What to Do After Experiencing a Workplace Trauma

It is vitally important that both employees and employers are aware of symptoms of a toxic work environment and other potential injuries and traumas that may occur in the workplace. Understanding the potential traumas that may occur, and what to do after an employee has experienced a workplace trauma, can help both employee and employer anticipate the legal requirements and needs of the employee as they recover and return to work.

Potential Traumas in the Workplace

Events that might result in a workplace trauma include:

  • Stressful Events. This may take the form of accident or injury, grief, or the death or suicide of a co-worker.
  • Organizational Stressors. Organizational stressors may include toxic bosses or work environments that facilitate harassment, maliciousness, bullying, and threatening behavior from peers or management, or betrayal. Organizational stressors may also include chronic pressure, unresolved conflict, uncertainty, or fear for the future — such as fear of downsizing and becoming unemployed.
  • Physical Stressors. Physical stressors may include adverse physical conditions in the workplace, working amid construction, noise, chaotic environments, harsh and flashing lights, or extremes of heat and cold. Physical stressors may also occur from fear for physical safety or a lack of sense of control over the working space.
  • External Threats. External threats may include shootings, witnessing violence, robberies, or lockdowns. It also may include fires, natural disasters, and evacuations.

Employers have the responsibility of maintaining a safe workplace that is free of recognized hazards that may cause physical injury or death but cannot guarantee that employees will never be exposed to a traumatic event at work. Some workplace hazards may result in physical trauma, workplace psychological trauma, or both.

Psychologically traumatic workplace events are increasing in prevalence in the United States and may result in emotional, cognitive, and behavioral symptoms in employees that can take a toll on their ability to function in their occupation and everyday life. Additionally, businesses may face financial risks for the company upholding legal liability for psychiatric disability claims, workers’ compensation claims, and increased health and mental health costs for both employees and employers.

The Cost of Trauma

The National Safety Council estimates that the total cost of work injuries was $170.8 billion in 2018 with an average cost of $1,100 cost per worker from the employer and $41,000 per medically consulted injury. In total, the figure represents:

  • Wages and productivity losses of $52.4 billion
  • Medical expense costs of $35 billion.
  • Administrative expenses at $57.6 billion
  • Employer uninsured costs of $12.8 billion

The real cost of a workplace injury includes both direct and indirect costs. The direct costs are typically the cost of the workers’ compensation claim which ranges depending on the organization and their Experience Modification Rate. The average cost of a workers’ compensation injury claim is $40,000.

Indirect costs may have many factors. Examples of indirect costs include:

  • The cost of lost productivity.
  • The cost of wages while an employee is out of work.   
  • The cost of hiring an attorney for a workers’ compensation claim.
  • Additional costs of legal counsel, medical advisement, human resources, or administrative staff.

Strategies For Addressing a Workplace Trauma

To prepare for potential psychological trauma and incidents in the workplace, employers should consider pre-incident planning, comprehensive recovery strategies, and comprehensive human resource planning. Each of these strategies should include plans for the four phases of response to address workplace trauma:

  • The pre-incident phase. This includes creating crisis response plans and resilience training, which will include education about the risks of different types of incidents, common stress responses, and information on self-care measures or signs of traumatic stress.
  • The emergency phase. The plan for the emergency phase will include strategies and processes for how to deal with incidents as they occur.
  • The post-impact phase. The post-impact phase plan should include a post-incident response. This may include preparing or enacting services or employee assistance for healthcare services or other healthcare-related disciplines such as psychologists and mental healthcare. This may also include the use of occupational social workers. 
  • The restoration phase. The restoration phase may include a recovery plan that addresses emotional and behavioral impacts, necessary worker time off to participate in post-incident support services, and any further necessary employee support.

Legal Measures

Workplace issues of harassment, traumatic experiences, or injuries may require legal measures. Those that feel that their employee rights have been obstructed may consider seeking legal counsel for a workers’ compensation claim, which may be approved, but can also be denied for various reasons. Incidents that occur should be reported as soon as possible, and employees and employers alike have the duty and responsibility to understand workers’ comp benefits and qualifications.

Coping Mechanisms

The physical, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral symptoms of a workplace trauma may appear immediately on the scene of the incident or may develop or show symptoms months later. Common healthy coping mechanisms — also commonly referred to as adaptive coping — may include:

  • Talk therapy, counseling, and emotional support.
  • Relaxation and acts of self-care.
  • Problem-solving and managing solutions for stress or triggers.
  • Utilizing healthy humor to make light of a stressful situation before it becomes overwhelming.
  • Engaging in physical activity and exercise.

How Employers Can Help

Employers can advocate for employee mental health and help to manage trauma in the workplace by adhering to the following strategies. These strategies may be applied for both active employees, as well as those that may be taking some time off to heal from the trauma.

  • Reach out and listen to the employee about their needs and experience.
  • Facilitate open communication. Check-in at regular intervals and encourage employees to reach out.
  • Ensure the employee has adequate time, space, and resources to manage their healing process.
  • Be patient and allow the employee to process the incident in their own time.
  • Implement and communicate clear processes so that staff knows what resources are accessible to them.
  • Create a safe-place in the business where employees can go if they are feeling distressed.
  • Host informational sessions with qualified external speakers that explain experiences of trauma and offer coping strategies.
  • Implement actions to increase social support within the workplace.

When to Go Back to Work

A few considerations on determining when an employee may return to work should include:

  • Keeping and facilitating open communication between the employer and the employee to provide the proper support when the employee returns to work.
  • The employee may consider maximizing the length and duration of their disability insurance and benefits.
  • The employee should discuss their choice of returning to work with the general practitioner. The general practitioner is responsible for writing a Fit Note and may reach out to other healthcare professionals or recommend a graded or phased return.
  • The employee should speak with a counselor, occupational therapist, or rehabilitation service to ensure they are prepared to return to work.

An employee may also need to decide if returning to work at their former place of employment is the best option for them. If not, they may choose to find employment elsewhere with the support of their previous employer.

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