Employers cannot guarantee that employees will never be exposed to trauma in the workplace. However, they can take action to help prevent the most debilitating effects of exposure to trauma by adequately preparing employees. Preparation includes both the ability to respond in the moment as well as access to the necessary coping strategies and social support after the incident. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and to help employers manage traumatic incidents at work, we’re sharing this resource from Workplace Strategies for Mental Health.

Potential trauma in the workplace could include exposure to:

  • Stressful events—death, grief, suicide, accident or injury
  • Organizational stressors—bullying, threats, harassment, betrayal, maliciousness, extreme isolation, chronic pressure, unresolved conflict, toxic work environment, uncertainty, fear for the future, downsizing or fear of unemployment
  • Physical stressors—noise, chaotic environment, sense of no control over space, fear for physical safety, harsh or flashing lights, extremes of heat or cold, working amid construction and other adverse physical conditions
  • External threats—evacuation, lockdown, fire or robbery.

The strategies that you apply to address workplace trauma can also be helpful for trauma that occurs outside the workplace, including a serious accident; natural disaster; witnessing violence or war; difficult childbirth; and history of physical, sexual, emotional or domestic abuse.

Organizational Strategies

Where possible, it makes good business sense for employees to be prepared to respond to potential trauma in a way that reduces the risk of harm to themselves and others. Following are some ideas to help achieve this.

  • Develop a representative group or use an existing joint health and safety committee to explore and discuss potential risks. Recognize that in some cases, the larger the organization, the more challenging it may be for senior leadership to be aware that serious stressors exist.
  • Prevent violence by being aware of potential concerns and by developing policies or processes to act promptly and effectively. Violence prevention and Violence response for leaders offer tips and strategies that can be useful.
  • Simulate or discuss potential traumatic events relevant to the workplace to prepare those who may be exposed. This can include simulations of angry or threatening phone calls, a physical confrontation or a life-threatening incident. It should address the protocol for dealing with the situation and the potential impact on employees. The simulated situations could also include situations where clients, customers or co-workers are in distress.
  • Create a “safe room” where employees can go if they feel distressed or require 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 workstation. Ensure that managers support employees in taking this time for themselves. 
  • Help employees manage anxious or depressive thoughts by discussing and regularly encouraging the sharing of coping strategies. The following articles, Managing stress in the momentSomeone you care about appears anxious and Mental health apps, are examples of resources you could share.
  • Implement actions to increase social support within the organization. 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.
  • Ensure that leaders are good communicators and understand their impact on employees, including those who may have experienced trauma. See Communicating with emotional employees and Strengthening leadership skills to help develop these skills.
  • Provide human resources professionals with support and training to respond in a safe and helpful manner.
  • Provide emotional intelligence training for all employees, with a special emphasis on those who manage and support others. You can use the free Emotional intelligence self-assessment tool to help improve self-awareness, social awareness, self-management and relationship management. 
  • 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.
  • Review your employee and family assistance plan (EFAP) to ensure it’s optimized to support employee mental health. 
  • Help to ensure 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 are close to the employee at work. Such contact should help the employees feel like they are valued members of the team and not to blame for what may have occurred.  Find out from the employee what kind of contact works best for them.
  • Record the number of trauma- or stress-related claims for worker’s compensation or disability so you can track progress and cost savings as you implement positive change.
  • Consider implementing a workplace peer support program. Workplace peer supporters are employees who have personal experience with mental health issues and/or addiction and are trained to reach out to co-workers in need of support.

Leader Strategies

  • Encourage leaders to explore their own tolerance for stress. This helps leaders become more aware of when others have exceeded their capacity to tolerate stress and offer approaches that can help. See Emotional intelligence for leaders.
  • Prepare and empower leaders to provide clarity about recommended procedures and boundaries for decision making in challenging situations. When employees know what they’re expected to do and when to ask for help, they’re less likely to be stressed when a tough decision needs to be made.
  • Have weekly meetings to discuss challenging issues so that if and when something traumatic occurs, the lines of communication are already open.
  • Recognize that shame, blame, guilt and judgment may worsen ongoing distress. See also Why blame and shame don’t work for leaders.

Supporting Employees

How someone processes stress or trauma is dependent on that individual. There’s a delicate balance between retraumatizing someone by forcing them to talk about a traumatic event and being able to process the feelings in a supportive environment.

  • Encourage employees to reach out for support by informing them of the organizational and community resources available to them. See Resources for employees and their loved ones. Ensure that the resource list is kept up to date and that the information and featured resources are easy to access and effective.
  • Help employees gain an objective perspective of trauma that was outside of their control, especially if they may feel responsible or have been blamed for the incident.
  • Ensure adequate time and space to grieve and support each other after a traumatic loss.
  • Recognize that newcomers to this country may have experienced trauma before they moved here. Leader support for newcomers provides you with tips and strategies that can be helpful.
  • Ask the employees what they need rather than telling them what they need to do.
  • Ask employees who are struggling what they want their team to know and what they need to feel safe while at work.
  • Show concern for employee well-being by asking questions such as “How are you doing today?” rather than “How are you?” or “How is work?” Keeping the focus on “today” is important as it helps the employee respond from where they are at rather than how they felt the day before or how they may feel in the future. Use the Supportive conversation library to help you have a supportive conversation with someone you care about on difficult topics like mental health, stress, addiction, anger, abuse or lying.
  • Be conscious of disability or absence processes that may be stressful. Where possible, communicate in person before sending a letter or other written communication that could be misunderstood by a distressed employee.
  • Check in with employees at regular intervals to avoid any surprises regarding their coverage, claim or plans for supporting their work.

We’d like to extend a thank-you to Workplace Strategies for Mental Health for letting us share this helpful information with our benefits community. Contributors include Mary Ann Baynton and the Workplace Strategies team.

Cara McMullin

Communications Specialist Favorite Foundation Product: Word on Benefits Blog Benefits-related Topics That Interest Her Most: Equity and Inclusion, Workplace Wellness Personal Insight: Cara loves live theatre, concerts, and festivals – lots of fantastic options in Wisconsin. In her spare time, you can also find her reading, streaming TV/movies and spending time with family and friends at local restaurants, outdoor concerts, and farmers markets.

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