Leading Staff through Traumatic and Trying Times

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Leading Staff through Traumatic and Trying Times

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

QUESTION:  With the recent mass shooting at Michigan State University and the overall stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, we are noticing that more of our staff are having struggles at work that may be related to trauma. How can we support staff who are struggling?  I want to do something, but am not sure how to help.

ANSWER:  Thank you for asking this question!  Practices must balance the care and support of their teams with the pressures of serving patients and running a business. This can be challenging on a good day, but becomes especially difficult to do during traumatic events.  The fact that you are tuned in to this issue shows that that you care about your staff and acknowledges that personal trauma can and does impact the workplace.  This acknowledgment and concern for the well-being of your team is foundational as you navigate these trying times.

The US Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that six in 10 men and five in 10 women experience at least one trauma in their lifetime, and approximately 6% of the population will experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some point in their lives. Trauma can be defined as an emotional injury that affects performance and well-being and may arise from events such as domestic violence, health-related issues, the death of a close family member, overall safety concerns in the community, harassment, racism, financial uncertainty, and political divisions. The impact of trauma can vary as widely as the causes, so the goal is to assess each individual situation and provide assistance based on personal needs.

Let me start by saying that the aim of these interactions is not to “fix” anyone, but instead to provide support, access to resources, and an overall safe place to work. A good first step in this process is to acknowledge the trauma that has occurred, if you are aware of it, and focus on listening. For the recent mass shooting at MSU, this could entail bringing the team together to acknowledge what has happened and then giving space for people to react; sharing their thoughts in an open, nonjudgmental space.  Being able to talk about emotions is part of the healing process.  I recommend that you follow up one-on-one with any staff who you know may have a direct connection to the tragedy.  Saying things like, “I’m so sorry this happened,” and “What can we do to help?” can go a long way in letting employees know that it is okay to not be okay and to ask for what they need.

Following a traumatic event, try to allow time for processing and grieving. That may mean approving time off for specific employees, temporarily lightening workloads, and/or allowing time for employees to talk with each other.  Of course, you may still have a full patient load, but look for opportunities to support these breaks and connections instead of rushing staff back to their duties. Work with individual employees to provide the time needed based on their situation.  Employees may also benefit from mental health resources (which may be available through employer-sponsored Employee Assistance Programs), referrals to medical providers or support groups, and/or assistance with funeral and other expenses.  Supports like these can make an incredible difference in a person’s healing process and is another way for you to show your commitment to the whole employee.

As the saying goes, you cannot pour from an empty cup, so be sure to take care of yourself during these challenging times too.  Caregiver fatigue is real, so if you find yourself needing some additional TLC to make it through the day, be sure to lean into that.  Acknowledging your own emotions not only allows you to seek out the comfort and clarity you may need, but also demonstrates to your team that you are human and may need their support as well.  A strong work culture is one where people feel cared for and where people are able to care for others in return.  Allow your team to be there for you – you will both benefit as a result.

With the implementation of some of these steps and the passing of time, most employees will make the transition back into fully productive work. In fact, having work-related tasks can be an important part of the healing process as it allows employees to focus on things other than the traumatic event.  However, despite your best efforts, some employees may continue struggle. These employees may need additional, more intensive supports to work through their trauma, including leaves of absence or access to disability resources if a physician recommends it.  Know your limits and consult with mental health professionals when in doubt.


By Jodi Schafer, SPHR, SHRM-SCP,HRM Services, www.WorkWithHRM.com