How to support an employee through a trauma

Grief, trauma or shock can affect any of us at any time. In this guest article, the online psychology and psychotherapy platform, My Therapy Assistant outlines how you can best support the well-being of staff members who are experiencing it.

Trying to perform your job while dealing with a shock or something traumatic can be incredibly difficult. That is why it’s crucial for workplaces to offer the right support for anyone going through a difficult life period.

Let’s start by looking at what trauma is, how you can spot the signs, and most importantly, how you can help employees who are experiencing it.

What is trauma?

Trauma is a response to a shocking or upsetting life event, such as a bereavement, accident or attack. It can cause the person who experienced it to feel as if they are reliving the event every day and are unable to escape it or put it behind them.

In the words of psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, ‘We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present. Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think’.

However, it’s very important to note that it is not only big, life-threatening events that cause traumatic responses. For instance, a person can also experience trauma after an illness or health scare, bereavement, assault or the end of a relationship. Many people have also been traumatised by the experience of the pandemic and might still be struggling to process the effects of mass panic, lockdown and isolation.

Unsafe experiences in childhood can leave a legacy of trauma, as can marginalisation and discrimination. Trauma can also develop in the workplace itself, for instance, as an effect of bullying. That is why it’s important to have a broad view of trauma, understanding that it is about more than just one-off dramatic incidents and can also be caused by periods of prolonged high stress.

One thing to remember is that a traumatised person can be busy working at their desk, seemingly fine, but actually be concealing a lot of painful emotions underneath. These can include anxiety, sadness, anger, guilt, shame, confusion and disorientation. And while an employee might be able to get through a day or a week feeling this way, long term it can take its toll on their performance and career progression.

For this reason, it is crucial to create safe spaces at work to support people who have experienced something traumatic, giving them all the time they need to work through it all at their own pace. In fact, psychological trauma should be treated every bit as seriously as a physical illness and offered the same (if not identical) levels of support.

What are some of the signs of trauma?

After a traumatic or upsetting experience, people might be re-experiencing what happened, avoiding anything that reminds them of what happened and/or generally on alert, on the lookout for signs that it will happen again. These trauma responses — often referred to as fight, flight and freeze — can show up in many ways. Once you learn to spot the indicators, you will be in a better position to offer support. Key signs can include:

A change in work

  • Impaired performance at work e.g. making mistakes, missing deadlines.
  • Seeming overwhelmed by workload.
  • Difficulty in making decisions at work.
  • Increased sick days or lateness.
  • Loss of interest in work.

A decrease in connection

  • Seeming spaced out, distracted or disconnected.
  • Socially withdrawn from colleagues.

An increase in emotional reactivity

  • Seeming stressed, anxious or on edge.
  • Seeming irritable or short-tempered.
  • Seeming sad or low in mood.
  • Jumpiness, shakiness or trembling.
  • Mood swings or sudden emotional outbursts e.g. anger.
  • Hyper-sensitivity to feedback or criticism.

Physiological changes

  • Tiredness e.g. dozing off at their desk.
  • Headaches, fatigue or aches and pains.
  • Change in weight or looking tired.

How can you support an employee dealing with something traumatic?

Supporting an employee through a difficult experience can be tricky and requires sensitivity. This can be especially true in the early stages, when the person may not even have begun to properly process what happened.

However, it’s also crucial to avoid being so overly tactful that you sidestep dealing with the issue at all. So, here are some tips for approaching the topic:

  1. Offer the person the opportunity to talk, but don’t push it and don’t be invasive or ask for details. It’s more important that they can tell you how they’re feeling now and what they need rather than what happened. Let them know that they can approach you (or a relevant team member), whenever they feel ready.
  2. Ask them how you can support them. For example, would they like their colleagues to be informed so they are aware and if so, how much detail do they want to be shared? Or would they prefer to tell people themselves (or not)?
  3. If your workplace has an employee mental health support programme in place and can offer trauma-focused therapy, then make them aware of this, how it works and what’s on offer. Also, make sure to give them reassurance on the confidentiality of support.
  4. Ask them what they need, don’t assume you know. This enables the person to regain a sense of control. Even if you have experienced something similar yourself (or know someone else who has), everyone’s situation is different.
  5. Where possible, offer them the opportunity for flexible working patterns. This might include homeworking, hybrid working, dropping to part-time hours temporarily, ad-hoc days off for mental health, or a leave of absence.
  6. Be aware that traumatic experiences affect the emotional bandwidth people have for dealing with other stressors and reduce their window of tolerance. Where possible, offer them support in performing their role, especially tasks that they are currently finding challenging or re-trigger the trauma. This could include giving them more time to complete tasks or temporarily delegating some responsibilities to other team members.
  7. Check-in regularly and make it clear that their needs have not been forgotten. Recovery from traumatic experiences is a process and can’t be rushed. Some people might cope by burying their feelings initially and not feeling the impact of what’s happened until much later.
  8. If they do approach you to talk, be willing to listen without judgement and validate their feelings. Try not to give advice or talk about your own experiences — it will be more useful if you listen and ask about how they’re doing.
  9. Avoid trying to find the silver lining or telling them that ‘you’re lucky it wasn’t worse’, ‘you’ll get over it’ or ‘you just need to pull yourself together’. These phrases minimise what the person is going through and will prevent them from feeling safe to talk to you.
  10. Encourage them to take care of themselves. Guilt, shame and self-blame can be common feelings after trauma, so allow the person time and space to practise self-kindness.

Understanding long-term trauma in employees

Sometimes, people can have longer-term trauma-based responses (such as PTSD or C-PTSD) that can easily fly under the radar, causing that person to be seriously misunderstood at work. Often, they might show exactly the same trauma signs as those listed above, yet may not have been through any recent difficult experiences (as far as you are aware). Sometimes they can find themselves labelled by employers as lazy, dreamy, moody, flaky, negative, indecisive, withdrawn, disorganised, short-tempered, anxious, rigid, controlling, emotional or overly sensitive.

What’s not always obvious is that these individuals can be secretly struggling with incredible stress and pain every day. However, because the traumatic event or experience that caused their trauma response could have happened long before they started their current role, their colleagues may have no awareness of it. Sadly, this lack of understanding can be detrimental to their career, yet with the right support at work, they have a better chance of flourishing and expressing their true potential.

It goes without saying that if you are not a mental health professional then there is no way to tell for sure if someone is experiencing something traumatic or not. That said, it’s still important to be aware that trauma can be a long-term issue that might have started in a person’s early childhood. Indicators could be that someone’s reactions to stress, disappointments, and feedback seem to be disproportionate to the situation — this suggests they might be responding, at least in part, to something unprocessed from the past. Another indicator might be that they’re repeatedly having relational issues with colleagues.

If you think that an employee shows signs that their responses might have their roots in trauma, then you could open up a tactful conversation around their general wellbeing at work and invite them to share anything difficult that’s coming up for them at work. Keep the conversation focused on how you can best support them in their role, rather than trying to label them with a condition.

The truth is that most of us will go through upsetting or traumatic experiences at some point in our lives. That is why it’s essential that every workplace has a structure in place for supporting individuals through it so that they can continue to thrive in their careers — the structure, rewards and social connections that work provides are often vital for supporting wellbeing and healing.

And by learning to both spot traumatic responses and address them sensitively — while also having a good employee mental health programme in place — you can turn your organisation into a safe space that supports people through every kind of life challenge.

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