How do you break the workplace taboo surrounding trauma and grief?

Everyone’s healing and coping process after a traumatic event is unique. It is not always obvious to the employer or colleagues how to support an employee after a traumatic incident or significant bereavement. Prevention advisor Daisy Buttiens supports organisations in this process. “Make sure the situation can be talked about, and at the same time, offer the employee sufficient space to process the traumatic event in his or her own way.”

Is there a right way to deal with traumatic events?

Daisy: “Everyone processes trauma in their own way and at their own pace. Some are more likely to isolate themselves, while others seek support from friends and family. Some may want to cry, while others prefer to pretend nothing is wrong. There is no right or wrong way to respond to a traumatic event.

Trauma and grief are normal responses to an abnormal event. So don’t listen to how those around you want you to deal with grief; listen to your own needs.”

Daisy Buttiens: "Trauma and grief are normal responses to an abnormal event. So don’t listen to how those around you want you to deal with grief; listen to your own needs."

Why is it commonly taboo to talk about trauma and grief in the workplace?

“Supervisors and colleagues often feel reluctant to acknowledge the situation because they don’t know what to say. The general idea is that you almost have to be trained to respond correctly to someone who has experienced a traumatic events.

However, the most important thing is that you just make sure the situation is discussable. Say you are not sure what to say, but that you are thinking of him or her and that you want to be there for them. This way, you show that you acknowledge and understand your colleague, and it gives them space to let you know what they need.

In addition, a common misconception is that employees should stay at home until they have processed their grief. But a trauma or grieving process is never completely finished. You constantly swing one way or another, where one minute you want to avoid the pain and the next, you feel the need to confront it. After all, exposing yourself to the pain constantly is unbearable. At the same time, it is sometimes necessary to let your emotions run free. It is the only way to process grief.”

How do you create a safe environment for employees who are processing a traumatic event?

“First and foremost, a policy-based approach is crucial. Have your employees experienced a traumatic event on or off the work floor? Then you need a strategic safety net to support them. You can lay the foundations for this in a prevention and management policy, which you can subsequently improve and build on by offering specific training to managers and internal (care) employees. Moreover, a clear step-by-step plan for supporting employees after a critical incident is indispensable for any successful trauma policy.”

Has an employee had to say goodbye to a loved one? Small interventions can make all the difference. Attending the funeral, sending a card on behalf of everyone at work, or sending a text message every year on the anniversary of the death are all heartwarming ways to show them your support.”

The three-step plan to support employees after a traumatic event

1. Embed safety: After a traumatic experience, employees initially need support from peers, friends or family. Colleagues can also help to create a sense of belonging.

2. Communicate clearly: When the first shock has been processed, it is important that you as an organisation communicate clearly about the event and the next steps. Agree in advance who will take on this task: HR, the employer or the manager?

3. Offer assistance: It is important that the employee receives the right assistance. Therefore train one or more employees to become a confidential counsellor and seek external help if necessary.

What about sectors in which employees are more frequently confronted with traumatic events?

“Firefighters, police officers, emergency doctors and nurses are just some of the groups that regularly come into contact with traumatic situations. It is particularly important for these sectors to focus on a well thought-out safety net.

Sadly, the consequences of traumatic events are often swept under the carpet because ‘it’s all part of the job’. But whether a trauma happens in someone’s personal or professional life, it is still an event that you have to process.”

Learn how to assist employees after a traumatic experience

A good safety net in the workplace is crucial for employees processing trauma. In the ‘Trauma management for supervisors and managers’ training course, our experts offer tips & tricks to create a safe working environment for employees who are experiencing post-traumatic stress.