Post-traumatic counselling can help you stay in control of a bad situation
Article revised on 23 May 2019
In a work environment, no team is spared from events that can shake up its members. A colleague’s suicide, an accident with numerous fatalities, massive layoffs, a natural disaster… These are the types of traumatic events that can cause so much stress that certain employees can’t function properly. As managers, you must be prepared to react quickly and appropriately.
Events that can jeopardize our lives or the lives of our loved ones, or events that take a heavy emotional toll, often cause physical and psychological reactions to those dealing with them. It’s normal. Elevated heartbeat, adrenaline rush, intense fear, anxiety…each person reacts differently. These symptoms usually disappear a few hours after the event. Certain emotions and memories will certainly linger, but never as intensely.
However, some people continue to have strong reactions and feel specific symptoms following the traumatic event. This is known as post-traumatic stress. According to the Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Montréal, in the week following a criminal act, approximately one in three people deals with acute stress.
Symptoms that shouldn’t be ignored
Post-traumatic stress most often occurs during the three months following the trigger event. In certain cases, however, symptoms may appear several years later.
The Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Montréallisted four categories of symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress:
- The person repeatedly lives through the traumatic experience, whether it’s through suppressed memories, nightmares, flashbacks or intense feelings when faced with elements that might remind him or her of the event.
- The person tries to avoid anything associated with the event. He or she will avoid certain places, some of the people involved with the event or any activity likely to make the event resurface.
- The person experiences negative emotions that appeared after the event or the following experiences are heightened:tendency to blame him or herself or others, persistent feeling of fear, shame, anger or guilt, a loss of interest in activities he or she once enjoyed, inability to feel positive emotions, sense of detachment, distant with others, etc.
- The person is in a state of hyperarousal: insomnia, irritability, difficulty concentrating, hyper-vigilance, jumpy, etc.
As a manager, when events causing severe stress occur within the organization or business unit, you can be proactive by taking measures so that post-traumatic stress or even chronic stress doesn’t set in.
Your organization should alreadyhave a policy or guidelines to follow in the event of traumatic events. If not, it might be a good idea to develop and have one in place.
You should also know that post-traumatic intervention is more efficient soon after the event. You should therefore strive to make help available for employees within 72 hours. This help will most likely come in the form of a debriefing session, during which employees are asked to talk to a specialist, usually a psychologist, about what they experienced. This process will:
- Put an end to symptoms
- Vent emotions, free employees of heavy emotional burden
- Put the events and thoughts that trigger fear into perspective
- Help employees get “back to normal”
Massive layoffs and restructuring: Preventing traumatizing experiences
The realities of today’s business world mean that employees must live through many difficult experiences in their work environment. This includes layoffs or major restructuring efforts which affect employees’ work routines. If this is the case in your organization, it would be wise to include post-traumatic counselling services in your change management plan. This will allow employees that remain with the organization to better deal with the transition period and avoid feelings of guilt or concern.
What comes next?
After the debriefing, some employees may still be in need of support. As a manager, you can help them. If you think that their behaviour has changed and you’re concerned with their mental state, don’t hesitate to refer them to the employee assistance program or other specialized resources. Some people may feel they can handle it on their own. It’s possible, but getting the appropriate help can speed up the healing process.
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