Proactive response can help start the healing

ALL employers face the risk of someone in the organisation being exposed to an event or situation they find shocking, frightening or at least disruptive to their everyday life.

This event or situation can vary greatly – abuse by a customer, physical threats or attack, finding out that your job may be coming to an end, witnessing or being involved in an armed hold-up or an accident.

Our brains, of course, do not like being confronted with such things, and often react in ways that are unusual and uncomfortable for us. While differences exist between individuals in how they react to an event, a common set of reactions is often experienced.

These reactions are frequently not understood by friends, family or managers, who expect the victim to recover within a day or so of the ordeal because they were not necessarily physically hurt.

The victim may be viewed as being silly or weak, when in fact they can be having quite normal reactions to an abnormal event.

Initially, there may be a period of shock or stunned disbelief. People may report feeling numb and having difficulty accepting what has occurred, and their minds may not function as well as they normally do. They may not be able to concentrate or do even simple tasks properly. They may then enter a stage of trying to avoid dealing with the incident and how they really feel about it.

This may take the form of mental avoidance, where they work very hard to carry on with “business as usual” and/ or physical avoidance, where they work very hard to stay away from anything that reminds them of “the event”, including the workplace.

Contrary to common belief, staying away from work frequently makes full recovery harder.

In the meantime, people may be suffering such things as sleep disturbance, growing underlying tenseness and many other less obvious reactions.

When their “protective bubble” is burst with a sharp reminder of “the event” there is often obvious emotional distress of some form, such as fear, helplessness, sadness, guilt, shame or anger.

Oddly enough, a common view in our society is that such emotional expe-riences mean the person is falling apart, whereas in reality it means the person is a step closer to adapting and coming to grips with what has happened.

This is much healthier in the long run than remaining stuck in denial.

The point is, people can actually recover full mental health and wellbeing following an unpleasant event. Sometimes all it takes is some caring friends, family and work mates who will listen, understand and encourage. Sometimes it will take an experienced trauma recovery expert to help the process.

Whichever, of concern to employers is a growing number of cases resulting in litigation or lengthy periods off work, where employees have not been at least assessed by a qualified expert following a potentially traumatic event.

Such an assessment is relatively inexpensive, especially given the potential cost that can arise from litigation, absence, lost motivation and distraction. Should the assessment conclude that the person is suffering ill effects, a treatment/recovery plan can be devised, agreed on and implemented.

Again, effective treatment is usually inexpensive and can have a positive impact quickly.

For owner/operators who do not have workers’ compensation cover, trauma debriefing and follow-up can be arranged through the Victim Support Service on 9425 2850. The service is free, but is not available for employees who are normally covered by workers’ compensation.

Ross Eatt is manager of Corporate Psychology Organisation Davidson Trahaire (WA) Pty Ltd. He can be contacted on 9382 8100,

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