Many people have been traumatised during the pandemic. Ensuring they aren’t left struggling to cope alone is crucial to facilitating their recovery.

In the past, it typically took a major incident, such as a terrorist attack, armed raid or major car crash, for employees to be exposed to an event distressing enough to traumatise them.

Now, the depth and severity of the pandemic means many employers have now had to respond to the death of an employee, or employee’s relative, due to Covid or suicide. As issues ranging from social isolation to financial worries and relationship breakdown push some people into despair, with 18 people committing suicide every day according to the ONS. A figure sadly predicted to increase further during the recession.

With 90% of healthcare professionals saying there is not enough mental health support available for the general public to deal with the aftermath of the pandemic, employers now have a vital role to play when it comes to safeguarding, protecting and supporting the recovery of those who have been traumatised by events.

Read on for this month’s blog to find out how to recognise the symptoms of trauma, train managers how to spot people in distress and make people feel safe talking about how they’re feeling, so they can be directed towards appropriate support.

Understanding the symptoms of trauma

Typically defined as an event which ‘made you feel like your life, or the life of a loved one, was under threat’, the coronavirus in itself has already caused many people to feel traumatised, with doctors warning that thousands of people who had to fight for their life in hospital, or who risked their life simply to do their job, are now vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

At the same time, not being able to be with a loved one while they died of COVID, having your partner walk out on you during lockdown, becoming a victim of domestic abuse or feeling like you might lose your job or home have also proved deeply traumatic for some individuals. Also, the intense feelings of social isolation and loneliness experienced by others during lockdown proved not only distressing, but potentially traumatic.

The main four symptoms of trauma include:

  • Avoiding things that put you in mind of the thing that traumatised you

  • Hyper-vigilance, making you feel jumpy or interrupting your sleep

  • Flashbacks and constantly replaying events in your mind

  • Low mood and feelings of sadness or not feeling anything at all

Employees need to be educated that it’s normal to be experiencing these symptoms after being exposed to a distressing event, and that the vast majority of them will start to naturally feel better over time. As well as educated about how to recognise if they’re one of the few whose symptoms are becoming worse, meaning they’re at risk of developing PTSD symptoms.

Symptoms of PTSD include extreme physical reactions, such as nausea, sweating or pounding heart, nightmares, extreme anxiety, invasive memories and intense feelings of distress that can make the individual feel like the trauma is still happening in the moment. These symptoms are often severe and persistent enough to have significant impact on the person’s day to day life.

Preventing PTSD

In the event that people at work were exposed to a trauma, such as the death or suicide of a colleague, or any other critical incident, it’s important that this news is communicated in the right way to everyone in the immediate aftermath. Access to counselling should be provided for those who might be feeling particularly affected, with a de-briefing session 72 hours afterwards and follow-up PTSD screen and support 2-3 weeks later.

If someone has experienced a trauma outside of work, or become vicariously traumatised through an event that happened to someone else thus triggering their own past traumas – for example, a young person dying could cause them to feel traumatised if they lost a friend and then a parent at a young age – it’s essential that managers know how to look out for and spot the early warning signs, so they can kindly enquire how they’re feeling and direct them towards appropriate support.

This doesn’t require the manager to counsel or advise the employee in any way. It does require them to consider managing the mental health and wellbeing of their team as part of their overall people responsibilities, and to take this responsibility seriously.

In both cases, there isn’t time to find an appropriate trauma partner, or put in place appropriate counselling services, once someone’s been through a deeply distressing event. So it’s important to review your existing services to see what provision is already in place, perhaps through your OH or Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) provider, and what additional wrap-around care needs to be put on standby in case this is needed. It is always best to be prepared for any eventuality.

Normalising trauma

Critical to offering timely support is ‘normalising trauma’ by creating a culture where people feel safe talking about their mental health. This can be achieved by offering workshops on dealing with trauma, bereavement and loss as part of your existing wellbeing programmes.

Preparation is key and by preparing and planning for unpredictable events and incidents you protect your most vulnerable assets ‘your employees’. You are investing in your people and providing them with a product that can potentially keep them in the work place and strong within the team. This keeps the organisation strong and provides a happy community.

Psychoeducational workshops also provide the ideal opportunity to educate people about the support services in place and highlight what a great benefit it is to be able to immediately access a counsellor or to be referred for trauma or EMDR (Eye Movement desensitisation Reprocessing) treatment, at no cost to themselves – at a time when they would have to wait weeks, if not months, to access support via their GP.

Deborah Pinchen is head of trauma and critical incidents management at PAM Wellbeing

For more expert insights on how to reduce the prevalence of mental health issues linked to the coronavirus, download our free guide to Restoring Mental Health

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