Workplace trauma in your small or medium 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. It can develop from repeated exposure to distressing events, a single situation, or indirect exposure such as reading about a potentially traumatic event. Even with critical incidents, such as a workplace death, employee responses will vary.

When 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 employees, and the impact that repeated distressing situations could 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 your people.

Key stats and facts

Step 1: Learn more on this topic

Different people find different events traumatic, which means that all employees 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.

The impact of trauma is not limited to employees that are present at the time, being indirectly exposed to potentially traumatic events can result in vicarious trauma. This can include exposure to trauma victims or traumatic material about distressing incidents.

You can learn more about vicarious trauma in the resource provided below.

Some examples of potentially traumatic events in the workplace could include:

  • involvement in, or witnessing, serious accidents
  • physical and/or verbal assault by a customer
  • interpersonal violence such as exposure to suicide, or domestic violence
  • exposure to gruesome or graphic injuries
  • natural or human disasters such as bushfires
  • exposure to security threats, such as bomb threats
  • exposure to trauma victims or traumatic material

You're not expected to be the counsellor or sole support for your employees. However you can help by putting policies and procedures in place for prevention, and early intervention.

Watch this two minute video for more details on trauma. 

Step 2: Consult your staff

It's important to develop a broad approach to prevention and support in the workplace because trauma is not limited to a specific role or situation.

Consult your employees to get a strong sense of what the key issues are that impact on them, and how best to support each other. A safe workplace is more easily achieved when employers and employees talk to each other about potential problems and work together to find solutions.

There are many ways you can talk with your employees about occupational health and safety, including:

  • through your health and safety representatives
  • through your health and safety committees (if you have them)
  • having OHS as an agenda item at your regular meetings. These may be 'toolbox talks', production meetings, employee 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 your employees

The WorkSafe Victoria consultation guide provides information on consulting with employees and their representatives on health and safety issues.

Step 3: Assess the risks

Now that you have some insights from your employees 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. Remember to consider different groups of employees, the potential impacts of repeated exposure to trauma over time (cumulative trauma) and the potential impacts of indirect exposure to trauma (vicarious trauma).

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

Step 4: Manage the risks

To keep your employees (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 and upskilling themselves. For example, this may occur through training sessions focused on learning how 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 relevant 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.
  • support supervisors to understand workplace trauma and their role in preventing and managing exposure to trauma in their teams
  • provide appropriate supervision for employees
  • 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
  • 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 in the link below
  • consider providing a well designed and managed peer support program. Provide adequate training in dealing with trauma
  • review your EAP (Employee Assistance Program) if you have one to ensure it includes support for exposure to trauma
  • facilitate an early return to work as best practice. Sometimes that could mean changes to workload, or rostering for shorter shifts and minimum breaks, as well as other adjustments
  • minimise exposure to known potentially traumatising material to only those who need to see them by having a system to forewarn and restrict access
  • have a Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) process in place that gives structure and support at appropriate times after a critical incident (note that this should not include mandated debriefing)

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

If your workplace frequently provides services to clients/patients who have experienced trauma, consider becoming a trauma-informed workplace – review the resource below from Blue Knot Foundation for more information.

The following resources may help you to develop preventative measures in your workplace:

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 and the mental health of your employees.

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

Below are some handy tips to help you do 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 workers 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.

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.