Traumatic Stress in the Workplace: How Managers and Supervisors Can Help

Traumatic events are so identified as being outside the range of normal experience and presenting some (real or perceived) threat to one’s safety or sense of self.  Some examples include bad accidents or injuries, sudden deaths, acts of interpersonal violence, and natural disasters.  Vicarious traumatization refers to how witnesses, bystanders and people who know the victim(s) can have very similar reactions to those directly affected by a traumatic event.

Traumatic stress is characterized by an instinctive fight/flight/ freeze response geared toward survival: muscles tense, heart rate and respiration quicken, the body is pumped full of adrenalin and other stress hormones, and the mind becomes singularly focused on escaping the threat.  Once the bad experience is over, some people have trouble returning to their normal baseline (relaxed) state and remain anxious, jumpy, fearful or upset. Sometimes the traumatic stress reaction shows up as anger or irritability, and relationships can be negatively affected.  People who are prone to depression or other psychological conditions might see their symptoms worsen.  And even those without pre-existing problems might find that they are sleeping or eating too much or too little, or relying on alcohol or drugs to manage their stress.

Preventative Measures

  • Create a safe, trusting work environment in which employees know that management has their best interests at heart.  Take employees’  concerns about safety and security seriously, and make your best efforts to address them before a crisis happens.
  • Familiarize yourself with your organization’s employee assistance program (EAP) and other supports for employees with personal or work-related stress.
  • Try to anticipate situations where employees might be exposed to distressing or traumatic events, and give them as much preparation as you possibly can. Wherever feasible, give employees some control over their exposure to traumatic situations. Some people are more sensitive or vulnerable than others, and really cannot cope with being on the “front lines”.

Response to Traumatic Events

  • Acknowledge that something serious has occurred and do not expect things to be “business as usual”.  Arrange for employees to get appropriate support, e.g.,  on-site EAP counseling and make space for them to address the impact of the traumatic event.
  • Normalize people’s reactions to the traumatic event, validating that anyone would be upset over this type of experience and employees might experience a range of reactions.
  • While some employees might seem unaffected by the traumatic event, this might be due to numbing and denial. Do not push for them to deal with their feelings, but remain alert for signs they are not coping well.  Some people have a delayed reaction, and so the trauma might not hit them until weeks or months later – often triggered by some reminder of the original event.
  • Encourage good self-care and make it easy for employees to utilize EAP and other support services.  For example, most organizations let employees use work time to meet with a counselor when there has been some job-related traumatic experience.
  • Recognize that some employees will simply need time away from work, either because of the severity of their reactions or because the job/work setting itself is a “trigger” for more traumatic stress.   Give such employees the benefit of the doubt, and help them arrange leave in the most hassle-free manner possible.
  • Recognize that some employees might seems to have a disproportionate response to a traumatic event, and this often reflects prior experiences that they might or might not disclose to you. As noted earlier, employees who had pre-existing mental health problems (including substance abuse) might have their worsening symptoms requiring more intensive professional help.
  • Remember that your employee assistance program can provide consultation to managers and supervisors regarding employees’ adjustment after a traumatic event. This includes your own ability to cope with the unique pressure of trying to restore a functional, productive workplace in the wake of trauma.