What Employers Should Know About Trauma in the Workplace

2008 was a difficult year. The Great Recession was underway. People lived in a constant state of worry. In workplaces across the country, employees informally gathered after official meetings, trying to decipher what their leaders had shared and what information they’d held back. If the larger implications of the recession were abstract and theoretical, the possibility of layoffs felt very real.

If you worked during this time and didn’t lose your job, you probably had friends and acquaintances who did. Your leaders may have done their best to keep you updated as you pondered the fate of your employment, but that didn’t stop the whispered discussions in the hallways and bathrooms. You may have wondered what the real story was, when decisions would be made, and what would happen to your livelihood. It was a time when people were expected to continue to work as they had before—or put in even more effort—all while raises and benefits were on the chopping block.

In the aftermath, some people felt pressured to pretend nothing remarkable had happened. Their leaders wanted them to carry on, push forward, and, most importantly, not talk about the hard business decisions that were made or the pain those decisions caused. The struggle was real, but that stark reality wasn’t acknowledged out in the open. As a result, both those who lost their jobs and those who didn’t felt anxious, confused, insecure, and distrustful.

At the time, you might not have referred to the mere prospect of a layoff as a “traumatic event.” But it was. Trauma is an emotional response to a distressing experience. And that recession was most definitely distressing. It caused deep and widespread psychological harm. It affected people’s mental health at a time when society took mental health much less seriously than it does now.

When a distressing event occurs in or affects the workplace, leaders need to be ready and able to support their employees before, during, and after the event. That goes whether the event has its source in the workplace—like a layoff, acquisition, or serious workplace injury or death—or impacts the workplace from the outside—like a pandemic, natural disaster, or act of violence.

Responding to traumatic events poorly (or not at all) can make a bad situation much worse. In fact, an inadequate response to trauma can itself become a source of additional distress.

Let’s examine how you can prepare your workplace to weather a traumatic event, support your employees throughout its duration, and help them process their emotions in the aftermath.

Preparing for Traumatic Events

First, you must build trust with your employees before things get bad. If you don’t start from a place of trust before something bad happens, it will be difficult to establish it when you are in the middle of a stressful, chaotic, and challenging situation. To create relationships built in trust, act with transparency, clarity, and consistency. Demonstrate that you care personally for your people. Show them the trust that you want them to show you.

Second, plan for trauma. You may already have plans in the event of emergencies, disasters, or major business disruptions. Make sure those plans account for the emotional state of employees during and after the event. Train managers to recognize signs of distress and what’s in (and not in) their power to manage. Emphasize the importance of transparency, clarity, and consistency. You don’t want to make matters worse by acting chaotically.

Third, establish a communication plan for emergency situations. Employees should know where to go for important, up-to-date information. Leaders should know who will be involved in these communications—who initiates, who reviews, and when and how the communication is shared with employees.

Fourth, practice. Review your plans and run through them on a regular basis so leaders understand their role. Share these plans with your employees as appropriate. Not everyone will read them, but putting in the effort will gain you some trust with many employees.

Navigating Traumatic Events

We all know you can plan and plan and plan and plan, but when a moment of crisis comes, you begin to panic. That’s okay. Take a moment to breathe and calm yourself. Bring your response team together and get organized. Outline what needs to happen, including communications that should go out to employees. Make sure everyone is on the same page.

You will want to have multiple ways for messages to be shared as your employees will likely not receive messages at the same time, especially if you have people on multiple shifts. If you’re conducting a layoff, for example, meet with each affected employee individually (as you are able) and be sure you are giving them all the necessary information. Then follow up in writing, as these employees will likely be in shock and not remember much of what you said.

Act with empathy and sensitivity to those who are most affected. Sometimes, well-meaning leaders emphasize their own pain at a time when their employees are hurting. Less well-meaning leaders sometimes act in callous or dismissive ways, treating their employees as if they are disposable. Both of these approaches to distressing situations break down trust. They also have a chance to become viral news online, at great reputation risk to the organization.

Responding to Trauma When Things Calm Down

When the dust settles, you may be ready to return to “normal,” but that’s not going to happen. Your world has changed. You need to help your employees adjust to this “new normal” and recognize that the past isn’t coming back.

Your employees will need time to process the event and their feelings about it. Share information about your employee assistance program (EAP), if you have one. Create spaces for employees to connect and talk about the changes. Prepare managers to listen. The trauma following the death of a coworker, for example, will affect the workplace long after the funeral. Grief is personal and not everyone will react in the way you think they might.

In a case like this, you’d want to give your employees time and space to process the event and their feelings, while also providing them with information they need to prepare themselves for what comes next. For example, it could be jarring for employees to see their deceased coworker’s job posted. They may feel as though you are pushing them to a place they aren’t ready to go to yet. Giving them a heads up may help them prepare themselves emotionally to see the job posting.

You cannot shy away from the events you all collectively went through, nor should you sweep the memory of it under the rug and pretend it didn’t happen. Being upfront and honest about the experience will be a huge benefit to your employees working through their experience and what it means to them. Trauma will always get its say, but it doesn’t have to have the last word.

Article content provided by My HR Support Center

Five Ways to Promote Mental Health in the Workplace

In a survey by McKinsey & Company, 75 percent of employers acknowledged that there’s a stigma around mental health in the workplace. People in the workplace, leaders included, are afraid to speak up about their mental health needs or ask for help. As the McKinsey report notes, employers can’t solve every problem contributing to poor mental health, but there is work they can do to reduce the stigma around mental health and promote healthy behaviors. We recommend these five actions: 

  1. When possible, give employees a little extra time to slow down and rest. Employees may need a moment to breathe or a day to regain their peace of mind, and they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for time to take care of themselves. The ability to occasionally function at a medium (or even slow) pace should be built into performance expectations so that employees can avoid burnout or breakdown.
  2. Offer paid time off (PTO), mental health benefits, and flexible schedules if appropriate. In some cases, employees may want to get mental health care but can’t afford it. Losing pay from a missed work shift might be too great a hardship, and effective treatments might be financially out of reach. These financial hindrances can exacerbate conditions like anxiety and depression. In other cases, employees can afford the time off and the treatments, but they can’t make regular appointments work with their schedules. If you can offer PTO, health insurance benefits, or flexible schedules, these can help employees get the care they need.
  3. Offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). An EAP gives employees access to expert, confidential assistance for substance abuse issues, relationship troubles, financial problems, and mental health conditions. These services are offered through an outside provider that connects employees with the appropriate resources and professionals. These programs enable you to provide professional assistance to employees in a confidential manner.
  4. Make reasonable accommodations when possible. If an employee informs you that they have anxiety, depression, or another mental health condition that’s affecting their work, begin the interactive process to determine what reasonable accommodation(s) you can provide in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA applies when an employer has 15 or more employees, but many states have similar laws that require employers to make accommodations at an even lower employee count. You can learn more about the ADA on the HR Support Center.
  5. Promote good mental (and physical) health in the workplace. Healthy habits are important for everyone to practice. Consider setting time aside during the week or month for employees to participate in activities like yoga, meditation, and mindfulness that develop and strengthen these habits. If you aren’t familiar with these practices, solicit the help of your employees. One or more of them may know a lot about these activities and be able to assist you in setting up a workplace program or modifying a program for employees currently working from home.

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How to Support a Grieving Employee

Everyone experiences grief at some point in their life, and yet for being such a common experience, it’s also one that few of us are fully equipped to navigate when it comes. In part, this is because grief is such an overwhelming and horrible experience. Nothing can prepare you for it. You just have to go through it and get through it. Grief is also a unique experience for each person. Everyone has their own path through its stages, and what helped one person work through their grief may not help another.

To complicate matters, our fast-paced, always-on society isn’t set up to allow time for grief. We’re often pressured to keep our grief private and keep it short. Grief takes us away from our obligations, and our obligations may be impatient for us to return. Households need to be managed. Work needs to be done. Bills need to be paid. Life goes on.  

No one can make the grief easy, but there are ways to be supportive and to give people the time and space they need to process their emotions and find healing. Below are some ways that employers and coworkers can support a grieving employee:

Document workflows. Upon hearing of a loved one’s passing, an employee may need to drop everything and leave work immediately, and, in some circumstances, the employee may not be reachable or be able to update you on the status of all their work assignments and projects. With clear, documented workflows set up ahead of time, you can quickly reassign work, and the employee doesn’t need to worry about any urgent or time-sensitive work they left behind. Having documented workflows is also (and more commonly) useful when an employee quits without giving sufficient notice or is sick or injured themselves.

Educate managers and teammates about the grieving process. Grief can take many forms and look different from day to day. Managers and coworkers of a grieving employee may not know what to say (or not to say) or how they should act. Bringing in a grief counselor to talk with employees and educate them about grief can help them support their grieving team member. Grief counseling is also a good idea if employees are grieving the loss of a colleague.

Provide bereavement leave and flexibility upon return. In many cases, people who have lost a close family member have to put their grief on hold so they can make all the calls and decisions that have to be made when someone dies. They may have to make arrangements for the funeral, inform family, friends, schools, and others about the death, and give extra attention to children or other people in the home. It’s a lot. Employers can be a big help here by offering bereavement leave and flexibility when the employee returns.

In the United States, the typical bereavement leave policy is three to seven days, which is rarely enough time to hold a funeral or memorial service, let alone work through the initial pain of a loss. Some companies offer more time off. The policy at Facebook, for example, is 20 days of paid time off after the death of an immediate family member.  

Of course, providing either paid or unpaid time off is a huge expense, and not every employer can make it work, however much they would like to. Our general recommendation is to offer as much time as you can and communicate with the employee about how much time they feel they need. Some employees may want to come back sooner rather than later because work helps get their minds off the pain. Others may ask for longer because they need more time to heal before they’re able to be fully productive at work.

Understand, too, that grieving employees will have bad days, and grief can come on suddenly, like a ton of bricks. Grieving employees may need extra breaks or need to take a half day unexpectedly. Letting employees know that they have flexibility after they return can be a big relief.  

Offer mental health care. It’s likely that grieving employees will need therapy to help them process the loss and work through their emotions, but regular sessions with a therapist can quickly become costly. Providing health insurance that covers mental health care can help ease this financial burden. An Employee Assistance Program may also be beneficial.

Reach out to offer support, but be mindful of decision fatigue. People experiencing a loss need support, but they may not know what support they need or be able to answer if asked. Decision fatigue is very common immediately after a death. Even a question like, “What can we bring over for dinner?” can be stressful to answer.

One option here is to simply let a grieving employee know that you’re there for them and that they can reach out if they need anything. Another option is to make decisions yourself about what support you give. For example, if you want to provide the employee with a gift card to a restaurant, you could select the restaurant yourself instead of asking the employee which restaurant they’d prefer (just be sure to take the possibility of food allergies into consideration). Both of these options let the employee know that you care about them without adding to the decisions they have to make and the stress they’re feeling.

Be aware of triggers and PTSD. If the death was particularly sudden, unexpected, or traumatic, the employee may at times unexpectedly reexperience the horror, panic, stress, and fear they felt at the time of the event. In some cases, the employee may be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. If any of this occurs, give the employee time and space to process their emotions.   

Also, don’t be hard on yourself if something you say triggers a response. There’s no way to anticipate all of the words and images that could be triggering, and even if you know the details of the death, it’s simply not reasonable to expect that you’ll remember those details in every moment that you’re speaking. Don’t worry if you say the “wrong thing.” The important thing is to be aware that a grieving employee may feel the need to step away and to show understanding and compassion in those moments.

Article content provided by My HR Support Center