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May 13, 2021

HSSE GLOBAL

Inspire Innovate Motivate

How companies can support traumatised employees return to work.

3 min read

Most of us will experience at least one traumatic event during our lives. This is perfectly normal. But are companies and managers prepared for when this happens to one or more of their employees?

People deal with trauma in different ways. Some seek professional help, some develop post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), some people are able to heal without seeking professional help. It’s important to manage traumatised employees on a case-by-case basis – and let empathy guide all decisions.

Traumatic situations vary greatly, along with the ways individuals deal with them. Unfortunately, there is no instruction manual, but there are some things companies and managers can do to help in a meaningful and effective way.

Let’s examine different scenarios.

Some jobs involve a certain level of risk, such as fire-fighting or working in a hospital. It should come as no surprise if an employee in a risky job suffers a traumatic experience at work, but it can happen to anyone in any job. For example, a retail worker might be the victim of an in-store robbery, or an office worker might be traumatised if they witnessed a colleague suffer a fatal heart attack. Trauma can strike at unexpected times and in unexpected places. 

If an employee suffers trauma at work, they should be offered counselling as the first step. However, the thought of returning to work can cause panic, fear and anxiety. Overcoming these psychological hurdles can take months. Employers often have great sympathy for those affected by trauma, but over time this can be replaced by helplessness and frustration as the traumatised worker takes an increasingly long period of sick leave. At this point, some employers might even consider starting dismissal procedures. This common scenario is a lose-lose situation for employers and employees.

The problem is that avoiding facing the trigger situation – in this case, going back to work – is only effective for a short time, but triggers can show up in other aspects of life. In such cases, an effective strategy is for the employee to learn to confront triggers and manage anxiety around them.

Treatment for post-traumatic stress reactions must be done by qualified trauma consultants. Best practice treatment focuses on gradually and safely exposing the person to triggers and teaching them to manage the resulting anxiety. But the process does not stop with the therapy sessions. Employers have an important role to play in making sure the work environment feels safe, with managers and colleagues who understand, listen properly and care. 

Staying in touch with the person when they are on leave and sharing company news helps to keep them engaged and feel like they are still part of the “work family”.

When someone returns to work after a traumatic experience, there are procedures that are fairly universal, such as making sure colleagues are aware that the employee may still be healing psychologically. But not everyone recognises the symptoms of PTSD, which your traumatised colleague could be silently suffering. Educating managers and employees to recognise the signs could be very beneficial, even if the returning colleague says they are fine. It is important to be open about PTSD and the psychological challenges that most people face after trauma. Do not treat the subject as taboo. Instead, always maintain open and honest communication.

The employee could be offered a part-time working arrangement with flexible scheduling and a  gradual increase to full duties. This can help them feel more comfortable with coming back to work. Compensation and other benefits can be discussed too, such as the employer covering therapy costs and ensuring the employee can take the time to attend sessions.

Being tactful is crucial. Ask the employee how they would like information about their situation to be shared with co-workers. This can include how the employee will respond to questions about their health, their absence and any changes in work responsibilities.

It is also worth considering providing re-training, or training in new skills, to support the employee’s reintegration to work and their career.

For more information and confidential help, contact…

Helen Cooper Business and Leadership Coach at [email protected]

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