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When Trauma Comes To Work

12 August 2011

When Trauma Comes To Work



With no one able to predict when an employee might feel their life has come under threat, a little planning can seriously help to reduce the risk of long-term psychological damage.

The sad reality is that just as this time last week, no-one anticipated looting mobs destroying businesses and homes across London, copycat rioting in other cities and landmark buildings being burned to the ground, few employers can anticipate when the lives of their employees might be threatened.

Much has been made of the need for business continuity plans in the past, but as events this week have highlighted, there’s also a need for more employers to do more to protect the ability of their people to continue to function after being exposed to a traumatic event.

The reality is that any event that makes an employee feel like their life has been threatened, or results in them having witnessed the life of another being threatened, can be deeply psychologically distressing. Perhaps the lives of the employees reduced to cowering behind locked doors in stock rooms and basements as London stores were ransacked and set alight were never at risk. But the thought that they might have been would nevertheless have been deeply traumatic, and more so because of its being completely unforeseen.

What’s more you don’t have to work in a city under threat of looting or the emergency services to be exposed to trauma at work. Watching a colleague suffer a heart attack, for instance, can bring the prospect of death into worrying focus, even leading to nightmares and flashbacks. Being subjected to a violent “I’m going to kill you” outburst by a customer, witnessing someone jump out in front of your truck, nearly being dragged into a machine or seeing such a thing happen to a co-worker can all result in psychological distress.

And that’s before you take into account the fact that armed raids and burglaries are on the increase, putting more employees at risk of knife crime or being held at gunpoint. The increased threat of terrorist activity and unforeseen acts of natural disaster might also impact on how individuals cope with trauma, whether real, imagined or anticipated.

Normalising the un-normal

Essential to helping those individuals exposed to a critical incident to recover as effectively as possible is good upfront planning. This means developing managers to deal with the aftermath of any human disaster. How managers respond in the immediate aftermath will have a real impact on the short and long term health of employees. Practical considerations (such as relocating or hiring temps), are no longer enough – managers also need to help employees overcome the trauma or ‘fear-factor’ that will now linger as a result of danger that arose simply by choosing to come to work.

At the most basic level, it’s essential that all those affected are brought together and given the opportunity to talk through their initial feelings of fear, guilt, grief or even anger and alerted to the symptoms of trauma. This includes reassurance that any immediate loss of bodily functions and then being unable to stop constantly replaying the event in their mind, or being fearful of returning to the scene of the incident, is perfectly normal, and to be expected.

Certainly organisations such as Validium are able to swiftly and effectively deploy highly trained professionals to the scene of any critical incident to provide appropriate psychological support to affected employees. But it’s the immediate response of managers and leaders present at the event that matters most - and they simply can’t be expected to deliver an appropriate response without the necessary upfront training.

Someone to care

In the aftermath of any critical incident, it’s important to remember that once buildings, machines or vehicles have been restored or replaced, the mind can often take longer to heal.

A great many people now live alone without the family or support networks required to share feelings of shock and fear, or to make sense of them. In this event, it is essential they are provided with access to a counsellor, perhaps as part of the organisation’s employee assistance programme (EAP), with the aim of reducing the risk of any long-term psychological damage.

At the same time, colleagues who might be fearful of discussing the incident for fear of bringing back bad memories should be made aware that it may well be in their own best interests to talk. But no-one should be forced to talk if they don’t want to.

It’s also important that HR and OH professionals within the organisation, now more than ever live up to their role as the caring face of the organisation, setting time aside to talk to those directly and indirectly affected in an empathetic manner. This will help identify anyone who is still suffering the effects of trauma, such as insomnia, continued flashbacks, the inability to put what happened out of their mind or an ongoing fear of places or items linked to the incident. Should they consent, they can then be supported with a proper clinical assessment, and given appropriate help to manage and overcome their symptoms.

Furthermore, when looking for a provider to help with this, the employer needs to take care to select a clinically approved psychological partner who is willing to stay within the agreed parameters of the case. Their primary role will typically involve helping employees overcome any issue preventing them from attending work or performing well, rather than delving into past psychological issues .

Delivered properly, this sort of vocational rehabilitation programme will often feature formalised cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help employees overcome their fear within just six sessions, returning fully to work within a matter of months. 

Find out how Validium is helping Zurich Insurance to rehabilitate individuals exposed to trauma at work – click to view story


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