School shootings, office violence, threats against co-workers – these are becoming regular headlines. Such dire circumstances are indeed traumatic, but the workplace does not need to be the center of such extreme danger in order to be a place where trauma affects the job. Projected layoffs, sexual harassment, theft, natural disaster and domestic violence can all be experienced as trauma by employees. In a turbulent world, wise employers are those who are prepared to deal caringly with employees who are overly stressed.
Having a plan of action is the first step an employer should take toward properly managing trauma in the workplace. Know beforehand how to respond and what actions you can take to be supportive. When the employer is fumbling to find his/her way in the midst of a situation, it is all too easy for employees to feel invisible and uncared for. Left unaddressed, the employee’s health is affected and productivity takes a nosedive. Even worse, the negative feelings can quickly spread and company cohesion and loyalty suffer.
Before all else, think ahead as to how you can let your employees see you as interested, concerned and taking reasonable steps to help them. Having just the right words to say is not nearly as important as demonstrating attentiveness and thoughtful action. Know in advance what services are covered under the employee benefits package. Ideally, worker’s compensation should cover treatment for things like post-traumatic stress disorder and other stress disorders.
It will help if you are able to demonstrate that feelings are real, but they don’t run the train. Your role model of emotional honesty and steadiness when troubling events transpire is the leadership that traumatized employees can follow. You demonstrate the reality of feelings by allowing employees to express their emotions, even strong ones. When an employee is experiencing bereavement, injury or loss, be aware that talking often precedes healing. Be a good listener.
Again, your success in supporting your troubled employee is less about knowing what to say than about understanding how to communicate care. Give the employee somewhere private to discuss their feelings. Seat yourself close to him or her. Questions are fine, but avoid giving advice. Usually it will be best to not talk about yourself or your own experiences. Your attention is on the employee and what he or she is experiencing.
If the person has suffered a physical injury, whether job-related or as a result of an outside situation, quickly send a card or flowers to express your concern. Encourage other employees who are already aware of the situation to do likewise, but do not widen the circle of those who are privy to the facts. Remember that after the physical injury heals, there may be residual emotional pain that will impact the employee’s work performance.
In some cases, it will be best to suggest that the employee seek outside help. Professional counseling can provide employees with hope and practical tools for dealing with their trauma. Let the employee know that their job is safe and that you will do all you can to accommodate any conflicts between work and counseling sessions. Your level-headed but caring response to their situation will help set an atmosphere where trauma is managed rather than ignored and employees feel valued rather than dismissed.