and curtailing negative outcomes:

Understand the effects of trauma. First and foremost, managers need to understand that how someone processes a trauma is as unique as their fingerprint: Everyone responds differently to the same event. Employers should create a supportive environment for employees (but don’t require an individual to talk about the incident, as it may cause re-traumatization).

Time heals. Ensure employees have some time after the event to decompress, grieve or provide support to one another after the event. Proper opportunities for self-care can be cathartic.

Promote support services (and be supportive). Inform employees of organizational or community resources and encourage them to reach out for support. If you have an employee assistance program (EAP), be sure employees know it’s available and how to access it. Ask employees if there’s anything they need to feel safe at work, and show concern for
their well-being.

Use a trauma-informed approach. Recognize that your employees’ behavior may be temporarily different after a traumatic event. Before considering disciplinary action, speak with them about what’s being observed and what could be done to help them return to a sense of normalcy.

Besides being able to support employees who’ve experienced a traumatic event, organizations can also prepare for potential events by discussing possible incidents that their employees may experience. A mock traumatic event should include protocol for dealing with the situation and explore the potential impact on employees. Having a trauma specialist or crisis responder on-site can be considered a way of supporting employees and managers as well.

Traumatic events are unfortunately unavoidable, but organizations can take steps to ensure employees have the support they need when a traumatic event happens.