Exposure to traumatic events

Learn about the impact of traumatic events on workers and improve your systems and procedures.


Step 1: Learn about workplace trauma

Workplace trauma can affect people in different ways, at different times. It can develop from repeated exposure to distressing events, a single situation, or indirect exposure such as reading about a traumatic event. Even with critical incidents, such as a workplace death, employees will respond in different ways.

Traumatic events or content become a hazard when they are especially severe, happen frequently, or consistently over a long time. Something is more likely to be traumatic when it is unexpected, seems uncontrollable or is caused by intentional cruelty.

Some examples of traumatic events or content include exposure to:

  • physical and/or verbal assault by a customer, client or member of the public
  • gruesome or graphic imagery and injuries
  • natural or human disasters such as bushfires
  • security threats, such as bomb threats
  • distressing or traumatic experiences of others (e.g., when providing counselling)

Some occupations are more at risk of experiencing trauma than others. Particularly, roles that work directly with the public, with clients, or in the community. Some examples include:

  • Emergency services and first responders
  • Disaster management
  • Customer service
  • Justice personnel
  • Healthcare workers
  • Social assistance workers

Watch this two minute video for more details on trauma

Key stats and facts

What are your rights and responsibilities at work?

Employers must provide and maintain a workplace that is safe and free from risks to health, including psychological health, so far as is reasonably practicable.

Employers are not expected to be the counsellor or sole support for your employees. However, they can help by putting reasonably practicable control measures in place to reduce and mitigate the risk and negative impacts associated with exposure to traumatic events or content.

Employees have a responsibility to take reasonable care of their own health and safety in the workplace, and the health and safety of others. They must also cooperate with employers to create a safe environment.

Step 2: Consult your staff

Good consultation has lots of benefits – it leads to better decision making and greater cooperation and trust between employers and employees, who get a better understanding of each other's views. Consultation isn't just good practice though, it's actually a legal requirement for employers.

Employers must consult with employees including health and safety representatives (if any), so far as is reasonably practicable, about matters that directly affect, or are likely to directly affect, their health and safety. This includes identifying whether trauma may be a hazard at the workplace, and working out how to eliminate or reduce the risk of it occurring. At a minimum, it must involve sharing information about an issue, giving employees reasonable opportunity to share their views on that issue, and taking those views into consideration.

Consultation can be done in a number of ways and depends on the workplace and the nature and hours of work. People working in roles that deal directly with the public, are more likely to be exposed to trauma - they also tend to be shift workers. For this reason, good consultation needs to happen at a time that suits the workers – understanding that the 9-5 may exclude a number of important voices.

Remember to consider different groups of staff, including employees who may have come from families and/or communities with present and historical experiences of trauma. This could also include discussions about how they may be exposed in their role (e.g., direct and/or indirect exposure).

Step 3: Identify hazards and risks

A hazard is anything that has the potential to cause harm to a person. Think of hazards like 'situations' or 'things' in the workplace that can hurt someone, either physically or mentally. The risk is the potential of the harm actually happening.

For example, a cable on the floor is a physical hazard. The risk is being physically injured from tripping on that cable. The same applies to hazards that affect our mental health – these are known as psychosocial hazards.

Exposure to traumatic events or content can increase the risk to psychological health. When risks associated with exposure to traumatic events or content are not effectively managed, this may lead to or exacerbate psychological injuries.

While exposure to traumatic events may be difficult to predict, you can identify situations that increase the risks and you can implement measures to reduce the risk.

Situations at work that have greater risks of trauma include:

  • handling cash, drugs or valuables
  • working in the community and working at night
  • providing services to distressed, highly agitated or incarcerated people
  • enforcement activities
  • responding to emergencies
  • working in areas where you or others may be exposed to distressing or traumatic events, for example, health care, community work, counselling, funeral services, protective services, legal services, high-risk work where injuries may occur

Repeated exposure to traumatic events or content can compound the risk of psychological harm and poses additional risk to health and safety.

Often multiple hazards can be present at the same time and can combine to increase the risk of harm occurring. For example, exposure to traumatic events or content, high job demands, and poor support from colleagues or supervisors can combine to increase the risk of harm.

Step 4: Assess the risks

A risk assessment will help you understand the risks to your employees' health and safety, and how to prioritise your efforts to manage them.

It is good practice to identify hazards, both individually and together, that are creating risks to health and safety. Once you have identified the hazards, you can assess the risk of them occurring.

Risk assessment tips

Step 5: Control the risks

A control simply means 'ways to manage' an issue. Controls are things you put in place to eliminate or reduce risks. The list could be endless, but it's really just about taking action, so far as reasonably practicable, to manage the risks associated with exposure to traumatic events or content.

While it's not always possible to eliminate the risk of psychological and/or physical harm, effective systems, processes, and training can help to reduce and mitigate the risk and negative impacts associated with exposure to traumatic events or content.

Here are some ways that employers can take action (or 'implement a control') to create a safe workplace.

Step 6: Share, review and improve

A safe and mentally healthy workplace requires ongoing commitment and engagement.

You want to check whether the controls you’ve implemented are still relevant and effective.

By sharing the outcomes of these reviews, as well as suggestions and recommendations for improvements, you can keep the conversation going. This will continue to build trust and cooperation between you and your employees.

Consultation must be undertaken before making any changes to, the workplace, things used at the workplace, or the conduct of work at the workplace, which may affect employee health and safety, and these changes should be communicated to your employees.

More resources

John's experience at work

NSW Barrister - Paul's story

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Disclaimer: The WorkWell Toolkit provides general information only. Please consider your specific circumstances, needs and seek appropriate professional advice.