Stress at work is nothing new for many of us – feeling overworked, pressure to meet deadlines, etc. But what about experiencing trauma at work? Some people can and do experience violent trauma at work – teachers, retail workers, restaurant servers, bartenders are recent examples we’ve seen in the national news of employees who’ve experienced gun violence while on the job. However, crime and violent trauma (aka big T trauma) isn’t the only kind of work-related trauma that can affect people.

My journey as a survivor of mass violence has been eye opening. For one thing, when they learn my story many people share their own traumas with me. A key element of my experience was feeling lucky to walk away without physical injuries, to then feel invisible to the world, like my experience didn’t count; since I developed PTSD and there isn’t much talk about the psychological after-effects of these kinds of events. Often it feels like people share their story with me because they know I see them; my experience and openness about it validates their own experiences.

For another, I’m learning about all the different ways people can be traumatized – both big and little T traumas. A friend of a friend shared with me that employees who keep their jobs after layoffs can feel traumatized. And invisible. She knew I’d understand that feeling. Companies focus services and attention on the employees they let go, like providing outplacement services and career counseling to help them find new jobs. Employees left behind – the layoff survivors – can deal with things like increased workload and expectations of productivity, loss of work friends and colleagues, and lower morale.

Types of Traumatic Changes

Layoffs are just one type of work event that can lead to distress: 

  1. Restructuring
  2. Company bought out or merging with another company
  3. New management
  4. New company dynamics shaking up their department (new hires, promotions, demotions which change team)
How Employees are Commonly Affected

There are a variety of signs that an employee or colleague is in distress; changes in behavior that you may notice, like absenteeism, lying, or poor decision making. People may feel lost and unsure how to feel – they’re happy for themselves and sad for the those who lost their jobs. Guilt is common as well; feeling responsible in some way for others losing their job while they got to stay.

Fear is very common, especially after layoffs. Who can feel confident that more changes and more layoffs won’t happen soon? Who feels completely confident they won’t lose their job after seeing trusted friends and colleagues let go?

How to Help Employees

As an individual, you can help employees or colleagues when you notice they are in distress – by validating their experience, let them take the lead in talking about how they are feeling and deciding how to deal with it.

As an employer, there are a few actions to take to help all employees who are feeling distressed and unsettled after change.

  • Explain why the decision (layoff, merger, etc.) was made, with as much openness and transparency into the process as possible
  • Offer a timeline to show major changes on the horizon, so employees know what to expect
  • Explain the reasoning behind changes to individual workloads, like taking away tasks from a person or team, or increasing responsibilities
  • Train employees on any new policies/procedures
  • Offer opportunities for employees to share thoughts/ideas, such as creating a survey or an anonymous suggestion box

Work trauma causes distress. Pretending otherwise doesn’t do any favors – no the employees and not the company’s bottom line. To protect employees for organizational trauma, the first step is recognizing the trauma, then validating the employees’ experience.