Workplace Wellbeing

Trauma is Common. PTSD Doesn’t Have to Be. Here’s How to Proactively Treat Workplace Trauma.

Trauma is a common experience, but not everyone who experiences it develops PTSD. Recognizing this difference is vital for workplace leaders to support their employees’ recovery, reducing the risk of long-term psychological impact.

Written by
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Neal Kennington
Director of Clinical Partnerships, Spring Health
Clinically reviewed by
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    Trauma happens to all of us. It’s a part of life. Stigma has long kept traumatic experiences and their aftereffects hidden. The fact that we’re more open to discussing trauma—in workplaces and society—shows real progress.

    At the same time, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is often misunderstood, which is why I believe it's critical to have these conversations.

    I’m a licensed psychologist who started my career as an Air Force clinician before moving into private practice. Then, I joined Spring Health as a director on the clinical partnerships team.

    While in the military, I spent a lot of time working with military members experiencing PTSD. In my private practice, I also worked with individuals experiencing occupational PTSD, such as first responders.

    Trauma is common. PTSD is not.

    When it comes to trauma and PTSD, there’s a distinction that’s so important I’m going to highlight it again and again throughout this blog. 

    Essentially, everyone experiences trauma. Part of life is having unexpected things happen to us in sometimes violent, terrifying, and painful ways.

    Although many people struggle with trauma in the short term, only about 6% of people develop PTSD. An important caveat is that one-time traumas affect people differently than complex trauma, which tends to compound and create a higher chance of PTSD.

    But the words trauma and PTSD are often used interchangeably!

    So why is it important for workplace leaders to know about this? Because prevention and support are critical to helping people recover from occupational trauma, lessening the chance that they develop PTSD. Treating them as the same condition can prevent us from effectively addressing both.

    What is PTSD?

    Post-traumatic stress disorder refers to a cluster of psychological symptoms that include the cognitive, emotional, physical, and behavioral effects of experiencing a traumatic event. 

    PTSD can develop following an unexpected event that poses a threat to someone’s safety or survival or when someone witnesses another person experiencing that sort of event.

    If a workplace incident occurs—a coworker dies unexpectedly, an industrial accident occurs, or violence occurs—most people will be impacted in the short term.

    In the weeks following the incident, people’s ability to be present and productive will most likely be disrupted—that’s a given. For the small group of individuals who go on to develop PTSD symptoms, this disruption will continue over the long term. It typically doesn’t just get better or go away on its own.

    What happens when someone has PTSD?

    Imagine someone has a bad accident because another driver ran through a stop sign. They are likely to experience an understandable stress reaction in the first weeks after the incident and may fear getting in a car. 

    But their body and mind will relearn that driving through an intersection typically doesn’t entail getting hurt. This leads to a resolution of the fear response that comes with getting back in a car. Whenever trauma evolves into PTSD, individuals become avoidant and have heightened fear responses that don’t subside.  For one reason or another, the natural recovery process is interrupted.

    Although trauma and PTSD share similarities, a PTSD diagnosis has three necessary components:

    1. Re-experiencing: the person has flashbacks and nightmares
    2. Hypervigilance: the person is on guard constantly, making sure that nothing bad can happen again 
    3. Avoidance: the person wants to avoid any reminder of the bad thing that happened to them and may show a reluctance to return to familiar routines

    The impact of occupational PTSD on employees

    One of the most important things to note about the impact of workplace-related trauma on employees is that responses show up differently in everyone.

    It is often the case that the people more at risk of developing PTSD are those with existing risk factors who may already be struggling with something. 

    For example, people with strong social ties and relationships who are mentally and physically healthy are more likely to bounce back from trauma and not develop PTSD. It depends on the person’s starting point when the trauma occurs.

    An individual experiencing a mental health challenge who is isolated and has a chronic physical illness and a history of trauma is more susceptible to developing PTSD. This illustrates the need for proactive, holistic support, creating a stronger baseline and more resilient employees.

    Recognizing PTSD in the workplace

    As workplace leaders, it can be helpful to consider some signs of PTSD so that you’re able to recognize when an employee is struggling to help connect them with support. 

    Again, in the immediate weeks after a traumatic workplace incident, it’s common for employees to show behavioral changes in response to trauma—this is a protective response by the body and mind.

    After a month or so, continued signs of the following may indicate something more is going on:

    • Avoidance
    • Being consistently on edge or irritable
    • Excessive vigilance
    • Withdrawing from colleagues
    • A sustained decrease in productivity
    • Frequent absences
    • Exaggerated responses to being startled or touched
    • Trouble focusing

    Employees experiencing PTSD are often so concerned about their safety and controlling their environment in an attempt to insulate themselves from another traumatic event that they frequently struggle with focusing and dealing with the interpersonal dynamics of working on a team.

    What employers can do to offer PTSD support

    There are several holistic strategies that workplaces can weave into their organizational culture so that people feel comfortable talking about mental health and seeking support when they struggle.

    One of the biggest things is to talk openly and nonjudgmentally to people who appear to be having a hard time.

    HR professionals are skilled at recognizing when an employee struggles, especially after a workplace incident. 

    It can be helpful to monitor the people involved in the incident while understanding that, for the first month or so, it’s normal for the affected employees to show some behavioral changes as they process what happened.

    Support in the aftermath of trauma is key

    The weeks following a workplace incident are critical in ensuring employees have healthy ways to process and cope with trauma. This is the time to ensure that the people involved are connected with professional support if they are interested in doing so.

    This is also a time to be understanding and realize that as people are recovering from trauma, they are likely not going to be as productive or able to focus at work.

    Create openings and remove barriers

    After a workplace incident or related traumatic event, providing a safe environment to discuss the event is crucial. However, no one should ever feel forced or coerced to discuss their experiences. Although avoidance is a major component of PTSD, it’s not our place to make our coworkers face things.

    Here are some helpful things to keep in mind:

    • Everyone is going to react differently
    • It’s important to create space for a range of reactions
    • It’s not the job of HR professionals to treat trauma, although they are well-placed to start conversations and connect people with clinical support 
    • Establishing communication and keeping those channels open long-term is key
    • It’s also critical to make it as easy as possible for people to get help

    Professional and peer support

    Connecting employees with an employee assistance program (EAP) in the aftermath of a workplace incident is always helpful, particularly for mental health support.

    Along with professional help, it may also be useful to set up peer support groups so that employees can rely on each other to talk through what they’ve experienced and discuss how they cope. 

    Talking to someone who understands your experiences is a powerful form of mutual support.

    Organizational support: creating space to process trauma

    At Spring Health, we offer critical incident response for employers. In concert with the organization, we develop a plan that fits the incident and workplace needs. Generally speaking, a licensed clinician will offer:

    1. Education: This entails helping people understand the recovery process while contextualizing their experiences and providing coping mechanisms.
    2. Therapy: This might include specially trained clinicians offering one-on-one sessions, small group sessions, and/or addressing the entire employee population.

    Understanding the nuances and offering proactive support are key

    If there’s one thing I want people to take away from this blog, it’s an understanding of the difference between experiencing trauma and developing PTSD. We all experience trauma, which can be challenging to live through. I don’t want to diminish that fact at all.

    This distinction is so crucial because PTSD is something apart from a normal trauma response, which is common and typically temporary. 

    Only when we understand the difference can we effectively offer proactive support to people who’ve experienced trauma and recognize when PTSD does develop. PTSD is directly connected with trauma, but it’s also something unique, requiring a unique response.

    Understanding this difference and offering the right support to employees who’ve experienced it can be transformative in the event of a workplace incident.

    Discover the impact of trauma on mental health, physical well-being, and employability, and explore actionable steps to create a trauma-informed workplace.

    About the Author
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    Neal Kennington
    Director of Clinical Partnerships, Spring Health

    Neal Kennington, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist with a Ph.D. from the California School of Professional Psychology. He served five years as an active duty clinician in the U.S. Air Force and has extensive experience in trauma and anxiety disorders. Prior to Spring Health, he was a senior government health consultant for the Department of Defense.

    About the clinical reviewer
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