When Lily*, a colleague, approached me to ask if I had time to talk to her, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. She looked flustered and anxious. Lily revealed to me that she had just received news that her colleague, whom she was very close to, had been killed in a road traffic accident while on her way to work. In shock and feeling like her emotions are spiraling out of control, she needed to talk to someone about this. I sat with her as she cried, processing the traumatic loss of her close work buddy.
Workplace trauma can affect anyone
Work is an essential routine of many people’s lives — we spend most of our waking hours at work. Hence our workplace is almost considered as our “second home”, a place where we expect to feel safe and supported in carrying out our jobs. However, even the best employers cannot guarantee that employees will never be exposed to trauma in their workplace.
It is very common and normal for people to experience emotional, physical and psychological reactions after experiencing traumatic incidents.
Trauma in the workplace and expected reactions
When employees are exposed to crises or critical events in their workplace, they may find themselves experiencing intense physical or psychological responses that affect their normal functioning. Workplace trauma includes exposure to:
- Stressful and life-threatening events (work-related accidents/injury, death or suicide of colleague, exposure to infectious diseases, threats of violence and harm)
- Organisational stressors (bullying, harassment, unresolved or ongoing conflicts, discrimination, chronic pressure, excessive workload, downsizing or fear of retrenchment)
- Unsafe work environment (constant noise, chaotic environment, fear for physical safety, working amid construction, any adverse physical work conditions)
- External threats (lockdown, fire, robbery, terrorist attacks)
It is very common and normal for people to experience emotional, physical and psychological reactions after experiencing traumatic incidents. Some signs and symptoms to look out for include:
- Physical reactions (fatigue, frequent headaches or dizziness, aches and pains, appetite changes)
- Emotional reactions (irritability, angry outbursts, feeling anxious and helpless, moody, frustration)
- Negative effects on thought (decreased concentration, confusion, mental block, negative thinking, forgetfulness)
- Behavioural reactions (poor sleep, isolating self, increased use of alcohol)
These are normal reactions people face after experiencing traumatic and abnormal situations and will usually resolve naturally over time. However, should the intensity of these symptoms remain high and persist over a period of more than one month, and those affected find themselves unable to function normally in their daily living, it will be worth seeking out professional help.
Helping employees cope better after experiencing traumatic events
Workplace trauma compromises employee well-being, health and work relationships, which would often lead to absenteeism, low productivity, low morale and resignation. Many people who experience a traumatic event would utilise their own internal and external resources to cope and recover. People handle and process trauma differently. Therefore, it is crucial for organisations to prioritise supporting employees who have experienced traumatising workplace incidents with a number of avenues, such as setting up peer support programmes, collaborating with external resources, and ensuring that employees have easy and judgement-free access to mental health support.
Organisations should aim to actively build a collaborative and trusting culture and environment where employees feel physically and psychologically safe to carry out their work. As Raquelle Solon, a business solutions engineer specialising in building workforce resilience, put it: “Employers who invest in their workforce and help foster an environment that is supportive and builds resiliency will find the payoff is a reward of happy and stable employees, willing to go the extra mile knowing you’ve got their back”.
Self-care after experiencing workplace trauma
Moving on after experiencing overwhelming stress and crises at work can be challenging if you do not acknowledge and manage your reactions timely and appropriately. Serious physical and mental health issues may even develop in the long run. Here are some ways to do so:
- Face your feelings head-on: Do not avoid or minimise your feelings. They will not “just go away or disappear”.
- Talk about your experience and feelings with trusted people (family, friends or colleagues who will not discount how you feel or tell you to “forget about it”). Do not isolate yourself.
- Be kind to yourself: Spend time engaging in healthy and calming activities (e.g. exercise, eat healthy, meditate, enjoyable hobbies) that can help you relax and stay grounded. Take time out whenever needed and have adequate rest.
- Stick to schedules or routines that you are comfortable with: Return to your normal day-to-day schedule as soon as possible, as this can help you re-establish a sense of normalcy and regain a sense of control over your life.
- Take one step at a time: Do not rush into making major changes in your life or to your routines. Slow down and spend time reassessing your personal goals and strengthening healthy bonds with family, friends and your community.
- Seek professional help: The stress that comes with a traumatic event can be crippling, so if your feelings in the first month after the event are so severe that they interfere with your daily functioning, do seek professional help.
The contributor is a Principal Medical Social Worker & Family Therapist at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH). She oversees the Staff Support Assistance Programme (SSAP) at IMH, and leads a team of peer supporters in providing workplace crisis and emotional support to any staff in need.
- Everly, G. S., Jr. & Mitchell, J.T. Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM): A new era and standard of care in crisis intervention, second edition (1999). Ellicott City, MD: Chevron Publishing Corporation.
*Not her real name.