Why workplaces need to be talking about trauma


The word ‘trauma’ is cropping up more and more in conversations, both in and out of the workplace. As we put the spotlight on this topic to mark PTSD Awareness Month, there are certainly many traumatic experiences currently happening in our world, from the cost of living crisis to wars to worries about the future of our planet. 

Undoubtedly, the conversation about trauma is being fuelled partly by social media where people are speaking about this topic more openly than ever before.

“Social media has played a massive role in getting people talking about trauma,” says Dr Ravi Gill, Psychologist and Clinical Lead for Psychological Monitoring, Optima Health, who works with high-profile clients on their clinical programmes to monitor trauma in high risk roles. 

One of the problems with this informal discussion of a complex topic, is that there is now much confusion around trauma and PTSD. This article digs into what’s important for workplaces to understand, and debunks common myths.

Please note that this article includes reference to subject matter which might be triggering. If you are affected by this information, please contact an organisation that can give you advice and support such as Samaritans on 116 123 any day, any time.

Celebrities talking about trauma

“There are a lot more celebrities and influencers now saying ‘this happened to me’ or talking about childhood related trauma,” adds Dr Gill. “There are also a lot of psychologists, like author Dr. Gabor Maté, talking about it. As a result, people are asking more questions about trauma.”

But one of the issues with so much informal discussion on social media about trauma is that it’s led to some confusion about what it actually is, and isn’t. For instance, just because someone has had a traumatic experience, doesn’t mean they will experience post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Trauma is a very individual experience; some can leave horrific situations unscathed, whereas others can be traumatised from seemingly innocuous events.

Integrating the experience

Dr Gill uses an example from her own childhood:

“When I was growing up, we had fireworks put through our letter box as a form of racial hate crime. That would have stayed with some people. But, for me, I was able to move on from that experience; it didn’t prevent me from integrating with other communities and it didn’t impact me by putting me into survival mode. So, I had a traumatic experience, but I wasn’t traumatised.”

Myths about trauma

There are other myths surrounding trauma, too, like:

  • “Trauma is a one-off shocking event, like a road traffic accident”. It can be, and this is often referred to as ‘big T’ trauma. But there’s also the recognition now that seemingly ‘small’ repetitive incidents happening over years can cause complex PTSD, called ‘small T’ trauma
  • “Trauma has to be directly experienced”. This is not true – people can suffer secondary trauma from, for example, witnessing photographs or footage of a traumatic event 
  • “Trauma is not a diagnosis”. This is true. Trauma can lead to diagnoses of PTSD or complex PTSD 

Valuable role workplaces can play

Because of these myths and the confusion around trauma, there is a real, valuable role that workplaces can play in increasing understanding of this complex, topical subject. Rather than employees second-guessing their potential trauma from Instagram, employers could provide reliable information and even access to experts via channels like webinars and articles.

But, while many workplaces now describe themselves as ‘trauma informed’, it isn’t always clear (to the employees or onlookers) what this actually means. As Dr Gill says:

“Does that mean I can talk to someone about trauma if I want to? And what would that look like? Are there some roles that carry more risk? Is there a way I can find out if I’ve got trauma?”

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Trauma is very individual

Again, just as trauma looks different from individual to individual, so it does from organisation to organisation and industry to industry.

“Trauma differs hugely across professions and across sectors and sub sectors. For example, people working in the finance and legal professions face very specific issues, like market pressures, that can have an impact on people, as well as the nature of their work, which can be very challenging and we’re increasingly seeing people more exposed to trauma in their daily work,” says Kris Ambler, Workforce Lead, British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (www.bacp.co.uk).

He also gives the farming industry as an example of one with specific ‘traumatic’ factors, like the impact of Brexit and Covid, which have led to a high suicide rate. Similarly, the rate is high amongst veterinarians who often have high levels of debt as well as isolation. 

Industries have varied triggers

Another industry with unique trauma-inducing characteristics is the rail sector, where child sex trafficking is a problem with railway staff coming across abandoned children. As well as this, drivers can experience trauma when they’ve witnessed a death by suicide. 

The retail sector, too, has experienced a rise in violence towards its employees, which can also lead to PTSD. The point of all these examples being there is no one size fits all, or one ‘trauma informed’ approach that will work for every company because the particular triggers will be different.

“What I would urge employers to do is really think about the very specific and nuanced needs, and changing needs, of their workforces and to look ahead. Make evidence-based decisions about whatever interventions you’re going to use,” Ambler says.

Need for flexiblity

Employers are recognising, across sectors, that when it comes to trauma there’s a need to be more flexible in the kind of interventions provided. “For example, someone might need to speak to someone there and then for just 15 minutes [after a traumatic experience] to decompress. That isn’t generally what an EAP will do,” he says.

Leading the innovation in this area – because the potential for trauma is so obvious and impactful – are the emergency services. South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust even has its own inhouse trauma specialist – see here for more on this case study.

BACP has been working with the Royal Foundation, the charity led by the Prince and Princess of Wales, for the last five years developing The Network of Emergency Services Therapists (NEST), listing psychotherapists who can deliver bespoke, effective trauma treatment tailored to first responders.

One of the reasons for creating NEST, says Ambler, is that research showed that “current services for first responders were under-utilised because they were not trauma-specialised enough”.

Specialist support needed for trauma

“People with trauma require a specialist kind of support, provided by people with trauma qualifications and experience. So, they could be using trauma-focused CBT, or EMDR, for example, and used to working with clients experiencing things like dissociation,” he says.

Dr Beverley Flint, Chief Mental Health Programme Officer / Consultant Clinical Psychologist at Smart About Health agrees, saying that in her experience most EAPs aren’t set up for dealing with trauma. She cautions strongly against sending someone with PTSD for the standard, limited number of sessions with a counsellor:

“People think that their EAP can treat everything. But counselling is not an evidence-based treatment for PTSD. There isn’t a ‘tick box’ for trauma. It’s a serious issue and so organisations need to take a long, hard look at what they are offering people and whether it’s adequate and evidence-based or appropriate.”

If you are affected by the information in this article, please contact an organisation that can give you advice and support such as Samaritans on 116 123 any day, any time.

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