Public Health

Trauma and How It Can Adversely Affect the Workplace

When our systems are stressed and overworked, our ability to problem solve, make rational decisions, and process information decreases, leading to taking chances one might not otherwise do.

by Raquelle Solon / November 22, 2016
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Sixty-six percent of the general population has been traumatized at some point. Eighty percent of workers feel stressed on the job. When you combine a traumatic experience and stress, the risk for adverse workplace behaviors can be high. To combat this, emergency managers can collaborate with leadership and human resources to improve resiliency components and decrease stress among their teams.

There are different definitions of trauma. For example, the University of Maryland defines trauma as “an experience that causes physical, emotional, psychological distress or harm. It is an event that is perceived and experienced as a threat to one’s safety or to the stability of one’s world.” The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines trauma as “experiences that cause intense physical and psychological stress reactions, which could be a single event, multiple events, or a set of circumstances experienced by an individual as physically and emotionally harmful or threatening, and have long lasting effects to the individual.”
Different ways to experience trauma

Your employees may experience trauma in several ways. One way is acute trauma. It is a traumatic event that often occurs without warning and over which the employee has no control. Examples of acute trauma include:

•    Workplace accidents. Witnessing a coworker getting injured or killed while on the job.

•    Acute stress due to downsizing, lay-offs, company closings or forces outside of work. It can also include posttraumatic stress disorder.

•    Random acts of violence or terrorism, whether in the workplace or the surrounding community.

The cost of trauma

It is estimated that 1 million workers are absent each day due to stress, and the number of employees calling in sick due to stress-related symptoms is on the rise. One study conducted between 1996 and 2000 found that the number of calls tripled during this time. Another study found that 60 percent of employee absences could be traced back to stress-related psychological problems.

Sadly our work environments aren’t getting less stressful. Increased absenteeism causes more stress for the rest of the workforce. When the economy turned south in 2008, employers began asking their workforces to do more with less. This only added additional responsibilities and time pressures. The thought of downsizing, business closings and restructuring weighed heavily on the workforce and contributed to the increased pressure employees were feeling at the time. Some lingering effects may still be present.

Organizations with a stressed-out workforce also are likely to see an increase in accidents or near misses. When our systems are stressed and overworked, our ability to problem solve, make rational decisions and process information decreases, leading to taking chances one might not otherwise do. An employee might not even be aware of his or her actions, as a common reaction to traumatic stress is risky behavior that, in the moment, seems normal or okay.

How can employees build resilience in the face of adverse circumstances or traumatic events?
The first step in building resilience is understanding that each employee handles traumatic events differently. Many people can experience a traumatic event and utilize internal and external resiliency factors to recover such as:

•    Hope — Taken from one of my favorite movie characters Scarlett O’Hara, “After all, tomorrow is another day.” Understanding that “this too shall pass.”

•    Connections — Accepting support from family, friends and co-workers allows individuals to lighten their burden by sharing with others.

•    Sharing — Similar to connections, this actually is the conversation one has with his or her support system when stressed out. Having a trusted circle with whom you can debrief situations offers the opportunity to see things from another perspective.

•    Time — Individuals with good coping mechanisms understand they need time to relax and recharge.

•    Self-care — Healthy eating, exercising and getting enough sleep all play into an individual’s ability to be resilient. There’s a reason we have slang terms for when people get stressed out and hungry – hangry – because we’ve recognized that to be our best we must take care of ourselves.
Helping employees build resilience

Organizations can help employees build resiliency by incorporating SAMHSA’s key principles into their culture. They include:

•    Safety — Throughout the organization, employees feel physically and psychologically safe.

•    Trustworthiness and transparency — Organizational operations and decisions are conducted with transparency and the goal of building and maintaining trust among employees, customers, clients and family members of those receiving services.

•    Peer support and mutual self-help — These are integral to the organizational approach and are understood as a key vehicle for building trust, establishing safety and empowerment.

•    Collaboration and mutuality — There is true partnering and leveling of power differences between employees and leadership. There is recognition that healing happens in relationships and in the meaningful sharing of power and decision-making. The organization recognizes that everyone has a role to play in a trauma-informed approach. One does not have to be a therapist to be therapeutic.

•    Empowerment, voice and choice — Throughout the organization and among the many individuals served, individuals' strengths are recognized, built on and validated, and new skills developed as necessary. This builds on what clients, staff and communities have to offer, rather than responding to perceived deficits.

•    Cultural, historical and gender issues — The organization actively moves past cultural stereotypes and biases (based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, geography), offers gender responsive services, leverages the healing value of traditional cultural connections, and recognizes and addresses historical trauma.

Organizations also should recognize the importance of psychological first aid, which is an evidence-informed approach built on the concept of resilience designed to reduce stress symptoms caused by traumatic events. Its key components mirror SAMHSA’s key principles in safety, connectedness and hope, elaborating on responding to those affected by trauma in a calm, comforting, non-judgmental approach while simultaneously encouraging self-empowerment. 

Provide your employees with the outside resources they may need: EAP services, crisis counselors, formal debriefing, etc., and ensure you have available tips for them to take an active role in their own recovery through meditation, exercise, healthy eating and adequate sleep — all essential to building resilience in your workforce.

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.


Raquelle Solon is business solutions engineer for FEI Workforce Resilience in Milwaukee, responsible for helping organizations in a wide range of industries, including retail, higher education, business, manufacturing, health care, mental health and human services, to determine and implement a holistic crisis management system.