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Workplace trauma: Causes, signs, and how to support your people

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Workplace trauma exists in every occupation. It doesn’t just affect police officers, rescue workers, and soldiers.

Work-related trauma can cause extreme anxiety, depression, and employee burnout, leading to absenteeism, conflict, and reduced productivity.

The worst part is that workplace trauma is largely unacknowledged.

It’s time organizations step up and support their people to relieve, overcome, and prevent these work-related mental scars.

You can do this by fostering a positive work culture, holding meaningful one-on-one meetings, and assessing employees’ personalities and how they respond to trauma.

This article discusses the main causes and signs of workplace post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the eight best practices your company can implement to better support sufferers of traumatic experiences in the workplace.

What is workplace trauma?

Workplace trauma, also called career trauma or workplace PTSD, is an emotional response to negative events at work. This can include accidents, natural disasters, and exposure to a toxic work environment.

Workplace PTSD is not currently defined in the DSM-5 (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) but lately has been gaining the attention it deserves.

Dr. Chi-Chi Obuaya, a psychiatrist and mental health professional, says he’s hesitant to relate workplace trauma directly to clinically defined PTSD. However, the disorder causes real damage and may be closer to severe anxiety or depression.

The causes of workplace trauma

Workplace trauma is caused by the inability to cope with negative events or abuse at work, which can happen to anyone.

Everyone handles a situation differently, so even if you’ve had a similar experience, it’s important to remember that not every experience is the same for others.

Many factors come into play, such as a person’s emotional resilience, control over the situation, and outside support during a stressful time.

For more information on what can cause an event to become traumatic, read our article on how to create a trauma-informed workplace.

Although many events and situations can contribute to workplace trauma, here are the most common causes:

common causes workplace
  • Harassment or verbal abuse: Being yelled at, demeaned, or patronized (especially in front of others)

  • Bullying: Others abusing power to intimidate, degrade, humiliate, or threaten

  • Toxic workplace culture or working practices: Being encouraged to work constantly, engage in “hustle culture,” and being pressured into not taking time off

  • Being laid off: Losing your job, especially when it was no fault of your own and simply the result of a company restructuring

  • Job insecurity: Thinking you could lose your job, which can come from layoffs happening around you, fearing your role becomes obsolete, or feeling inadequate

  • Sudden role/responsibility changes: Feeling insecure, uncertain, or panicked after sudden changes to your activities and responsibilities

  • Violence or physical abuse: Physical harm, property damage, or even sexual abuse

  • Accidents or injuries at work: Hazardous conditions such as poor working environments or on-the-job risks (e.g., construction or factory accidents)

  • Serious injury or death of a colleague: Witnessing or being involved in a colleague’s accident, injury, or death

  • Natural disaster on the job: Experiencing a fire, earthquake, or hurricane during work

  • Job roles that deal with tragedy and death: Working closely with death, tragedy, and accidents in frontline roles such as doctors, nurses, EMTs, rescue workers, and other first responders

As an example, let’s examine the issue of job insecurity.

According to Gallup, feelings of job security remain relatively high in 2022, although they’re lower once you consider women, people without higher education, and people with an income lower than $75,000.

However, even though the job market is better than it’s been in years, 15% of US workers fear losing their job in the coming year, and 37% of people don’t have confidence in finding a new job if they were to be laid off.

sense of job security differences between  demographics

The Harvard Business Review believes this fear is more agitated than it needs to be due to toxic work environments. Too many businesses use threats of layoffs in an attempt to motivate employees and stoke the fires beneath them.

This shows that much of the power to mitigate and prevent workplace trauma is in your hands. Improve your company culture, work environment, and the attitude of your senior leadership, and you’ll improve your workers’ experiences.

The signs of workplace trauma

Career trauma has many symptoms and signs similar to PTSD, anxiety, and depression. 

It also affects your workers in many of the same ways, including absenteeism, lower performance, and conflict with teammates.

Let’s take a look at the main signs of emotional trauma in the workplace:

Symptom

Description

Absenteeism

Workplace trauma can cause workers to miss work because of stress, anxiety, or even active avoidance

Limited ability to build relationships or work in a team

Building relationships and team cooperation can be especially difficult for those hurt by work-related issues

Anxiety

Workplace PTSD can cause intrusive thoughts, jitters, nervousness, low concentration, and physical anxiety symptoms such as nausea, fatigue, and hyperventilation

Insomnia

Employees may struggle to sleep, leading to emotional instability, paranoia, fear, and memory loss

Burnout

People with workplace PTSD are much more prone to exhaustion, stress, and apathy

Panic attacks

Workplace trauma can cause sudden attacks of intense fear that can include shortness of breath, chest pains, and loss of control

Depression

A loss of meaning, motivation, or joy, as well as emotional numbness to life is another possible consequence of trauma at the workplace

Feeling undervalued and lost

Workers may feel a loss of confidence, little to no workplace respect, and worthlessness

Unexplained bursts of anger or aggression

Workplace trauma can lead to bouts of irritability and anger, seemingly without reason

Withdrawal and reduced productivity

Workers may feel detached from their roles, responsibilities, and colleagues, affecting their performance and the quality of their work

The signs and symptoms of workplace trauma affect the worker and, subsequently, the company they work for. 

Supporting employees through the trauma they experience helps increase productivity, quality of work, and overall satisfaction and retention.

And, above all, it’s just the right thing to do.

How to mitigate the effects of workplace trauma and support your employees

The best thing you can do for your employees is to build a positive, supportive company culture and cultivate a work environment that people want to be in.

Implementing these practices helps prevent situations that could traumatize your workers in the future. Although completely recovering from workplace trauma may be difficult or impossible for some, you can create a better, healthier atmosphere for them.

Here are our top strategies for reducing the risk and mitigating the effects of workplace trauma:

Best practice

Description

1. Build a collaborative and trusting culture

Nurture a “safe space” atmosphere where employees feel they can speak openly

2. Ask your employees what they need

Be proactive and ask your workers about their struggles and needs

3. Reduce stigma around workplace trauma

Work to normalize speaking about workplace trauma and treat it as a serious topic

4. Offer long-term professional support to your employees

Offer employee benefits like counseling, therapy, support groups, and other mental health resources

5. Help employees recover from a traumatic event with a flexible work schedule

Enable employees to get their work done when and where it’s best for them

6. Invest in employee resiliency training to help your people develop better coping skills

Bolster your workers’ resiliency and help vulnerable employees build the right skills

7. Provide outplacement services to employees you lay off to reduce the trauma they face

Support employees who have been laid off by supplying outplacement services

8. Use Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) following a traumatic event

Arrange for healthy trauma treatment for affected employees

As we discuss these best practices, it’s important to remember that you can’t guarantee that your employees won’t face a traumatic event in the workplace.

Sometimes it’s part of the job (like, for example, for doctors and EMT workers), sometimes an unavoidable disaster, and sometimes a mistake happens before it’s caught.

So it’s your job to take action and:

  1. Prepare employees for possible trauma

  2. Support employees in case of trauma

  3. Stop any preventable form of trauma as soon as possible (i.e., abuse from a manager)

For more advice on tackling issues like toxic negativity, read our article on empathy in the workplace.

But, for now, let’s take a look at the top strategies for supporting workplace trauma.

1. Build a collaborative and trusting culture

The top reason that employees suffer in silence is that they don’t feel safe enough to speak up.

They may fear being judged, harassed, or not taken seriously, but also even losing their jobs. So instead of facing that possibility, they keep their trauma to themselves.

You can combat this by nurturing a positive, supportive culture.

Build a culture where employees aren’t afraid to speak to their managers and the human resources department about their issues – a “safe space” where workers feel comfortable discussing their bad days, struggles, stressors, and triggers.

Here are a few ways to start creating a more trusting culture:

  • Be patient and respectful: Treat your employees with courtesy, listen to their ideas, and approach workplace conflict in a healthy, nonviolent way

  • Show your employees you care: Be proactive in asking workers about their needs and issues (more on that in the section below)

  • Handle problems delicately: If an employee opens up to you, nurture this trust by handling the issue with dignity, care, and seriousness

  • Eliminate toxic behaviors that trigger trauma: Cull toxic behaviors like yelling and bullying to make employee trust easier to build

  • Share your own issues and lead by example: Help employees think of work as a safe space to share their feelings by showing that leaders are doing it, too

Take small steps and be patient, above all. It may take some time for an employee with workplace trauma to build enough trust to consider work a safe space to open up.

2. Ask your employees what they need

Employees may be unwilling to disclose their struggles and ask for accommodations. They could feel like a burden and fear that they might lose their favorable position.

This is the same problem behind unlimited vacation day policies, and it happened to the recruitment agency, Facet. Employees ended up taking less time off[1] purely because they didn’t want to look bad.

What’s the solution when workers don’t openly share their issues? Ask them proactively.

Many employees open up immediately if senior leadership makes the first move and asks to support them.

Try incorporating mental health discussions during 1:1 meetings. Set aside a few minutes to ask your employees about their struggles. Try asking questions like:

  • “Do you need support right now?”

  • “Can I refer you to an employee resource group/therapist?”

  • “What can the company do to help you?”

  • “I’m here if you want to talk.”

The last one is simple but effective.

We also recommend that these one-on-ones be frequent, about every one to two weeks. This enables you to catch problems before they snowball into larger issues.

3. Reduce stigma around workplace trauma

You can help your employees who struggle with workplace PTSD simply by striving to reduce the stigma surrounding it.

It’s unfortunate that workplace trauma is largely a joke in the working world.

You’ve probably heard a water cooler joke that sounds something like, “My last job was so bad it scarred me!

It’s time to normalize serious talk about workplace trauma and educate people that it isn’t “just a joke.” Taking this problem seriously is a big step in the right direction.

Here are a few ways you can treat workplace trauma with the care it deserves:

treat workplace trauma with care
  • Destigmatize mental health issues in general: A company that’s open about mental health and trauma opens the door for a culture that supports team members who suffer from workplace PTSD.

  • Organize trauma-supporting events: Get qualified external speakers to talk about trauma, its impact, and how to overcome it.

  • Have leaders speak about personal experiences: Use personal stories and struggles to relay to your employees that workplace trauma is real.

  • Educate on the difference: Many employees dismiss workplace trauma as simple “stress,” so educating them on the difference is important.

  • Keep an eye out for toxic individuals: The biggest way stigmatizing attitudes and language spread is through individuals. Keep an eye out for these people and communicate with them the seriousness of the situation.

Overcoming stigmas around workplace trauma and normalizing healthy conversations help affected individuals be more willing to share their struggles and seek support.

Once they feel comfortable enough to start opening up, you can start helping them recover and work on their overall well-being.

4. Offer long-term professional support to your employees

Your employees may need more than just a positive conversation and a shoulder to lean on. In this case, professional support in the form of therapy and counseling can be a lifesaver.

These usually fall under the umbrella of Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) and include mental health and counseling services extended to the employee and their family.

Try incorporating more mental health and wellness programs into your company healthcare benefits like:

  • Digital therapeutics

  • In-person therapeutics

  • Personal coaching

  • Employee resource groups

  • A healthcare plan that covers the treatment of anxiety, depression, and other psychiatric illnesses

Counseling and therapy can be invaluable to a struggling employee. However, due to mental health stigma, financial concerns, or a lack of support from family, they may never seek professional help on their own.

5. Help employees recover from a traumatic event with a flexible work schedule

When recovering from workplace trauma, sometimes the last thing a person needs is a tight, unforgiving schedule.

If the traumatic event happened recently, start by giving the affected employee ample time off to begin the difficult process of recovery.

It’s also important to give employees the option of alternative working arrangements. Implement a flexible work policy and suggest flexible schedules to those in need.

This could include:

Flexibility in terms of location and schedule is a huge relief to a person recovering from mental health problems. This enables them to work whenever and wherever they feel the most productive and energetic instead of relying on rigid times and locations.

This could be particularly useful if sights and sounds in their workplace trigger the individual. Working from their home office or a cafe could benefit their concentration and recovery.

However, when employees with workplace trauma work remotely or during off-hours, it’s crucial to maintain regular communication through chat programs like Slack and have frequent one-on-one meetings.

These people are in a fragile mental state, and taking steps to prevent working-from-home depression is critical.

6. Invest in employee resiliency training to help your people develop stronger coping skills

An effective way to mitigate potential workplace trauma is to identify those at the greatest risk and help them build the right skills.

Helping vulnerable workers develop coping skills helps prevent future trauma, especially in intense job roles like doctors, rescue workers, and nurses.

Identify these at-risk individuals by using online skills testing to discover their emotional stability.

Tests like our Big 5 (OCEAN) test help you assess your employees’ resiliency in the face of pain and trauma. If the results show the worker is likely to struggle with workplace trauma, you can take steps to help them boost their resiliency and coping skills.

Another way skills testing can facilitate a trauma-informed workplace is through the hiring process.

Using our Culture Add test enables you to hire candidates that align with your values, beliefs, and culture. This minimizes the chance of hiring a toxic individual that contributes to workplace trauma.

Assessing employee personalities help you shape your workforce to be as inclusive and healthy as possible to mitigate the possibility of trauma in your workforce.

7. Provide outplacement services to employees you lay off to reduce the trauma they face

Layoffs are one of the top causes of workplace trauma.

Losing your job can be painful. You’re losing a source of income, a lifestyle, a routine, and many colleagues.

It can be even more difficult to lose your job during an organizational restructuring, as the layoff typically has nothing to do with the employee’s skill or attitude – their role simply isn’t needed anymore.

Ease this transition and mitigate possible trauma by providing outplacement services to displaced individuals. This can include providing career assessments, writing them a recommendation on LinkedIn, offering networking help, and helping them prepare for future interviews.

You can offer these services alongside the severance package in your separation agreement. You can even go the extra mile by working with placement providers for professional assistance.

Outplacement services can help prevent an employee from suffering workplace trauma due to the security and opportunities they provide. 

However, the emotional aspect is perhaps more important: By offering employees aid and care in a moment of need, you step in and prevent potential long-lasting trauma from a perceived lack of support.

For more information on handling layoffs delicately, read our full guide on how to lay off employees.

8. Use Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) following a traumatic event

Critical Incident Stress Debriefing is a group process conducted soon after a traumatic event to mitigate and ease the symptoms of trauma. It’s usually led by a trained mental health professional.

This type of support involves encouraging the affected workers to talk about their experience and how it impacted them, as well as providing them with therapy and professional support.

Critical Incident Stress Debriefing is an early intervention process to provide group support while the pain is still fresh. It usually concludes by offering additional help, counseling, and therapy as needed.

A 2020 study showed that playing Tetris soon after a traumatic event helped the symptoms. This is due to the way the human brain holds onto traumatic memories.

This process works because a memory must be consolidated into long-term memory for the brain to be able to access it easily later. In the early stages, memory is highly susceptible to interference.

This study suggested that any demanding task that takes up the brain’s cognitive resources helps weaken the traumatic memory trace. Other sensory-intensive activities, such as playing other games and making art, also work.

Critical Incident Stress Debriefing can be an invaluable process to integrate into your business policies in the event of a traumatic event.

Create a safer environment to reduce the risk of workplace trauma and support those who suffer from it

Workplace trauma is no longer a sitcom joke. You can take steps to treat it with the respect it deserves.

Building a safe culture, watching for toxic behaviors, and offering support and professional help are effective ways to counter this dangerous workplace struggle.

With the right support, you can help talented individuals overcome their pain, achieve their goals, and function like any other employee.

For more information and advice on how to help your employees, read our article on the responsibilities of an HR director.

And, to assess your next candidate’s personality, worldview, and attitudes, use our Enneagram test in your next pre-employment assessment.

Source

  1. Sweeney, Robert. (September 4, 2019). “Why We Ditched Our Unlimited Vacation Policy”. Facet. Retrieved November 9, 2022. https://www.facet.net/posts/why-we-ditched-our-unlimited-vacation-plan

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