Preparing employees to respond to traumatic incidents
Kevin William Grant
Published on
October 06, 2019

Organizations can help prepare leaders and employees to respond to traumatic incidents to help reduce the potential negative effect on their own mental health.

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 and access to the necessary coping strategies and social support after the incident.

An event is more likely to be experienced as trauma when a person perceives the incident to be:

  • Unexpected
  • Something they were unprepared for
  • Unpreventable
  • Uncontrollable
  • The result of intentional cruelty
  • Related to a childhood event

Potential trauma in the workplace includes 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
  • A critical hospitalization of a family member or friend
  • History of physical, sexual, emotional, domestic abuse

Organizational Support Strategies

Where possible, it makes 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. Research has show that preventative strategies such as the availability of counsellors and social supports significantly reduce the incidents of PTSD following trauma at work.

These are some organizational strategies to help address trauma at work in a healthy, productive, supportive way:

  • 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. These groups or committees can help monitor the workplace.
  • Host information sessions with qualified external speakers to talk about their experience of trauma. This helps employees recognize that there is a range of thoughts, physical sensations and emotions that can change over time in response to trauma. Different people exposed to the same trauma will have different reactions. In addition to recognizing the potential exposures, employees can also learn about coping strategies and resources that have been helpful to those who have experienced trauma.
  • 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. This can help prepare employees psychologically for potentially traumatic situations. 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 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 time 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 occupational health or wellness.
  • 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. 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 human resources professionals with support and training to respond in a safe and helpful manner.
  • If you have occupational health professionals, ask them to stay current on best practices for trauma treatment and to share their knowledge when employees exposed to trauma seek their help.
    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.
    Review the Employee and Family Assistance Plan (EFAP) services if you have them, to ensure that they identify services related to exposure to trauma and offer effective triage to connect employees to appropriate resources.
  • 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. 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, who have been trained to reach out to co-workers in need of support.

Leader Support Strategies

Encourage leaders to explore their own tolerance for stress. This helps leaders to become more aware of when others have exceeded their capacity to tolerate stress.

Here are some useful leadership strategies to manage workplace trauma effectively and compassionately:

  • 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 they need to ask for help, they’re less likely to be stressed in the moment a tough decision needs to be made.
  • Have all leaders personally experience the Employee and Family Assistance Program (EFAP) for any reason (employee issue, financial issue, conflict, etc.) so that they can share their experience of accessing the service when they recommend it to employees. They do not need to share why they accessed EFAP, only the process they experienced when they called. This normalizes and models use of the EFAP.
  • Have weekly meetings to regularly 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.

Employee Support Strategies

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

Supportive employee strategies for managing the impacts of trauma at work include the following:

  • Encourage employees to reach out for support by informing them of the organizational and community resources available to them. See Mental Health Resource List. Ensure that the resource list is kept up to date and that the information and resources that are featured 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.
  • 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. 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 misunderstoo 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. 
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