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Supporting employees who have experienced trauma

It’s not just events in the workplace that can have a negative psychological impact on employees.

The incident of the Shoreham air show crash has served as a reminder to employers that it’s not just events in the workplace that can have a negative psychological impact on employees.

Likewise, such situations have encouraged many HR teams to review the support they have in place for staff in the aftermath of incidents. This ensures, should the worst happen, appropriate and flexible support is on hand as soon as it’s required.

Implementing timely assistance

It is common for people to think that after an incident they need counsellors immediately on site. But in reality this is not going to be most helpful for those involved. More immediate support, whether from an employer or external to the workplace, should take care of basic needs like safety, sustenance, and personal contact, the bigger help can come later.

Individuals might take a few days to begin processing the experience they had: going into the details too soon will not allow sufficient time for the brain to begin sorting things out. At this stage people are much less likely to take in complex information and need simple tasks and instructions.

Watchful waiting

While it sounds counterintuitive to wait a while, this approach does allow the complex experience to begin to be processed in a way that will allow normal functioning to start.

Asking people to directly recount their experience has been shown to be less than helpful and may actually be harmful. It is better to have an approach that provides information on what the person can expect now, next week and the following weeks. This serves to normalise the range of symptoms for the individual.

Employees should also be informed about where and how to seek further help and support in the short and medium term. This is known as a psycho-education approach and is often arranged as a group session that can be delivered by trauma specialists and employee assistance programme providers.

Although Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is rare, guidelines produced by NICE advocate a watchful waiting approach whereby individuals are observed for a minimum of four weeks before considering PTSD as a potential diagnosis.

The signs and symptoms of trauma

Following a traumatic incident it’s likely that an employee will experience a range of reactions, which may or may not be directly related to the incident, for example flashbacks, a sense of fear, intrusive thoughts and hyper-vigilance. Other signs of trauma might include sleeplessness, anger, relationship issues, avoidance, emotional detachment, feelings of suicide, absence or depression and increased use of alcohol or drugs.

Although it’s not possible to predict precisely how people are going to react in the short or long term, it’s important for HR and line managers to understand the context of trauma and individuals’ reactions to it so that, should an incident occur, reassurance is available for the employee that their reaction is normal.

Employers need to be vigilant to changes in behaviour, work, attendance and relationships. An employee who is withdrawn, non-participative and generally not themselves may be experiencing difficulty coping. Appropriate treatment might include trauma-focused CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy) and counselling, but would always require specialist assessment by a mental health professional.

A structured intervention will help to reduce post-incident absence, assist a return to full productivity and normal functioning, improve workplace morale and create a positive view of leadership.

Support within the workplace

Within the workplace it is important to allow employees time and space to deal with the experience and constantly asking how they are coping may only serve to remind them further of the event. Conversely, remaining distant and not knowing what to say or do is not helpful either.

Often a very simple ‘how are things?’ is enough to show that you care without being overbearing.

Eugene Farrell is a board member at the UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association