What is Trauma and how can workplaces support recovery?

Updated: Sep 8, 2020

It is great that there is a growing recognition from employers on the necessity to support staff experiencing mental health difficulties. However, in my opinion, putting well-being initiatives in place is not sufficient. It is imperative for managers to understand in detail the complexity of mental health conditions and the emotional toll it can have on the employee. It is only through this that empathy can be developed, which is the foundation that we should build all mental health support on.

My aim for this blog is to provide an in-depth understanding of what trauma is and how it can affect individuals.

The definition of trauma varies between academics and different literature will give you different answers, making it confusing to those both those who work in the field of mental health and especially to those that do not.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the standard go to place for mental health diagnoses, outlines psychological trauma as:

The person has experienced an event that is outside the range of usual human experience and that would be markedly distressing to almost anyone, e.g., serious threat to one’s life or physical integrity; serious threat or harm to one’s children, spouse, or other close relatives and friends; sudden destruction of one’s home or community; or seeing another person who has recently been, or is being, seriously injured or killed as the result of an accident or physical violence. [1]

The trouble with this definition is that it is not broad enough and human beings and trauma in practice is much more complex. While it is debatable, I believe that psychological trauma can derive from more subtle experiences such as poverty or interpersonal conflict, such as non-violent bullying and emotional abuse.

I have read many academic journals and papers searching for a definition that matches my own professional and personal experience and the one I feel most accurately describes what trauma is, actually comes from Wikipedia.

Psychological trauma is damage to the mind that occurs as a result of a distressing event. Trauma is often the result of an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds one’s ability to cope, or integrate the emotions involved with that experience. Trauma may result from a single distressing experience or recurring events of being overwhelmed that can be precipitated in weeks, years, or even decades as the person struggles to cope with the immediate circumstances, eventually leading to serious, long-term negative consequences. [2]

The two most common conditions diagnosed following a traumatic experience are Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Acute Stress Disorder. While not everyone will show external symptoms and therefore not be perceived as battling with the impact of their trauma, some symptoms to look out for in the workplace include:

  • Changes in mood

  • Anger

  • Physical symptoms- Feeling sick, sore head, general aches and pains

  • Poor concentration

  • Individual seems on edge and/or jumpy

  • Tearful

  • Relationship issues with colleagues that did not exist before

  • Avoidance of others in the workplace

  • Over reaction to minor situations

Acute Stress Disorder occurs immediately after the experiencing of a traumatic event and resolves on its own. If it persists, an individual is likely to meet the diagnosis of PTSD. Unfortunately, some people also develop lifelong chronic sub-clinical symptoms which do not satisfy the criteria for these diagnoses; making it much more challenging to get help.

A traumatic experience can also induce anxiety, depression and sometimes may trigger personality disorders and more complex mental health illnesses.

While it is important for managers to recognise what a traumatic event looks like as it is only then that they can open a dialogue about it, it is even more crucial that they can connect with the emotional element of it.

Why is it important for employers to connect with the emotion, you ask? Research shows that healthy relationships and human connection are one of the main factors in helping to improve the outcomes in trauma survivors [3].The great thing about this is that it can be achieved outside of the therapist’s room.

Next time you suspect your staff has encountered a traumatic event, ask them how it has affected them even if they are not showing any symptoms. Be patient, empathic, supportive, and most importantly listen. Remind yourself that trauma can bring with it challenging and distressing emotions which can be difficult to process and cope with. If they do not want to talk about it or are telling you that they are not experiencing any difficulties, accept this. Ensure, however, that you are having regular meetings with them and providing them with a safe, confidential space, free of judgement where they can express themselves. If the support you are offering is coming from a place of obligation rather than genuineness, reflect on this as people will usually be able to pick up on it. Despite being a therapist, with what I would consider a pretty high emotional intelligence, I have made this mistake while in management positions more than once. I have offered what I thought to be supportive words despite being secretly annoyed and frustrated with the individual and guess what, it just made things worse! In these cases, ask yourself what it will take for you to tap into the emotional response required to connect. Is there maybe someone else in the organisation who would be more suited to providing the support?

Building this approach into your overall ethos and culture of your organisation will not only signal to those who have experienced recent traumas that it is safe to open up but will also help to support those individuals who have experienced the past trauma’s that you are not aware of.

If you would like to find out more about the impact of trauma, I am going to be hosting podcasts with Lindy Paterson, someone who developed symptoms of trauma as a consequence of Swine Flu and Michael Byrnes who has experienced several traumas throughout his life. Please subscribe to our mailing list, if you would like to receive a notification on when these will be released.


[1] Psychological Trauma (2020). Retrieved August 27, 2020 from

[2] American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA

[3] Van der Kolk B (2014) The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma. Penguin Books.

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