Supporting employees when trauma strikes

Here, Michael Jelley from the UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association, takes a look at how employers, and SMEs in particular, can help their employees when they are impacted by trauma.

Scenes of trauma are, sadly, a regular feature of life in today’s Britain. Being regularly bombarded with scenes of personal crisis and collective tragedy means that it is easy to become detached from the impact that a traumatic event can have. While our initial reaction to scenes of  devastation, like those seen in the wake of the Shoreham air disaster, or the shooting of tourists on the beaches of Tunisia, is naturally one of horror, these images are soon replaced by other stories, and we can quickly forget those more closely affected.

Those involved, directly or indirectly, in incidents such as this will be more profoundly affected, and for the employers of these individuals, it can be difficult to know how to respond. In SMEs in particular, where there is a heavier reliance on team cohesion and individual talents, the impact is magnified.

So providing support in the wake of incidents such as these can help an individual to make a fuller and faster recovery, as well as engendering a strong sense of engagement from the employee and their colleagues, in turn establishing the values of the employer as caring and empathic. Failing to do so can lead to prolonged absence and consequent pressures on colleagues, while longer term impacts include loss of creativity, distraction, poor attendance and depression.

How does trauma impact on people?

A traumatic event by its very nature is unpredictable, and not all such incidents make the headlines. Personal experiences, such as being a victim of crime, becoming suddenly bereaved or witnessing violence can have profound effects on people and it is important to understand that people’s responses will vary significantly. Personality traits, past experiences and resilience will all affect how each person responds to traumatic situations. An employee who is generally healthy, has a range of active interests and good relationships is generally more able to handle traumatic events than someone already struggling to manage everyday life.

Nevertheless, in most cases people will experience immediate trauma in a similar way: initial shock and possible sleeplessness, with low mood, tearfulness and flashbacks for the first 2-4 weeks. This is quite normal, and an essential part of the psychological healing process. During this stage, support should primarily be practical, ensuring an employee is safe, physically well and has friends and family around. In most cases, after 28 days an employee will be feeling significantly better, and their functionality and mood should have mostly returned to normal.

How do I know if further support is needed?

People affected by trauma may not be forthcoming about what they are going through, but there can be indicators that further assistance may be required. Physical appearance and behaviour talk volumes about a person’s state of mind, and ongoing indicators of stress or depression in the wake of trauma may indicate that further action is necessary.

Signs of stress include irritability or short temper, changes in appearance (for example, wearing worn or creased clothes, reduced attention to shaving or make up), altered habits, poor timekeeping, uncharacteristic talkativity or withdrawal. If these indicators continue for longer than four weeks, it suggests that the person may need further help in dealing with their situation.

What can I do?

If you believe somebody is experiencing trauma, there are many ways to get support. Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) have become easily available for SMEs, and can be a very inexpensive way to offer high quality support to employees, as well as to the managers who engage with them. Most offer telephone based trauma support, as well as ongoing counselling for the individual. Specially trained trauma counsellors are available to attend at short notice and in person, usually for an additional fee.

EAPs also offer manager consultations to help the manager respond well; these are a little used but highly valuable aspect of the service. Recent developments, including pay as used programmes, have made this level of support affordable for even the smallest employers.

If you don’t have an EAP, there are other ways to offer support. Psychological assessments from occupational health providers help to establish clearly what an employee needs, and can assist in finding support via the NHS or specialist charities. Mental Health charity Mind offers wide-ranging and specialist support, including for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Regardless of the support that you do have or put in place, the most important thing is to keep an open dialogue with the individual, and to offer support freely without referring too frequently to the incident.

Being Prepared

As mentioned above, one of the difficulties in responding to trauma is that it is unexpected. But there are things that employers can do to ensure that they are prepared and able to respond effectively.

Training, or raising awareness of basic principles of trauma support among managers will ensure their first response is effective, and preparing a ‘what to do next’ guide will ensure managers know where to turn. Where possible, build strong support structures and personal and organisational resilience to help reduce impact on person and organisation and reduce severity of impact. Strong teams of resilient and resourceful individuals will respond to and recover from trauma more quickly.