Workplace trauma in your large business

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



How this helps your business

Workplace trauma can affect people in different ways, at different times. Trauma can develop from repeated exposure to distressing events, or a single situation. Distressing incidents, such as a workplace death, will trigger varying trauma responses from staff.

In identifying risk factors in the workplace it's important for workplaces to consider not only environmental stressors, but also how situations could be perceived by staff, and the impact that repeated distressing situations have over time.

Understanding how the work environment can influence trauma responses will help to inform your prevention and management strategies, and minimise the negative impact trauma can have on staff.

Key stats and facts

1 in 10  

Approximately 1 in 10 persons exposed to a potentially traumatic event will develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in their lifetime.

Black Dog Institute, 2018, Trauma and mental health

Effectively protecting the psychological health of your staff can lead to less costs from work absences, conflict, errors, injuries, and grievances.

Guarding Minds at Work, 2018, Know the psychosocial factors

Step 1

Learn more on this topic

Individuals find different events traumatic, which means that all staff are at risk of experiencing workplace trauma. For some, a once off event such as a fatal accident could trigger a traumatic response. For others, the impact could involve multiple exposures that build over time; resulting in cumulative trauma.

Examples of potentially traumatic events for your staff could include:

  • involvement in, or witnessing serious accidents
  • physical and/or verbal assault by a customer
  • exposure to gruesome or graphic injuries
  • natural or human disasters
  • exposure to security threats, such as bomb threats

The impact of trauma is not limited to staff that are present at the time. Exposure to stories about distressing incidents can result in indirect trauma for colleagues, defined as vicarious trauma. It is important to support all staff in the aftermath of distressing situations.

Watch this two minute video for more details on trauma.

You're not expected to be the counselor or sole support for your staff. However, you can manage the workplace environment by putting policies and procedures in place for prevention, and intervene early.

Step 2

Consult your staff

Engage your staff to understand the key workplace issues that impact them, and get their input on ideas to support each other through distressing incidents. It's important to develop a broad approach that addresses both prevention and support, as trauma is not limited to a specific role or situation. Remember to consider different groups of staff, including employees from migrant communities that may have pre-existing trauma or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

A safe workplace is more easily achieved when employers and employees talk to each other about potential risks, and work together to find solutions. This could also include discussions about previous accidents or exposure to graphic injuries to gain insights for potentially traumatic events. If you employ migrant workers or other minority groups, it is important to consider pre-existing trauma or PTSD.

There are many ways you can engage your employees about occupational health and safety:

  • Through your health and safety representatives
  • Through your health and safety committees
  • Include OHS as an agenda item in regular meetings. These may be 'toolbox talks', production meetings, staff meetings or any way your organisation communicates with each other
  • One-on-one discussions with your managers and employees
  • When you casually walk around your workplace with staff

Step 3

Assess the risk

Now that you have some insights from your staff about potentially traumatic events in your workplace and their impacts, take a look at your risk assessment and add trauma as a risk to psychological health. You should also think about the potential impacts of repeated exposure to trauma over time (cumulative trauma).

Check the resource for an example of a step-by-step worksheet to identify hazards and assess and control work-related stress risks.

Step 4

Manage the risks

To keep your staff (and any customers/clients) safe you need an organisational approach to prevent and manage exposure to trauma.

You may be familiar with the 'Hierarchy of Control' for managing physical risks in your workplace, where the most effective action is to eliminate the risk altogether. If this is not practical, then the next most effective control is to reduce the risk. This involves changes to factors in the workplace, for example the layout or environment of work spaces. The least effective controls rely on people changing, for example attendance at training sessions to cope better with the hazard or the use of personal protective equipment. For mental health risks including exposure to trauma, the same hierarchy of control principles apply.

Choose and implement 2 to 3 strategies that address the highest risks you have identified in your workplace. Here are some suggestions:

  • Allocate appropriate and diverse workloads, as agreed by both the employer and employee
  • Be transparent about possible exposure to trauma during recruitment and induction
  • Include assessments of how people react to highly emotional situations in your selection process, to plan which additional supports might be required
  • Support senior leaders to acknowledge the impact of trauma and encourage employees to seek support
  • Implement structured peer support systems, particularly for graduates and new employees. Take a look at the case study from St Vincent's Hospital in Melbourne.
  • Review your EAP (Employee Assistance Program) to ensure it includes support for exposure to trauma
  • Ensure your support services are kept up to date with the latest business and health and safety information
  • Consider providing a well-designed and managed peer support program
  • Where appropriate, consider providing access to an employee vaccination program
  • Provide appropriate supervision for staff
  • Provide adequate training in dealing with trauma
  • Provide health and safety information in other languages for employees. these the link below to WorkSafe Victoria's resource card to learn more about communicating health and safety information across languages
  • Support supervisors to understand workplace trauma and their role in preventing and managing exposure to trauma in their teams
  • Investigate workplace factors that lead up to incidents to prevent similar events from occurring again, and to help staff feel safer knowing preventative action has been taken
  • Facilitating an early return to work is best practice. Sometimes that could mean changes to workload, or rostering for shorter shifts and minimum breaks, as well as other adjustments

Make sure staff at all levels of your workplace are aware of the strategies and initiatives that you put in place.

Check out the Workplace Trauma resource from Workplace Strategies for Mental Health for even more ideas on preventative measures in your workplace.

The 'Occupational violence and aggression incident investigation tool' is designed for healthcare settings and provides ideas around factors to consider in customer-facing roles, as well as a template to document plans for your prevention strategies. Consider tailoring a similar tool for your specific workplace needs.

Step 5

Review and keep improving

Once you've made a new change, you should review it regularly to see whether it’s working as well as you'd hoped, and make notes on where you could improve.

This helps you make better decisions and shows you are committed to improving the business.

It's important to ask your employees their opinion when implementing a new strategy. It also gets your workplace involved and on board, creates a sense of ownership and collaboration, and allows for continued improvement.

The list below has some handy tips on how to action this:

  • Ask employees the right questions: are we doing things right, or are there better ways it can be done?
  • Have regular conversations with all employees and keep them engaged. If something didn't work, tell them that and get them involved in ways to improve things
  • Review regularly - set a date and stick to it
  • Look to see if your goal has been achieved. If not, why? Was it a lack of understanding?
  • Make a specific person responsible for monitoring and evaluating so they can keep track of how things are changing over time
  • Ensure management and leaders are role models for expected behaviour in the workplace with an emphasis on continuous improvement and setting a good example
  • Have an EAP program that gives employees the opportunity to have confidential conversations is a good way to build trust and trusting relationships within your workforce

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.