How to support employees following a traumatic event


An expert and a psychologist offer advice to help support employees who may be experiencing distress following a traumatic event.

Warning: This article contains content that may be distressing to some readers. For those who need immediate support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Australians are reeling after two attacks in Sydney’s southern and eastern suburbs last week, which have claimed the lives of six people and injured several others.

“Our thoughts and condolences are with the families, friends and colleagues of the victims,” says AHRI’s CEO, Sarah McCann Bartlett. 

Dr Zena Burgess, CEO of the Australian Psychological Society (APS) and organisational psychologist says the effects of the attacks may be far-reaching.

“For the friends and families of the victims and those who bore witness to the attacks, the mental health impacts could stick with them for life.”

“We also need to consider the impacts these tragedies could have on the broader community. Many people will be distressed by these events and will talk about them in the workplace. They might speculate about motives or share concerns regarding further attacks,” says Dr Burgess.

“It’s possible we could see increases in emotional distress, such as anger, sorrow, fear and confusion. And, for some people, old trauma could possibly be reactivated.”

This is why, following any traumatic event, it’s important for employers to have robust processes in place to reduce distress and respond to those whose trauma may be triggered.

Supporting employees following traumatic events 

Most organisations will incorporate a response to a dangerous or traumatic event in the workplace into their crisis management or business continuity plan. This should guide them during and immediately after the event.

However, these plans sometimes omit support for employees who may be affected by an incident that occurred outside the workplace. In this instance, it’s advisable to assess who in your organisation might be impacted.

“It’s very important that the reality [of the situation] is acknowledged and the way people feel is heard,” says Dr Cathy Kezelman AM, medical practitioner and President and Executive Director at Blue Knot Foundation, an organisation that supports people to recover from complex trauma.

“Employees’ response to situations like this will also be dependent on their own lived experiences, including whether they have prior histories of trauma. So there’s a holistic response to consider as well as an individual response.”

This trauma can be cumulative, she adds, noting that the past few years have exposed people to an array of distressing situations.

“On top of [the recent attacks], we have a community that has been shaken by things like COVID and the current global [geopolitical] situation. There’s a sense of this pervasive threat throughout the entire community, so each thing that happens needs to be understood in that context.”

“When you’ve experienced repeated trauma, or repeated traumatic stress, that response is often heightened. So people will tend to be hyper vigilant, easily startled, anxious or sometimes they’ll shut down.” – Dr Cathy Kezelman AM, President and Executive Director, Blue Knot Foundation.

Following an organisation’s immediate response, the employer would then decide whether a company-wide message outlining where employees can go for support would be useful, including details such as how to contact their employee assistance provider (EAP). It’s also important to assess who may need more intensive mental health support and help connect them with a mental health expert.

When discussing at a team level, HR professionals should encourage managers to talk to their teams with empathy and factual information. 

“We don’t want to sugarcoat any of the details or minimise any of the distress people are experiencing, but we also don’t want to perpetuate any misinformation or stereotypes that might be circulating in the news or on social media,” says Dr Burgess.

When addressing your teams, consider the following:

  • Create space for dialogue and grief – While some traumatic incidents might call for a company meeting or an all-company email, you may also need to allow for deeper discussions to take place.Employees may benefit from peer-to-peer debriefs or one-on-one conversations with their managers to unpack their fears, concerns and complex feelings.
  • Don’t try and fix things – “Ask people: ‘What do you need right now’ and then just see what that reveals,” says Dr Kezelman. “Don’t jump in and say, ‘Do X,Y,Z’ or ‘That happened to me too,’ and take over the story. Just be there in an accepting, compassionate and empathetic way. Don’t try and solve it; don’t prod people. Just gently encourage people to get support and offer the support you have available in your organisation.”
  • Promote self-care behaviours – In the aftermath of a traumatic event, it’s important to prioritise recuperating behaviours for any employees who are directly impacted. Create opportunities to bring teams together and create moments of authentic connection. Showing employees that they’re not alone and creating a sense of unity within your organisation can help to build resilience.
  • Understand your limits – In the initial wake of a tragedy, ensuring employees have access to mental health resources and safe spaces to discuss their feelings is an important first step, but sometimes longer-term support is required.

    “The impacts of a traumatic event often don’t surface in people for weeks, months or sometimes even years,” says Dr Burgess. “If you discover this, consider [referring employees to] a mental health expert who can design a long-term support plan.”

Signs to look out for

Following a traumatic event, Dr Kezelman says employers should be on the lookout for out-of-character behaviour in employees which could signal that they are experiencing trauma or distress.

“People who’ve experienced trauma have a biological survival response – fight, flight and freeze. When you’ve experienced repeated trauma, or repeated traumatic stress, that response is often heightened. So people will tend to be hyper vigilant, easily startled, anxious or sometimes they’ll shut down.

“They might usually be a very conscientious worker who turns up on time and is reasonable in their interactions, but then they might become reactive or aggressive. It’s not that they’re behaving badly, it’s that their behaviour is telling us something.”

Dr Burgess says some changes to look out for include:

  • A sudden drop in quality of work
  • Becoming withdrawn from social situations 
  • Sudden fatigue or low energy
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Becoming uncharacteristically agitated or upset at work
  • Changes to their appearance (e.g. looking dishevelled) 

“An increase in any of these behaviours could signal mental ill-health, so it’s important that managers are given the tools and resources they need to help identify risk areas.” 

Take a trauma-informed approach to HR

In the coming weeks and months, taking a trauma-informed approach to HR will be important, says Dr Burgess.

“A trauma-informed approach requires managers, leaders and HR professionals to remain aware of the many factors that could trigger an emotionally distressing situation for an employee, such as exposing them to distressing imagery or news, perpetuating stereotypes about mental ill-health or forcing them to come into the office if they’re feeling distressed about being out in public.

“It’s about doing everything within your control to minimise potential harm.”  

Dr Kezelman adds that employers need to understand that trauma will more than likely “overwhelm people’s capacity to cope”.

“Being trauma-informed also means being open, receptive and understanding that trauma is about feeling unsafe. So, [employers] can think about how to build a sense of psychical and emotional safety at work.

“Also, often people who’ve been traumatised have also been disempowered, so think about how  you work with people rather than impose things on them. How are people given choice in what happens to them?”

In a bigger-picture sense, it’s also important to make sure your culture is set up to enable a trauma-informed approach, she says.

“Is it a culture where people feel safe to say things like, ‘This is what I need’ or ‘I feel unsafe or scared?’ Or is it a culture where there might be fear of showing vulnerability or weakness?

“It’s all very good to sprout certain [values] and principles, but how do you marry that with the system of work? What is the culture of transparency? How well does the organisation communicate? How trustworthy is the organisation? Is feedback accepted well? And is it realised?'”

These are all important questions to consider because you can have all the right policies, but if what’s written in them isn’t lived out, you’re not operating in a trauma-informed way, she says.

AHRI members can log into AHRI:ASSIST to get a guideline on developing a trauma-informed HR Practice. You will find this resource in the health, safety and wellbeing resource page.

Ongoing mental health support

HR professionals can’t be expected to be mental health experts. It’s important to bring in the right expert support if employees are struggling in the wake of a traumatic event.

“Avoid putting pressure on leaders, HR and middle managers to ‘solve’ people’s distress around this tragedy,” says Dr Burgess. “For many, the impacts will be complex. As workplace leaders, your responsibility is to direct employees to adequate professional support.”

McCann Bartlett adds that it’s important for HR to take care of themselves.

“HR professionals are often lent on for support, but remember to take care of your own mental health too. Consider giving yourself a break from consuming distressing news content, for example, and lean on your HR community for support.”

AHRI has a range of free resources available to its members via AHRI:ASSIST. Log into your member portal for the following resources:

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Gayan Abeysekara
Gayan Abeysekara
1 month ago

Really helpful. Thanks

SONYA LAW
SONYA LAW
28 days ago

Thank you really helpful article.

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How to support employees following a traumatic event


An expert and a psychologist offer advice to help support employees who may be experiencing distress following a traumatic event.

Warning: This article contains content that may be distressing to some readers. For those who need immediate support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Australians are reeling after two attacks in Sydney’s southern and eastern suburbs last week, which have claimed the lives of six people and injured several others.

“Our thoughts and condolences are with the families, friends and colleagues of the victims,” says AHRI’s CEO, Sarah McCann Bartlett. 

Dr Zena Burgess, CEO of the Australian Psychological Society (APS) and organisational psychologist says the effects of the attacks may be far-reaching.

“For the friends and families of the victims and those who bore witness to the attacks, the mental health impacts could stick with them for life.”

“We also need to consider the impacts these tragedies could have on the broader community. Many people will be distressed by these events and will talk about them in the workplace. They might speculate about motives or share concerns regarding further attacks,” says Dr Burgess.

“It’s possible we could see increases in emotional distress, such as anger, sorrow, fear and confusion. And, for some people, old trauma could possibly be reactivated.”

This is why, following any traumatic event, it’s important for employers to have robust processes in place to reduce distress and respond to those whose trauma may be triggered.

Supporting employees following traumatic events 

Most organisations will incorporate a response to a dangerous or traumatic event in the workplace into their crisis management or business continuity plan. This should guide them during and immediately after the event.

However, these plans sometimes omit support for employees who may be affected by an incident that occurred outside the workplace. In this instance, it’s advisable to assess who in your organisation might be impacted.

“It’s very important that the reality [of the situation] is acknowledged and the way people feel is heard,” says Dr Cathy Kezelman AM, medical practitioner and President and Executive Director at Blue Knot Foundation, an organisation that supports people to recover from complex trauma.

“Employees’ response to situations like this will also be dependent on their own lived experiences, including whether they have prior histories of trauma. So there’s a holistic response to consider as well as an individual response.”

This trauma can be cumulative, she adds, noting that the past few years have exposed people to an array of distressing situations.

“On top of [the recent attacks], we have a community that has been shaken by things like COVID and the current global [geopolitical] situation. There’s a sense of this pervasive threat throughout the entire community, so each thing that happens needs to be understood in that context.”

“When you’ve experienced repeated trauma, or repeated traumatic stress, that response is often heightened. So people will tend to be hyper vigilant, easily startled, anxious or sometimes they’ll shut down.” – Dr Cathy Kezelman AM, President and Executive Director, Blue Knot Foundation.

Following an organisation’s immediate response, the employer would then decide whether a company-wide message outlining where employees can go for support would be useful, including details such as how to contact their employee assistance provider (EAP). It’s also important to assess who may need more intensive mental health support and help connect them with a mental health expert.

When discussing at a team level, HR professionals should encourage managers to talk to their teams with empathy and factual information. 

“We don’t want to sugarcoat any of the details or minimise any of the distress people are experiencing, but we also don’t want to perpetuate any misinformation or stereotypes that might be circulating in the news or on social media,” says Dr Burgess.

When addressing your teams, consider the following:

  • Create space for dialogue and grief – While some traumatic incidents might call for a company meeting or an all-company email, you may also need to allow for deeper discussions to take place.Employees may benefit from peer-to-peer debriefs or one-on-one conversations with their managers to unpack their fears, concerns and complex feelings.
  • Don’t try and fix things – “Ask people: ‘What do you need right now’ and then just see what that reveals,” says Dr Kezelman. “Don’t jump in and say, ‘Do X,Y,Z’ or ‘That happened to me too,’ and take over the story. Just be there in an accepting, compassionate and empathetic way. Don’t try and solve it; don’t prod people. Just gently encourage people to get support and offer the support you have available in your organisation.”
  • Promote self-care behaviours – In the aftermath of a traumatic event, it’s important to prioritise recuperating behaviours for any employees who are directly impacted. Create opportunities to bring teams together and create moments of authentic connection. Showing employees that they’re not alone and creating a sense of unity within your organisation can help to build resilience.
  • Understand your limits – In the initial wake of a tragedy, ensuring employees have access to mental health resources and safe spaces to discuss their feelings is an important first step, but sometimes longer-term support is required.

    “The impacts of a traumatic event often don’t surface in people for weeks, months or sometimes even years,” says Dr Burgess. “If you discover this, consider [referring employees to] a mental health expert who can design a long-term support plan.”

Signs to look out for

Following a traumatic event, Dr Kezelman says employers should be on the lookout for out-of-character behaviour in employees which could signal that they are experiencing trauma or distress.

“People who’ve experienced trauma have a biological survival response – fight, flight and freeze. When you’ve experienced repeated trauma, or repeated traumatic stress, that response is often heightened. So people will tend to be hyper vigilant, easily startled, anxious or sometimes they’ll shut down.

“They might usually be a very conscientious worker who turns up on time and is reasonable in their interactions, but then they might become reactive or aggressive. It’s not that they’re behaving badly, it’s that their behaviour is telling us something.”

Dr Burgess says some changes to look out for include:

  • A sudden drop in quality of work
  • Becoming withdrawn from social situations 
  • Sudden fatigue or low energy
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Becoming uncharacteristically agitated or upset at work
  • Changes to their appearance (e.g. looking dishevelled) 

“An increase in any of these behaviours could signal mental ill-health, so it’s important that managers are given the tools and resources they need to help identify risk areas.” 

Take a trauma-informed approach to HR

In the coming weeks and months, taking a trauma-informed approach to HR will be important, says Dr Burgess.

“A trauma-informed approach requires managers, leaders and HR professionals to remain aware of the many factors that could trigger an emotionally distressing situation for an employee, such as exposing them to distressing imagery or news, perpetuating stereotypes about mental ill-health or forcing them to come into the office if they’re feeling distressed about being out in public.

“It’s about doing everything within your control to minimise potential harm.”  

Dr Kezelman adds that employers need to understand that trauma will more than likely “overwhelm people’s capacity to cope”.

“Being trauma-informed also means being open, receptive and understanding that trauma is about feeling unsafe. So, [employers] can think about how to build a sense of psychical and emotional safety at work.

“Also, often people who’ve been traumatised have also been disempowered, so think about how  you work with people rather than impose things on them. How are people given choice in what happens to them?”

In a bigger-picture sense, it’s also important to make sure your culture is set up to enable a trauma-informed approach, she says.

“Is it a culture where people feel safe to say things like, ‘This is what I need’ or ‘I feel unsafe or scared?’ Or is it a culture where there might be fear of showing vulnerability or weakness?

“It’s all very good to sprout certain [values] and principles, but how do you marry that with the system of work? What is the culture of transparency? How well does the organisation communicate? How trustworthy is the organisation? Is feedback accepted well? And is it realised?'”

These are all important questions to consider because you can have all the right policies, but if what’s written in them isn’t lived out, you’re not operating in a trauma-informed way, she says.

AHRI members can log into AHRI:ASSIST to get a guideline on developing a trauma-informed HR Practice. You will find this resource in the health, safety and wellbeing resource page.

Ongoing mental health support

HR professionals can’t be expected to be mental health experts. It’s important to bring in the right expert support if employees are struggling in the wake of a traumatic event.

“Avoid putting pressure on leaders, HR and middle managers to ‘solve’ people’s distress around this tragedy,” says Dr Burgess. “For many, the impacts will be complex. As workplace leaders, your responsibility is to direct employees to adequate professional support.”

McCann Bartlett adds that it’s important for HR to take care of themselves.

“HR professionals are often lent on for support, but remember to take care of your own mental health too. Consider giving yourself a break from consuming distressing news content, for example, and lean on your HR community for support.”

AHRI has a range of free resources available to its members via AHRI:ASSIST. Log into your member portal for the following resources:

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Gayan Abeysekara
Gayan Abeysekara
1 month ago

Really helpful. Thanks

SONYA LAW
SONYA LAW
28 days ago

Thank you really helpful article.

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