Managing workplace trauma

Interviewee: Steven Booker, Consulting Psychologist.

It’s been a rollercoaster of political drama and emotional upheaval in 2023, with tensions soaring both close to home and on a global scale. From the devastating Russia-Ukraine war, surging ‘shrink-flation’ and the defeat of the Voice referendum, to the recent and distressing Israel-Hamas conflict, news outlets have been endlessly reporting on these issues, leaving many feeling traumatised. 


The world saw similar patterns of stress-inducing news coverage during the COVID-19 pandemic. This created an irresistible urge among human beings to closely monitor the news and anticipate danger. 

Human beings are inherently drawn to frequent monitoring, especially when exposed to negative headlines or content that raises a plethora of questions. A journal article published in the National Library of Medicine1 in March 2021 found that this negative spiral — recently dubbed as ‘doomscrolling’ — can take a severe toll on one’s mental health. The article declared that studies have linked the consumption of bad news to increased distress, anxiety and depression, even when the news in question is relatively mundane’.

Ongoing local and global events only reinforce this tendency and it seems to have creeped into workplaces, with many C-suite executives and business leaders vocalising their thoughts on social media platforms2

“When people are worried or traumatised by something that’s happening in the world, like some of the recent conflicts, it’s unrealistic to expect that they’re going to be able to come into work by putting all that behind,” says Steven Booker, Consulting Psychologist.

“Some people are not great at compartmentalising like that.”

Dealing with trauma — particularly considering the current political climate — can be immensely challenging for many people, and “if someone is traumatised in their personal life, they’re probably going to still be thinking about it at work,” he adds.

Industries impacted the most due to trauma

Undoubtedly, some role types in certain industries are more likely to be directly impacted. However, Booker suggests that the ripple effects can cause indirect impacts on almost any industry. 

“It’s equally important to be considerate of the fact that employees can have personal or family ties to areas affected by geopolitical tensions, which can lead to trauma in the workplace.”

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The Forbes article, Trauma At The Workplace, What To Do About It3 reiterates this notion. The author, Garen Staglin clarifies that workplace trauma is not limited to people working in professions like the military, firefighting, policing, and first-response, and writes that ‘recent research shows that trauma is widespread among employees beyond these high-risk/high-stress jobs and can impact workers in any industry for a multitude of reasons that often go overlooked or ignored’.

When asked about some specific industry-types that could be susceptible to the ongoing geopolitical tensions (which may or may not have geographical proximity to these disasters) Booker says, “Organisations in the oil and energy sector may have their production operations dependent on what happens in oil producing regions like the Middle East. So if there are political or military tensions, like there are right now, people in this sector could be badly affected.”

Other industries like International Trade, Shipping, Tourism, Defence and Military contractors to name a few may face disruptions in their businesses due to the imbalance in the supply and demand chain.

Booker also draws our attention to recognise the news and media professionals, such as frontline reporters and others involved in news development, who continually report on traumatic events firsthand and might endure mental health setbacks as a result. 

“I mean, think about what effect watching news stories about traumatic events can have on the average person, and imagine if you’re exposed to it all the time?,” exclaims Booker.

Vicarious trauma can take many forms in the workplace

Trauma manifests in various ways at work, especially when there are ongoing emotionally charged political crises on the news. Leaders must note that not everyone exhibits similar behaviour patterns or has a desire to disclose their internal struggles. 

This is why “in our mental health training program, we provide managers with a set of indicators in a person’s performance, communication or engagement at work to help recognise employees who may benefit from an R U OK check in conversation” says Booker. 

“The presence of these indicators  does not necessarily mean that the person is experiencing trauma, but that checking in with them to see how they are doing and whether they need support would be a good idea.”

“Regularly checking in with your team to ask how they are going is a great way of helping managers stay attuned to any concerns people may be experiencing,” he adds.

Below are some common trigger points of trauma identified by Booker, along with advice on how managers can offer support:  

  • Emotional changes: An employee might have sudden anger outbursts, unexplained mood swings, or they may socially withdraw from social gatherings and exhibit heightened anxiety levels.
  • Physical symptoms: An employee may seem constantly tired or complain of feeling drained. They may experience sleep disturbances and suffer from unexplained headaches, stomach-aches, or other physical discomfort.
  • Cognitive changes: A common indicator could be difficulty concentrating during meetings or while performing tasks. Additionally, they may struggle with decision-making and can seem indecisive or overly cautious.
  • Behavioural signs: They might avoid certain tasks, topics, or situations that remind them of the traumatic event, which could lead to decreased productivity or increased absenteeism.
  • Changes in interpersonal dynamics: There might be increased conflict with colleagues. An employee might become more confrontational or sensitive to feedback.
  • Substance use: Increased consumption of alcohol, cigarettes, or other substances as a coping mechanism.
  • Vocalising experiences: While some employees might withdraw, others may frequently talk about their traumatic experiences or feelings, seeking support or understanding.

How can managers handle a disagreement in a team, particularly when there are opposing views on a political issue?

When speaking to the interviewer at iHR Australia, Booker says, “It’s tricky, isn’t it?.” 

“In one sense, an employer would legitimately be able to say that while we want to support people and understand they may be struggling, having ongoing debates about these issues and who is right or wrong is not a valid use of the organisation’s time. On the flip side though, leaders also need to be empathetic towards sensitive topics being discussed in the workplace.”

“It’s always good practice for leaders to help employees realise that it’s okay to have strong views, but not to the point where it leads to conflict in the workplace.”

If a workplace conflict happens to create a hostile work environment for both the parties involved and the wider organisation, then a potential workplace mediation can be conducted, not so much to settle which viewpoint is correct but to help them revert back to a normal, working relationship.

Be a trauma-informed workplace

Organisations on a broader level need to learn about conflict resolution and understand the principles of being trauma-informed. This is especially important during tough political and economic times. 

While “trauma-informed” is a recent buzzword in the HR space, it has existed as a concept for quite a while in mental health circles,” explains Booker. 

“It involves an awareness that traumatic experiences can influence how people interact with their work environment, and the goal is to reduce the risk of re-traumatisation by creating a safe, supportive, and understanding environment for all staff, particularly those who may have experienced trauma previously.”

Organisations, managers and HR alike need to understand that people who are traumatised may exhibit signs that can be detrimental to their mental health. Building organisations to be more trauma-informed implies ensuring appropriate support systems like Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) and a culture of asking ‘Are you okay?’ is normalised.

Furthermore, “When we see people who we think are traumatised, or report being in distress, the support needs to be personalised in order to help them recover from the trauma, and that’s what being trauma informed means,” Booker adds.

For HR to be more trauma-informed as part of their roles and responsibilities, Booker suggests it would be a great starting point to undergo training around managing trauma and mental health

“I’m not suggesting that [HR] need to be experts in this subject matter or be able to diagnose whether someone is traumatised,” says Booker. “There are obvious legal risks for non-healthcare professionals seeking to diagnose employees.”

“It’s understanding what the possible workplace indicators of trauma are and having the skill set to drive R U OK? Conversations supportively and empathically. It is also about linking employees to psychological assistance, inside and outside the business if they report any post traumatic stress or signs of trauma.” 

For instance, if an organisation plans to commence a workplace investigation that involves an employee who underwent some traumatic experiences in their previous job, it’s important to be respectful and careful, and avoid reigniting past trauma. 

In summary, being a trauma-informed workplace is not just about acknowledging trauma; it’s about creating a holistic environment where every individual feels valued, understood, and supported.

Addressing trauma in the workplace without hurting sentiments

As mentioned earlier, dealing with trauma in the workplace can pose a real challenge to an employee’s mental wellbeing and impact their behaviours in the workplace. But that’s not all. 

Most employees lack knowledge around what resources or techniques help in overcoming a traumatic experience. 

“Leaders should initiate an open dialogue with their employees and say something like, ‘We recognise this is something people might be worried about. You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to, but we want to let you know that we understand that it is a difficult time for you.’ And reiterate support resources,” says Booker.

“I think managers can think about a designated time or a safe place where employees can share their feelings or concerns, but I think that space needs to be moderated.” 

Booker suggests organisations hold a purposeful meeting where an informed employee or a representative of HR can facilitate an open dialogue between the employees during crises. 

“Anyone who wants to attend should be able to, but it needs to be clarified that it’s not a space to debate the issues. Instead, it’s to talk about what’s going on and express how everyone feels about it, and to ensure they’re aware of the support available to them.” 

Here are a few other ways employers can provide support to employees dealing with trauma:

  • Temporary role adjustments 
  • Flexible working arrangements 
  • Open communication and safe spaces
  • Offer counselling and mental health resources
  • Reiterate company values and create inclusive policies
  • Educate and train the workforce to build resilience 

“You know, despite initiating open dialogues, acknowledging the ongoing geopolitical situation and expressing empathy towards affected employees, it’s still crucial for leaders to step in where necessary as one of the psychosocial risks mentioned in the WorkSafe code is unmanaged conflict in the workplace,” Booker states.

“Employers do have an obligation to try to step in and resolve that conflict, and help employees dealing with trauma in any shape and form.”

Resources*

  1. Protecting the brain against bad news, National Library of Medicine, 2021
  2. Company bosses and workers grapple with the fallout of speaking up about the Israel-Hamas war, AP News, 2022
  3. Trauma At The Workplace, What To Do About It, Forbes, 2021
  4. Almost 7 in 10 Aussies hiding mental illness from employer, WayAhead, 2023 (Infographic)

About the Expert

Steven Booker is an experienced business and counselling psychologist with a combination of mental health, HR and employment law knowledge that has helped many organisations investigate. mediate and manage mental illness, stress, trauma, conflict, organisational change and critical workplace incidents.

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