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Supporting your workplace after a traumatic incident
There’s no such thing as “business as usual” after a tragedy. An accident, a natural disaster, an employee death—they can take an emotional toll. And that means work may take more time while people try to cope.
As an employer or manager, you face your own difficult task. How do you support your employees’ emotional needs and still get the job done? And how do you take care of yourself in the process? Your leadership can help employees return to their normal daily routines, personally and professionally.
Tragedies are unpredictable. They take us by surprise. But when you understand how people tend to respond to them, it’s easier to recognize issues and cope.
After a tragedy, we can experience something called acute stress. Acute stress sends our bodies and brains into survival mode. This can make “normal” activities hard to do. Symptoms of acute stress include:
- Physical — racing heart, dizziness, shaking, sweating, poor sleep, upset stomach, fatigue.
- Mental — denial, blaming, confusion, poor memory, increased mistakes, trouble focusing.
- Emotional — guilt, anxiety, shock, fear, feeling overwhelmed, frustration, anger.
- Organizational — low morale, absenteeism, conflicts, low productivity, mistakes.
Acute stress fades over time. But sometimes unexpected events, sights or sounds can remind us of a tragedy. These “emotional landmines” can trigger acute stress reactions months or years after an event.
We all respond to tragedies in our own way. And there are factors that can make a difference in how we cope and how quickly we bounce back. Some of these include:
- Personal histories — if you’ve had trauma in your past, it might be harder for you to cope.
- Closeness to the tragedy — people who see a tragedy will have more stress than those who hear about it. People who were close to a person who passed away will have a harder time than those who weren’t.
- Resilience — people can build resilience with healthy habits. So those who have support systems and practice good self-care may seem to recover more easily after a tragedy.
There are no rules when it comes to a tragedy. People have to find their own ways to cope. And they do it in their own time. But if you notice an employee seems to struggle with acute stress or performance issues a month after the incident, you may want to offer extra support.
Once you see your employees need support, it can help to make a plan. So, what works and what doesn’t?
- Communicate — employees may feel management doesn’t care or is trying to hide something if communication about a tragedy isn’t timely and clear. And this can lead to rumors. Be sure to share facts that are open to the public and keep staff informed.
- Show care and concern — check in with staff to see how they’re doing. And be sure to keep the check-ins going long after the tragedy has passed. People may be affected for quite some time.
- Provide resources — try to find out what your employees need. Do some people need to go home and be with loved ones? Do you need to give out our number or provide coping articles? Or would an on-site counselor help?
Your workplace demands certain standards. But how can you meet normal business needs when there’s an abnormal situation going on? Consider these tips to see if they work for your organization:
Right after the tragedy:
- Prioritize duties to see what can be delayed and what has to get done.
- Allow employees to take more breaks and extend deadlines.
- See if you can let people attend the funeral of an employee who passed away.
- Lighten workloads (temporarily) for employees who were most affected.
- Pitch in where you can and ask for help from other departments, staffing groups, etc.
As time goes on:
- Be visible and walk around to see how your staff is doing.
- Applaud teamwork and recognize success.
- Recognize that people may get upset about the tragedy long after it’s over.
- Find ways to honor employees who passed away.
- Encourage self-care in yourself and your employees.
You may be frustrated when employees make mistakes, work more slowly or have a decline in performance. But remember, these might be signs of emotional distress. When you talk to employees about performance issues, try to be sensitive to their emotional state. Find out what kind of support they need and offer resources.
As a manager, you’re not immune to the stress of a tragedy. It’s important that you take time to care for yourself. Good self-care will help you cope with the situation and do a better job of supporting others. Here are some tips:
- Take care of your body — stress is hard on us physically. So try to eat well, get plenty of sleep, stay active and avoid substance misuse.
- Separate your emotions from others — you may find you’re carrying the emotional load that belongs to others. Try to show empathy without trying to “fix” others’ emotions.
- Use positive supports — surround yourself with positive, healthy people. Talk to loved ones and friends about how you’re doing.
Share these articles, provided by Aetna Resources For LivingSM, with your managers and employees.
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA)
Telephone and online support
A tragedy that affects your workplace may be one of your biggest challenges. But you don’t have to go through it alone.
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