Trauma in organizations

Help prepare leaders and employees to respond to traumatic incidents at work. Planning ahead can help reduce negative mental health effects.

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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 could include exposure to:

  • Stressful events – death, 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, or other adverse physical conditions
  • External threats – evacuation, lockdown, fire or robbery

The strategies 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
  • history of physical, sexual, emotional or domestic abuse

Workplaces that employ first responders can also access specific resources such as The Working Mind First Responders, which is used by police, fire, and military. However, workplaces that do not employ first responders also have the potential for exposure to traumatic incidents. Sector-specific strategies for psychological health and safety highlight issues and approaches that may be unique to job roles such as human services, educators, shift workers or remote workers.

The information that follows can be used by any workplace.

Organizational strategies

Where possible, it makes good business sense for employees to be prepared to respond to potential trauma in a way that includes an understanding of potential automatic emotional responses while also reducing 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. 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.
  • Provide a handout that explains how people may react to traumatic situations and resources that may help, including contacts in the organization and supports available. One example of an educational handout on trauma is from the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.
  • Assess current factors and hazards that can lead to trauma at work. You can do this as a team discussion using facilitator materials on psychological protection or psychological competencies and demands. You can also use the Guarding Minds at Work employee survey to get indicators of stress and trauma. 
  • Take action to reduce or eliminate potential traumatic incidents. Some ideas are included in Evidence-based actions for psychological protection and Evidence-based actions for psychological competencies and demands.
  • Prevent violence by being aware of potential concerns and 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. 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.
  • Limit exposure to potentially traumatic situations by not sending those you know may be less prepared or currently vulnerable due to other stressors. Do not send entire crews to a horrific scene where only a few would do. Also limit as much as you can, how many employees are exposed by blocking off entry to anyone who is not required to respond – not everyone should witness an injury or fatality at work.
  • 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 workstation. Ensure 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. Managing stress in the moment, Supportive conversation with someone who is anxious, and Mental health apps are examples of resources you could share. 
  • 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 they can have 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.
  • Train other staff to be supportive and trauma-informed, and explain how criticism from peers, leaders or people the employees serve can increase trauma.
  • 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. You can use the free Emotional intelligence self-assessment tool to help improve self-awareness, social awareness, self-management and relationship management. 
  • Teach mindfulness and stress reduction activities that take just 5 minutes and require those in high stress jobs to take 2 or 3 breaks a day for these purposes.
  • 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.
  • Assign a “break coordinator” who ensures employees take their regular breaks in order to preserve their mental well-being. Encourage taking breaks in pairs, so employees have someone to talk to. 
  • Review your Employee and Family Assistance Plan (EFAP) to ensure it's optimized to support employee mental health. Ensure employees are aware of this resource and how it can help and connect them to other trauma-informed resources and programs. 
  • 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 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 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 to 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 they need to ask for help, they’re less likely to be stressed in the moment a tough decision needs to be made.
  • 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. See also Blame and shame don't work for leaders.
  • See Crisis response for leaders for approaches leaders can use to respond more effectively in times of workplace distress.

Supporting employees

Once they are exposed to a difficult or traumatic incident, you can support employees in several ways:  

  • Recognize that 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 – or be exposed to the same or similar incidents soon afterward – and allowing them to process their feelings in a supportive environment. Focus on how the employee is feeling and normalize the entire range of emotions – whatever they feel is okay.
  • Encourage employees to reach out for support by informing them of the organizational and community resources available to them. See Employee resources. 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.
  • Provide psychological first aid by qualified counsellors, as soon after the incident as possible.
  • 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. Avoid any hint of placing blame on anyone else for the incident, even if that person is not at work. 
  • Ensure adequate time and space to grieve and support each other after a traumatic loss.
  • Recognize 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. Tell them you will follow up the next day to see how they are doing, then do that.
  • Avoid "guilting" or pressuring employees to either stay at work or go home. Instead, ask if the employee would like to stay or go home. If they decide to go home, ask whether they feel okay to drive themselves home or if they need a ride.
  • 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.
  • Help ensure there’s time for the individual to decompress, even if it is only 1-3 minutes of silence or an audio grounding technique.
  • 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.
  • Ensure there is internal support from the employee’s team and management – the higher the likelihood of being exposed to traumatic incidents, the more internal support is required.
  • Ensure there is external support and protection from external pressure or threats from media, the community or others. This approach could be through public relations, communications or events that garner public trust, appreciation and support.

Additional resources

Manitoba Trauma and Information Centre provides practical advice, documented solutions and dedicated support to help workplaces promote trauma-informed relationships and practices.

Trauma Toolkit is a step-by-step guide to assist workplaces in conducting an organizational self-assessment and establish criteria for: Overall Policy and Program Mandate, Hiring Practices, Policies and Procedures and Monitoring and Evaluation. Information courtesy of the Manitoba Trauma and Information Centre.

Contributors include.articlesBecca PartingtonBrad DaveyCAST CanadaDrew SousaJeff CadenceJesse HansonLiz HorvathMary Ann BayntonMelinda SaundersMike PietrusMindful Employer CanadaPaul Van RijnSarah JennerSusan JakobsonTom RegehrTom WalkerYvonne Stahlmann

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