What is trauma? 

When a strong emotional response to an extraordinarily stressful or disturbing event impacts a person’s ability to cope, it is considered traumatic. Traumatic experiences can involve a threat to life or safety, but any situation that leaves an individual feeling under attack and in danger or overwhelmed can result in trauma, even if it does not cause physical harm.  


What is the impact of trauma? 

Individuals react to trauma in different ways and can experience a wide range of physical, psychological and emotional reactions. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Some people experience problems directly after the traumatic event and some much later.  

Symptoms of trauma can be described as physical, cognitive, behavioural or emotional 

  • Physical symptoms can include hypervigilance (the elevated state of constantly assessing potential threats around you), being easily startled, fatigue or exhaustion, disturbed sleep and general aches and pains. 
  • Cognitive (thinking) symptoms can include unwanted and intrusive thoughts and memories, nightmares, poor concentration, disorientation and confusion. 
  • Behavioural symptoms can include wanting to avoid places or activities that are reminders of the event, social withdrawal and self-isolation and a loss of interest in everyday activities. 
  • Emotional symptoms can include fear, feeling numb and detached, depression, guilt, irritability or anger, anxiety and panic. 

While experiencing trauma does not automatically result in the development of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), research agrees that approximately one in three people who experience severe trauma will also experience PTSD. There is no definitive answer to why some people who experience trauma develop PTSD and others do not. It is thought that a combination of factors may make certain individuals more susceptible to post-traumatic stress. These include: 

  • repeated exposure to trauma and the severity of those traumas, 
  • a family history of anxiety and depression, 
  • a person’s temperament, leading to their emotional response, 
  • how a person’s brain regulates the hormones and chemicals that their body releases in the event of stress and trauma, 
  • high risk occupations like serving in the military, health care, emergency services and law enforcement, which can expose some people to more trauma than in other jobs.

Situations and events that can lead to psychological trauma and PTSD include: 

  • acts of violence such as war, terrorism or an armed robbery, 
  • natural disasters such as a pandemic, earthquakes or floods, 
  • person-on-person violence such as rape, domestic violence or child abuse, 
  • the traumatic loss of a loved one, including suicide, 
  • experience of a life-threatening illness or injury, 
  • involvement in a serious motor vehicle or workplace accident, 
  • discovering that a family member or close friend was involved in a traumatic event, 
  • experiencing distressing situations and events in the workplace.  

Trauma in the workplace 

The Covid pandemic was traumatising for many employees, particularly frontline workers and the multitude who lost family and friends. But the experience of trauma in employees is not limited to an event as extreme as Covid, or to high-risk industries or jobs. Workplace trauma occurs when employees experience a trauma at work. This can be the result of a one-time traumatic event or ongoing stressful events. It can stem from several causes, which include prejudice, bullying, an abusive boss, a toxic work environment, job insecurity or poor work-life boundaries. Work-related trauma can cause extreme anxiety, depression, and employee burnout. The knock-on effects include PTSD, absenteeism, interpersonal conflict, and mental and physical health issues.  


How leadership can mitigate workplace trauma 

Practically speaking, companies cannot eliminate all sources of trauma in the workplace. But there are things they can do to alleviate the cause of workplace trauma and better support their employees. Here are 6 ways leadership can help: 

  1.  Remove the stigma
    Unfortunately, there is stigma that surrounds trauma and the issues that stem from it. Open communication can help. It is important for managers to let their team members know that they are there to support them. When trauma is discussed openly and often, it can create a sense of psychological safety that increases the chance that employees will report the cause of their trauma – if they feel they have someone they can trust to talk to. It can also create a safe environment for employees where they can ask for help if they are struggling with trauma-related symptoms. 
  2.  Ensure open communication
    If a traumatic event takes place in the workplace, acknowledge it and talk about it. Let employees know what the leadership plans to do to mitigate the impact of the event. For example, if there is a workplace accident, acknowledge what happened and walk your employees through your plan to increase workplace safety. Let them know how you plan to prevent a similar accident from happening in the future.
  3.  Offer workplace trauma training
    In order to effectively manage trauma in the workplace, you need your management and employees to be trauma informed. Trauma training can provide managers with the information they need to support employees as well as give employees the tools to understand their own trauma. This can lead to people feeling more comfortable in seeking support and getting treatment.
  4. Offer qualified resources to traumatised employees
    While training can be given to managers so they can support traumatised employees, they are not health professionals. They cannot provide professional help or treatment. This is why it is important to have additional resources on hand to support employees dealing with trauma. This includes information on where they can find support and referrals to trauma specialists. For example, referrals to social workers, mental health professionals or trauma support groups.
  5.  Adopt a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to trauma drivers
    It is important to protect your employees from trauma and discourage traumatic dynamics in the workplace. One way to do that is to take a formal stance against common trauma-inducing behaviors.
    This includes:
     emotional abuse from colleagues, such as harassment or bullying, emotionally abusive management practices, physical violence.

    Make the company’s standpoint official by creating policies and procedures that are included in an employee handbook that is distributed to all employees. Have them sign a document that states that they have read and understand the policy. This can inform any action that needs to be taken if an employee requires disciplinary action or termination for violating the policy.
  6.  Prioritise employees’ wellbeing When supporting employees’ wellbeing is built into a company’s culture, its employees will be less stressed. They will be more engaged with their work and better integrated with colleagues and managers. If they experience trauma, they will be more confident that the company will take it seriously and do what they can to be supportive. Knowing they have this support can help employees build resilience. Not only does building a cohesive and resilient workforce mitigate the effects of workplace trauma, but it can also lead to there being less trauma drivers in the workplace.  

Whether traumatic events take place in the workplace or outside of it, trauma can have a serious impact, both on employees and on the company as a whole. Beyond emotional and mental support, there are often tangible forms of support that people need in times of trauma. Further to needing emotional support, an employee may need access to medical information as well as assistance with funeral and other expenses. Such support can make a massive difference in a person’s healing and demonstrate that the company is there for its employees when they need it. 

Over to you for sharing your comments and experiences.

About the Author: Kerstin Jatho

Kerstin is the senior transformational coach and team development facilitator for 4Seeds Consulting. She is also the author of Growing Butterfly Wings, a book on applying positive psychology principles during a lengthy recovery. Her passion is to develop people-centred organisations where people thrive and achieve their potential in the workplace. You can find Kerstin on LinkedIn, Soundcloud, YouTube and Facebook.

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