Recovering from workplace trauma

Rapid response, proper interventions can assist return-to-work

When Gavin McGregor began his shift as a subway driver at the Toronto Transit Commission in  August 2010, he didn’t know it would be the beginning of a life-altering experience. Driving the train through the dark and hollow subway stations was a regular routine for McGregor, until a passenger committed suicide in front of his train.

“As I was about to pull into the subway station, I saw someone leap in front of my train looking directly at me,” said McGregor. “I was in complete shock, I didn’t know what to do, everything happened so fast.”

After the incident, McGregor tried to return to work but found the environment too emotional, causing him to take a four-month leave as well as seek treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

 “I couldn’t sleep. I kept having nightmares about the incident. It’s not something you can forget very easily,” said McGregor.

Shirley Hickman, founder and executive director of Threads of Life in London, Ont., an association that supports families dealing with workplace tragedy, said she is not surprised McGregor would need extensive time off as it is common practice for workers who experience high levels of trauma.

“If the employer just expects the employee is going to come back to work the next hour, like nothing has happened and try to ignore it without allowing the worker to grieve, they are being unrealistic and aren’t  addressing the health and safety concerns of the employee,” said Hickman.

Mental health represents one-third of total disability claims in Western countries, said Renée-Louise Franche, a clinical psychologist of mental health in Vancouver who has also done extensive research on work disability prevention in relation to return to work programs.

“Mental health issues are surrounded by a climate of silence and it requires work to try to break that silence,” she said. “I think it is fear. People are afraid of doing harm to the worker and not knowing what to do.”

In an effort to effectively deal with workplace trauma, employers must make sure employees have access to evidence-based treatment through psychologists and psychiatrists, said Franche.

The best practice is to have a response within 24 hours of the incident, said Paula Allen, vice-president of organizational solutions and training at Shepell-fgi in Toronto.

“It’s like any health issue — the earlier you start treatment, the better the chances are for healing,” said Allen. “So if you have a broken limb, you wouldn’t think to wait four days before you start to reset it.”

This critical response should be provided through an employee assistance program (EAP), said Allen. EAPs understand the stresses and traumas of workplaces and can help people prepare for a successful return to the workplace.

They can help the employee deal with reintegrating themselves back into the workplace, such as answering questions from colleagues and revisiting the location of the trauma.

HR professionals are often given the responsibility of handling the process management aspect of return to work, which involves “multiple partners such as insurance companies, employers and health-care providers,” said Franche

Employers should make sure to have an effective co-ordination of return-to-work programs in place, she said.

“A number of studies have shown when you have somebody co-ordinating the return to work —  what we call a return-to-work co-ordinator — people really will go back to work much more effectively, generally,” said Franche.

Disability management should be included in standard policies and procedures in the workplace, she said.  Employers need to provide training and information to supervisors and top management on how to address these issues.

They should be trained to look for signs of possible problems such as sporadic absences or reduced productivity. If supervisors and top management are aware of this, they can start addressing the problem even before an employee takes a leave of absence, said Franche.

As part of the overall strategy to address workplace trauma, organizations also need to work on building resilience to reduce the effects of trauma.

This can be done by walking employees through a typical traumatic scenario that might occur in their own workplace, so it’s less shocking when they do see it, said Allen.

To properly address this issue in the workplace, HR professionals need to develop policies that include the definition of trauma and overall disability management to protect the health and safety of employees, said Hickman.

 “Like all policies, it needs to be living and breathing, and it has to be dusted off and reviewed,” she said. “You might not have a traumatic event for five years but then, all of a sudden, something happens and someone better know that very day what to do.”

If employers fail to take proper action, they can end up with unproductive and unhealthy workers, said Hickman. There are also deeper effects in terms of financial implications for employers, said Allen.

If an employer doesn’t have a proper support system in place, it increases the likelihood an employee will have to be out of work for a longer period of time, which will, ultimately, be costly for the organization, she said.

“The likelihood of a traumatic workplace incident happening might be somewhat slim but do you want to be the one who is caught not knowing what to do when something that significant happens?” said Allen. “Given the cost and given the impact, how you manage these critical situations will ultimately impact your reputation.”

Yaseen Hemeda is an HR compliance product writer for Consult Carswell.

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