Workplace trauma is real.

Traumatic events occur in every organization, so it is critical that you understand the different types of events that trigger a trauma response, how different people respond to traumatic events, and how you can minimize the impact of traumatic events on your team.

There are two types of trauma. Single incident trauma is caused by a defined crisis, an event with a clear beginning and end. The crisis could be a robbery, an accident, layoffs, or the sudden death of a colleague. Single incident trauma is often public and easily identified as trauma. Others know about or experienced the event, so it is likely that the community accepts and understands an individual's traumatic response and is open to talking about it. 

Complex trauma is caused by ongoing events that occur repeatedly over a prolonged period of time. These events typically involve another person and may include discrimination, ongoing conflict, a chaotic work environment, or bullying. Complex trauma can be hidden or obvious, difficult, or uncomfortable to escape from, and often ignored or denied by others. It is considered a much more insidious and layered form of trauma. 

When someone is experiencing a traumatic response, most often it is because a current situation is making them feel unsafe or overwhelmed. Their self-esteem and confidence may plummet, or they might feel out of control. 

A traumatic response often expresses itself physically and emotionally. Someone in the midst of a traumatic response might experience chest pains, headaches, or constricted breathing. They might feel anxious, depressed, frustrated, or angry. They may disconnect from others and disengage from their work. 

As a leader, you may or may not be aware of what is taking place. You may only notice a behavior change or a shift in the person's attitude. And that shift might be subtle or glaring. They may not even be aware of such changes within themselves.

Behavior changes can be a red flag

In the workplace, shifts in behavior can show up in many ways. You might notice an increase in absenteeism, or a change in an employee's attitude and suddenly they're disagreeable, impatient, defensive, or isolating. This shift in behavior can also show up as poor concentration, low confidence, poor decision-making, and heightened anxiety. 

These shifts are indicators that something is going on that needs to be addressed. Most likely your employee is reacting to a situation either in the workplace or in their personal life. They may be aware of their changed behavior but unable to respond differently, or they may not be mindful of the behavior changes. 

If you notice a change in an employee's behavior, don't assume that they are difficult or unmotivated without considering the possibility that they are reacting to an emotionally triggering event.

How to address workplace trauma

If an employee seems to be struggling, the quality of their work has diminished, or their behavior is affecting others, it's important to address the situation directly and as soon as possible. When speaking with someone about a change in their behavior, follow these three steps: 

  1. Be compassionate. You do not know their story, and you don't know how they are going to react when you approach the subject. They need to see you as an ally, someone who is asking questions because you care about them, and not just how their behavior impacts the organization. They have to know that they matter to you and to the organization.
  2. Give the benefit of the doubt. Don't jump to conclusions. Give your employee the benefit of the doubt that they care about their work, their colleagues, and the organization. Remember that they may not be aware of the change in their behavior or recognize that their behavior is impacting the people on their team. Approach with kindness and curiosity. For example, you might say "Thank for meeting with me. I wanted to talk to you about something I've noticed lately, and I wanted to see if you could help me to understand what's going on. There seems to be a change in your behavior. I care about you and want to make sure that you're okay. Is there anything I or the company can do to support you?"
  3. Remember that your goal is to have a productive conversation. If you're employee gets defensive, remind them that you are not being critical or judgmental, only seeking to understand. Don't get activated by their defensiveness. Stay calm and remember that talking about their trauma is not easy and they may be caught off-guard by your observations. If they deny any problem, don't push the issue. You made your point. And if they get upset, listen to whatever they share with you, and be open to hearing their experience. 

Once you know that an employee is struggling with a trauma response, you need to support them and help them get the resources they need. In some cases, that might be calling in a trauma counselor or connecting them to mental health resources. But if the trauma is caused by bullying, discrimination, ongoing conflict, or a chaotic work environment, you will need to take internal action. Let your employee know that you appreciate their openness and that you will be taking steps to support them. If possible, let them know what the next step will be, so they know you're serious. 

It's important to have a collaborative, trusting organizational culture where everyone feels safe and knows that you care about their well-being. By compassionately managing and addressing your employees' trauma response, you create a healthy and productive workplace environment.