Whether it’s hijackings, burglaries, murder, divorce, accidents, abuse, or the illness or death of a loved one, South Africans are no strangers to traumatic events. In the workplace, 72% of medium-to-large businesses in South Africa reported that their staff or families of staff had been affected by contact crimes over the past year, according to Grant Thornton’s 2008 International Business Report. Craig Higson Smith, a research psychologist and founder of the South African Institute for Traumatic Stress (SAITS), provides some insight into what trauma is and how to deal with it in the workplace.
What is trauma?
An event is traumatic when it involves a threat to safety and is accompanied by feelings of severe fear, helplessness or horror. At work, such events include armed robberies, accidents, physical assault, unexpected illness and death of colleagues and customers, sexual harassment and other forms of victimisation. They can result in serious distress and an inability to function properly.
The effects of trauma.
Traumatic exposure is generally associated with post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. In reality, PTSD is just one of a broad range of psychological and interpersonal problems that may arise from being involved in a traumatic event. Trauma may also cause other kinds of anxiety, depression, and even substance abuse.
Often the impact is more subtle; people withdraw from those around them, lose their confidence, lose their trust in others, and lose their passion for life. These less obvious consequences are often the most harmful to society, families and businesses.
Obligation of the responsibile employer.
PTSD, or any other psychological or social problem that results from exposure to a traumatic event in the workplace, is considered an injury at work. The employer is thus required by law to take all reasonable steps to protect employees from exposure to traumatic events. When such protection fails, the employer is obliged to ensure that the employee is given all the help necessary for a full recovery.
Impact in the workplace.
The results of trauma exposure have enormous implications for business profitability. People with PTSD and other trauma-related problems are absent from work more often, less productive when they are at work, and less able to manage themselves professionally in the workplace. This last factor may manifest as inappropriate anger or rage, or an inability to receive constructive criticism without becoming overly distressed. There is a powerful business case to be made for taking special care of employees who have been exposed to violence, victimisation or some other kind of trauma. This provides a unique opportunity to demonstrate real care for employees when they need it most.
In many companies, selected employees are trained to assist their colleagues following a traumatic incident. These internal systems of support contribute to a positive and team-oriented organisational climate.
What to do if your business is hit by crime.
If you or your employees have been the victims of violent crime in the workplace, you may suffer from symptoms like sleep and eating disorders, flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks, social anxiety or phobia, and loss of confidence in yourself and in the future. The good news is that people can be helped to reduce or eliminate these symptoms through consultation and therapy. Recovery from trauma involves a regaining of a sense of control and mastery over your life, making sense of the traumatic experience, and re-establishing former patterns of adaptation to life.
Seek expert assistance
For information, counselling and support contact: