Managing trauma: expect the unexpected

Written by
Mark Winwood

13 Sep 2016

13 Sep 2016 • by Mark Winwood

Many variables make up good wellbeing

Maintaining wellbeing is challenging at the best of times and can be severely tested by the psychological impact of stressful events such as moving house, the break-up of a relationship, being victim of a crime or the death of a loved one.

Employers are becoming better attuned to the importance of employee wellbeing, with many introducing policies and procedures to enhance employee engagement and morale. Providing the likes of flexible working, access to personal counselling and health benefits can go a long way to helping employers to demonstrate their appreciation for their employees’ hard work and commitment.

While HR departments are on the whole prepared for the commoner life events that affect us all, they may be unprepared to deal with the impact that traumatic events can have on their workforce when they occur on a much larger scale.

Incidents such as the terror attacks in Paris last October or the Shoreham air crash remind us that terrible events can and do come from out of the blue – and leave lasting effects on those who experience or witness them. While making plans to support employees affected by disasters such as these may be an unwelcome task, it is nevertheless important for HR professionals to be prepared for the unexpected and be especially mindful that employees can be caught up in traumatic events at any time and any place. 

Incidents such as the 2005 London bombings are a salutary reminder that, when a traumatic event occurs – be it a fatal accident involving a single employee through to a large scale occurrence affecting many individuals – HR may be called upon to support those directly affected by the event and their families as well as to help to manage the flow of information about the incident to the wider company. Situations such as these should also be a spur to HR teams to review their policies and procedures to ensure that, should the worst happen in their organisation, they are ready to respond with appropriate support as soon as it’s needed. 

What to do in a time of trauma

Some employers think that counsellors should be brought in immediately after a traumatic incident to help employees talk through what they have witnessed and how they’re feeling. But this may be unnecessary and even counterproductive as going into detail too quickly with a counsellor may be confusing, upsetting and even harmful. More important is for employers to ensure employees get the necessary support to take care of immediate, basic needs such as personal safety and sustenance.

Although it’s not possible to predict precisely how an individual will react to having experienced a traumatic event in the short or long term, it’s important for HR professionals to be aware that an incident is likely to have considerable psychological impact. Individuals may take hours or even days to internalise and reflect on what they’ve experienced. At the early, initial stage, people may still be in shock and struggle to take in complex information. At this time, they are better served by concentrating on undertaking simple tasks and instructions. Employers should make sure that they provide affected employees with reassurance and information on where and how to seek further help and support. It may also be helpful to let affected employees know that they appreciate what they may be feeling now, next week and in the weeks to come. This can help to manage their expectations and prepare the way for normalising the range of thoughts and feelings they may be experiencing. 

Be flexible

While it may sound counterintuitive to wait, it’s an approach that allows people to begin to process the experience of having been involved in a traumatic event in a way that will, in time, enable them to function normally. The mind of someone who has been involved in such a situation is in some regards akin to a broken limb. While this can be helped initially by resetting the bone, it still takes time to heal and complete the recovery. Following a traumatic event, our minds may go through an analogous process, needing time to digest, understand and find meaning in what has happened – and then time to deal with it. No two people will take the same time or follow the same recovery pattern so HR professionals should understand that affected employees may have different needs at different times to support their recovery.

Post traumatic stress disorder

Although post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is rare, guidelines produced by the National Institute for Health and Care Management* advocate a watchful waiting approach whereby individuals are observed for a minimum of four weeks before considering PTSD as a potential diagnosis. Following a traumatic incident, it’s likely that employees will experience a range of reactions, which may or may not be directly related to the incident. These could include flashbacks, a sense of fear, intrusive thoughts and hyper-vigilance. Other signs of trauma might include sleeplessness, anger, relationship issues, emotional detachment, feelings of suicide, depression and increased use of alcohol or drugs.

After the event, employers need to be alert to alterations in employees’ behaviour, work, attendance and relationships. An employee who becomes withdrawn, non-participative and generally not themselves may be experiencing difficulty coping. And, where this is noted, they should ensure the affected individual is aware of and encouraged to make use of the support that’s available to them – for example, through their company’s employee assistance programme or health insurance plan. Appropriate treatment might include trauma focused cognitive behaviour therapy and counselling but the individual’s treatment needs are best determined by a specialist assessment from a mental health professional. Helping affected employees to secure structured interventions such as these can facilitate a timely return to normality.

Action matters

While it is important to allow employees who’ve been involved in a traumatic event time and space to deal with the experience, HR professionals should not allow this to be used as a reason to avoid broaching the subject. Being on hand to reassure employees you are there to support them is often the best way an employer can respond to these traumatic occurrences.