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Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today Magazine

Helping staff in times of trauma

Aotearoa lost its innocence in the terror attacks of March 15, says trauma advisor Sandra Johnston. She looks at the impact of trauma and what organisations can do to support employees.

On March 15, 50 people were killed in shootings at two mosques in Christchurch. In just a few terrible minutes, Aotearoa New Zealand lost its innocence as we found the hard, cold reality of today’s world on our own doorstep. But what does that mean for our workplaces and organisations in terms of staff wellbeing and their physical and psychological safety?

Some organisations/workplaces have been doing a fantastic job of caring for their employees. Some, however, have gone into overdrive, providing so much support that it has created a degree of resentment amongst staff who feel they’re being told the atrocities “must have had an impact on you” when that isn’t necessarily so.

How do you find the right amount of support? One way is to ask someone from an outside agency, who will look at your organisation through fresh eyes, to talk to staff and get a feel for their need.

The events of March 15th left most New Zealanders shocked and dumfounded as to how this could happen on our shores, and angry that it was a recovering Christchurch that was hit again. At first it seemed unreal, like hearing yet again of another tragic terror attack far away from our shores.

So what next? Can we future-proof our workplaces from the impact of such graphic, shocking events?

The answer is both no and yes! No, because humankind is unpredictable and often egocentric, therefore extremists will continue to frighten and anger us and the outcome will be traumatic.

Yes, because we can begin today to take a long hard look at how and who provides support in our organisations.

We must start by ensuring that bullying, harassment, racism, and sexism of any kind—from whatever level—are not tolerated and become a thing of the past. It’s time to clean up our own backyard before we tut-tut about other nations.

This article outlines some practical steps you can take. For starters:

  • • 
    Ensure senior management has some training in crisis awareness and disaster planning.
  • • 
    Know the difference between someone being upset by someone or something and the impact of an incident that causes post-traumatic stress (which is normal) and, worst case scenario, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is a diagnosable condition.
  • • 
    Know the international definition of a critical incident and, if it applies, then have a good assessment tool that can be part of crisis awareness training. This will quickly bring all the much-needed information together to activate a response. A critical incident is any incident, accident or near miss that has the potentional to shut down or overwhelm a person’s coping mechanisms at the scene or later.
  • • 
    Be managers/leaders—don’t blur boundaries by trying to be a counsellor to your staff.
  • • 
    Have an agreement with people who are trained to work in the area of psychological trauma and psychological first aid and have access numbers in your phones on speed dial. If your organisation has a unique culture, eg, a hospital, carefully select and access internationally recognised training to create a peer support team and ensure they receive ongoing, appropriate supervision. Whichever way, either using an external trauma trained provider or an internal peer support team, practise scenarios at least six-monthly to check out the quality of your procedures and ability of those involved to respond.
  • • 
    Ensure there is an activation flow chart which clearly shows the steps to follow in the event of an incident. Laminate this and have it up in easily accessible areas, not just sitting among H&S policies on people’s PCs.
  • • 
    Check that your employees’ personal contact details and those of their next of kin are up to date. People change providers and numbers far more often than in the past.
  • • 
    Most of you will have Civil Defence kits ready to go, but what have you got in place in case of a lock-down? You’ll need things like muesli bars, barley sugar, etc; toilet buckets with lids—and some means of providing some privacy to use these.

People feel the impact of events like the Christchurch earthquakes and, more recently, the terror attacks on Christchurch mosques and further away in Sri Lanka, for a number of reasons.

There are those who have direct relationships with the people involved, the victims and survivors; they will most likely need immediate release from duties. In this situation, the first question to ask is “What do you need right now?” Find out how they got to work and if they need transport. A distracted person can become a hazard at work and a distracted driver is a danger to others on the road.

There will be those who are directly related to the police and other first responders. Again, they are likely to be anxious and distracted. What do they need right at that point?

A traumatic event can trigger feelings of anxiety in people who have partners or family working in the emergency services, even though they aren’t at that particular incident.

Then there are those who have their TV, radio or social media feed on constantly, seeing and listening to updates. Call your teams together, address the concern of vicarious trauma and have them turn off those broadcasts. The effect of constantly absorbing such events is somewhat addictive to some people and it can, and does, bring about similar reactions to those experienced by people who are directly affected.

Vicarious trauma is real. It is usually a result of being affected by something that someone else has experienced. Take, for example, the manager who has several staff from the Muslim community and has not only been repeatedly hearing graphic details of the recent horrific events in Christchurch, but is also feeling for the pain and concerns of those left hehind.

That person found themselves down, not sleeping, even wondering what they might be hearing next and generally feeling helpless as to what to do. Finally someone suggested that the manager make a call to ask for personal help. As a result they now have someone to support them, and they have also learned the importance of having an information kit with names and contact details of support agencies in the community which can be passed on as concrete help to employees.

The comment from that manager was, “I no longer feel as if I’m letting my staff down by not knowing what to say or do. I have a list of agencies, numbers and names of contact people I can pass on.”

This isn’t about “molly-coddling” staff, it’s the difference between a workplace which actively lives out its care and concern for the wellbeing of staff and one that, despite a policy that ticks all the boxes, doesn’t.

It’s important to be aware that, for some people, tragedies can often retrigger personal “stuff” that’s not been dealt with. Some examples are personal grief that has been supressed, anger about some event from way back, or mental and physical health issues that have been bubbling under the surface but, until now, have not addressed. However, with the tragic deaths filling our TV screens and papers, thoughts of how quickly life can be cut short may make us want to face up to doing something about these things we’ve put off dealing with.

If managers and leaders are not aware of what is behind an individual’s sudden change in behaviour, productivity or work attendance, especially when time has gone by after the original incident, it can cause difficulties at work. Again it’s about addressing issues such as these early on, at the time of the crisis.

When talking with staff or sending out communications, please be careful around the language that’s used. Whether people do or don’t react is addressed by saying “some may experience …” Any reactions are a may or might, not a given.

Much is being said in the media about depression and PTSD. These are huge subjects that certainly can’t be addressed in a short article. If you observe changes in mood in staff, quietly get alongside them, away from prying eyes, and check out their wellbeing. Say only what you’ve observed—not what you think is happening—and be prepared to both ask what they need and offer ways forward.

There is such a thing as “situational depression”—a lowering of mood that is as a result of a particular event. This is short term and helped with practical support. Clinical depression needs to be diagnosed by a doctor and a plan put in place to support that person’s journey to wellness.

We all walk across a continuum from day to day. Some days are just plain down days that we have to get through before a new day tomorrow. An attitude of “leave your problems at the door” isn’t realistic, nor is it acceptable in today’s workforce

Inevitably, too, an organisation can have the very best of support on offer and the very ones who need it most don’t access it. No you can’t force an individual to get help unless they are putting someone else at risk because of their behaviour. What is important is to have a robust induction process that clearly spells out what will happen in the event of a crisis in this organisation—this is what will happen and staff are expected to attend.

If you’re unsure where to go or who to ask for support in setting up trauma responses or to provide training in crisis intervention, please ask. You can contact me at

Kia kaha.

SANDRA JOHNSTON is a trauma advisor, trainer and responder and CIMA (Crisis Intervention & Management Australasia) training coordinator.

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