Responding to Workplace Trauma

Carol Hoffman, MSW, LCSW, CEAP
University of California at Berkeley

Workplace trauma has received more attention in recent years. People typically think of workplace 'violence' upon hearing about trauma inthe workplace. They tend to associate workplace violence with employees or ex-employees shooting people in the workplace due largely to the media¹s emphasis on these incidents.

In fact, there are many events that can precipitate traumatic reactions for people in the workplace. Any event that affects the geographic locale in which a business is situated can affect people in the workplace. Moreover, many incidents that have an impact within a company or organization will affect the employees of that group.

A workplace is a community, with all of the subsequent issues of identity and culture. It will have its own norms and expectations for how and when things are discussed, what are acceptable and appropriate behaviors, the roles of formal and informal leaders, and feelings of pride and identification with the community. Because of this sense of community, when a traumatic event occurs in the workplace, there needs to be a response by an employer to one of the organization¹s greatest resources - the employees. Such support must be afforded to workers regardless of what is being done for the people in the organization by the outside community. To ignore an event and its impact on employees is a tragic mistake for the continued success of the business and the recovery and mental health of the employees - both being dependent on the other. What an employer would do in any situation will vary and depend upon many variables. A response, however, is critical.

There are many types of traumatic events that occur in the workplace. They include:

  • Natural disasters- hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, volcanoes, fires
  • Human-caused incidents - explosions, fires, violence from firearms or other weapons, rape, threats, robbery, assaults, domestic violence, stalking
  • Deaths (including homicide/suicide) - on-the-job, away from the job, work-related, accidental, disease-caused, violent
  • Downsizing/layoffs - mergers, buy outs, large or small, by division or cross the board
  • Construction

Unfortunately, no workplace can consider itself immune to potential traumatic events. A traumatic event can directly affect one employee or can be a large scale event and be experienced directly by all employees. An employer may want to identify and assess risk for potential events and begin a planning process to respond accordingly. The risk can be for specific natural disasters, or may be particular to that employer dependent on the nature of the work and organizational culture. It is incumbent upon the employer to plan in order to prevent or at least lower the risk of occurrence, and to also plan for response efforts in case of an unavoidable or unpredictable event.

Why is it important for the workplace to consider trauma response? Success of the business or company, both short and long-term, may hinge on management¹s response to a traumatic event.
If employees feel neglected, their loyalty and commitment to their employer can be withheld. If an employee develops posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the health care costs borne by the company will be extensive, and depending upon the state, there can be an expensive Workers¹ Compensation claim and a possible lawsuit. Often there will be increased physical health costs secondary to emotional response that will also affect absenteeism. Productivity can suffer. The loss of productivity can be minimized and contained if the employer plans a timely and appropriate response. The loss of loyalty, commitment, productivity, increased absenteeism, retention challenges, and health costs are all sufficient reasons for employers to plan for and address trauma in the workplace, especially given the minimal expense involved in planning.

University of California (UC) - Berkeley is the largest employer in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area with approximately 15,000 faculty and staff. Of course, the customers or clients of this employer are the students, which number approximately 35,000. Universities tend to think of themselves as communities, and in fact, provide full community services to many. This may include, as it does at UC Berkeley, housing, food, entertainment, recreational facilities and activities, health care, libraries, police, museums, cultural performances, etc. Most of the students, faculty, and staff live in Berkeley and its surrounding communities.

Because it is a public university, there is an emphasis at UC Berkeley on its service responsibilities to the people of the state of California. Due to the highly political nature of the campus and the city of Berkeley, there is often highly charged controversy and turmoil surrounding any action (or inaction) by the University. To support its standing as one of the top universities, excellence is highly valued in all areas.
Due to its geographic location on the Hayward Fault, and due to the many types of people the Berkeley community attracts, anticipating traumatic events and planning for them may be more obvious than in some other workplaces. Some issues are common to all workplaces and UC Berkeley has both led the way and learned from examples of others.

The following is what UC Berkeley has developed to respond to the range of traumatic events with specific examples of experience given in each category.

Natural Disasters: 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake and 1991 Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm

UC Berkeley is situated in a region that has earthquakes, fires, and mudslides. Disaster planning has become an additional activity for many of the University service departments, such as the police, Health services, telecommunications, housing and dining, physical plant, etc. The experiences of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the 1991 Oakland - Berkeley firestorm helped to solidify the need for response by this employer. Though the physical site was not damaged in either event, many people who worked on campus were directly affected, through loss of life, home, and outside business. Though the overwhelming need in the hours or even day(s) immediately following a disaster is not specifically for mental health response, there is a significant need for attending to the experience of people confronted with the disaster in order to prevent PTSD. Identification of those at risk with subsequent special outreach, provision of general educational materials on trauma response to all faculty and staff, offering of Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) and more casual debriefings, as well as longer term follow-up at 3 and 6 months and 1 year have all worked well following these events.

This employer recognizes the need for a mental health response and it is part of the disaster planning effort. In addition to the above activities, screening of response workers and emergency operations center decision makers for trauma symptoms is vital. There has been success at receiving FEMA funding for some of these activities following the firestorm in coordination with local community mental health. There must be coordination between the employer and the community to avoid service duplication. However, it is important for the disaster to be addressed within workgroups regardless of what is offered in the community. The employer¹s top management may be well served by mental health input into their actions and communications to employees.

Workplace Violence

According to California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), workplace violence can be categorized in several ways. ³Type 1 violence² is committed by an outside person coming into the workplace with the intention of committing a crime (e.g., robbing a convenience store). ³Type 2 violence² is when a person who is receiving service or who has reason to be at the workplace, is violent toward the service provider (e.g., shooting by a patient of emergency room physicians). ³Type 3 violence² is due to some employment connection - current or former employee or domestic violence brought into the workplace. Most people think of Type 3 when they think of workplace violence, but in fact, Type 1 is by far the most common workplace violence. An employer must examine the type of work and assess for which risks exist and how to mitigate them.
At UC Berkeley, we have opportunities for all three types of violence and have attempted to address them with appropriate measures. A Behavior Risk Assessment team has been in existence for many years to review threats or concerns about the behavior of a student, faculty or staff member. Team members are called together as the need arises, with participants from different roles present depending on the situation. This team, along with a statement from the Chancellor (i.e., CEO) setting the limits of appropriate behaviors, has proven to be effective in addressing Types 2 and 3 workplace violence. Security measures have been instituted in the appropriate departments at risk for Type 1violence. An additional activity is the training of as many faculty and staff as possible about workplace violence, including identifying the behavioral symptoms in colleagues that are of concern for potential violence.

Death including Homicide and Suicide

Because the deaths of colleagues or the people that you provide services for have an impact and a ripple effect for people in the workplace, employer response is extremely significant. If there is no process to address the deaths of those within the workplace, the grief response can be exacerbated. These individuals are already tapping into their past experience with death in their lives and need the recognition by their employer and those around them that the most recent death does have an impact on them. To facilitate the emotional response and grieving, the University developed guidelines, laid out in a website, to follow in the event of a death of a member of the campus community, as well as some suggestions for the employer when a family member of an employee dies. Employees never forget how an employer treats them at such a challenging time - when death occurs. An employer who ignores or does not acknowledge the death of someone close to an employee can actually interfere with normal grieving and precipitate a complicated grief response. Specific guidelines that are included to address the emotional needs are Employee Assistance Program facilitated grief groups in departments, grief and loss psycho-educational groups and support groups, educational material on grief/loss and community resources. Suggestions for handling rituals, memorials, flowers, donations, condolence cards from the employer, time off etc. are also addressed.

Downsizing/layoffs of the 1980s and 1990s

Loss of a job can be psychologically devastating to an individual. For some, it provides new opportunities and new employment. For others, it may touch on past experiences and create such an overwhelming loss of identity and livelihood, that a traumatic response is precipitated. In order to assist these individuals and address the mental health needs of all involved in this situation, specific activities to attend to these people need to occur. Educational materials on the impact of grief and loss and change, groups for people who are losing/lost their job, promotion of activities that enhance self-esteem, individual counseling and outplacement services including career planning and retraining, are all part of a comprehensive response. Additional consultation with decision-makers regarding communications is vital. Despite all of the services in place, lack of communication or insensitive communication can add a traumatic quality to the action of the layoff itself. UC Berkeley responded as above during this difficult time in the early 1990s.

Building Construction

Construction on the worksite can be a major disruption for an employer and its employees. It changes the relationships of coworkers, prompts temporary physical moves, calls for tolerance of immense noise, dust, inconvenience, and in general, changes work as it had been. It may never return to exactly the same - there will always be some difference (even if it is just structural work). How an individual experiences this will be based on past experience with change, etc. Though difficult for anyone affected by construction, this experience can bring forward memories of prior traumas for some (e.g., unwanted or unanticipated relocating). At UC Berkeley, a team has been formed to look at the human impact of construction - to facilitate a communication process and address the issues that may arise for employees to prevent unnecessary stress.


Bad things happen to people and places. Sometimes these bad things involve injury and even death. However, it doesn¹t take death for people to be seriously impacted in their lives.
If the aforementioned issues are recognized by an employer, it will become obvious that attention needs to be paid to the impact of these events on the business and the people in the business. By taking some time at the front end to plan for preventing or minimizing traumatic events, and for responding when they occur, much of the negative impact of such events can be mitigated.

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