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How to talk to your employer about trauma

  • Written by Stefanos Nachmias, Principal Lecturer and Deputy Head of HRM Department, Nottingham Trent University
How to talk to your employer about trauma

The impact of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a hidden chronic mental health issue in the workplace. A 2016 survey of UK adults[1] found that one in five people between the ages of 18 and 74 said they had experienced at least one form of child abuse, whether emotional, physical, or sexual abuse or witnessing domestic violence, before the age of 16.

For many of those 8.5 million people, the experiences will continue to affect them into adulthood, in the form of trauma. They might experience panic attacks, flashbacks or intense and ongoing emotional upset due to what they experienced earlier in life.

These mental health challenges affect all areas of a trauma survivor’s life, but can be particularly detrimental in the workplace. Poor concentration, problems with trust, and feeling disconnected or socially isolated are all symptoms that trauma survivors report experiencing[2] at work.

Quarter life, a series by The Conversation
This article is part of Quarter Life[3], a series about issues affecting those of us in our twenties and thirties. From the challenges of beginning a career and taking care of our mental health, to the excitement of starting a family, adopting a pet or just making friends as an adult. The articles in this series explore the questions and bring answers as we navigate this turbulent period of life. You may be interested in: Passionate about your job? Here’s why that might not be good for you[4] How remote working can increase stress and reduce wellbeing[5] Becoming a new parent is challenging – and fathers need support too[6] The pandemic has enabled us to talk more about wellbeing and psychological safety at work[7]. But getting support for trauma and PTSD at work isn’t always simple. It can be extremely challenging for a survivor to openly discuss their trauma. It can even lead to a recurrence if they are exposed to people, incidents, or environments that cause them to relive their experiences. But not disclosing can also be harmful. Lack of awareness about trauma can create an environment where survivors feel insecure, vulnerable or isolated. In most cases, support doesn’t involve complicated and time-consuming solutions, but rather basic displays of understanding, trust and fairness from the employer. Disclosing trauma could help survivors to access the dignity and flexibility to manage their trauma at work and make them a better employee. Here are four things to consider when seeking support: What and how should you disclose? Your employer may offer some basic information about the disclosure process in internal HR documents or online material. Review it and look for assurances that there will be a consideration of trust and confidentiality. The organisation should describe a formal process on disclosure, explaining the key steps and who to talk to (your direct line manager is usually the norm). In case your organisation does not offer a formal process, you can disclose your trauma to a trusted colleague. This carries the risk of not being formally supported, hence many trauma survivors do not disclose[8] in these circumstances. Remember – you do not need to disclose the nature of your trauma, only the emotional impact and effect on work activities, as well as what accommodations or adjustments you need from your employer. How does your employer handle accommodations? Before disclosing, you may want to familiarise yourself with how your employer views employee wellbeing and makes accommodation for individual needs. Examine the company’s website, recruitment documents and social media profiles. Look for evidence that the company acknowledges the importance of wellbeing and flexibility, not just as part of company philosophy but also in day-to-day workplace operations. Language is a powerful tool – any policy documents should avoid using labels, judgemental phrases, jargon, aggressive or objectifying language. If you find these, proceed with caution and consider seeking support from an alternative source such as a trusted charitable organisation. Side view of a silhouette of a businessman at a laptop with his head resting on his hand and his glasses on the table next to him
Trauma can cause panic attacks, anxiety, trouble focusing, fatigue, depression and other challenges that affect your wellbeing at work. KieferPix/Shutterstock[9]

Talking to your manager

A good manager should be able to identify signs and symptoms of trauma and create the space for a safe and open dialogue. The right time to disclose is for you to decide, not the employer. The policy of your workplace might encourage people to share their trauma – but as it is a personal choice, only enact the disclosure process when you feel it is appropriate for you to do so.

Consult any mentor or counsellor you might have, or speak to a family member or friend who is aware of your trauma if possible. Write a brief plan on what you wish to cover with your manager prior to the meeting, depending on your situation.

Write down what you’re feeling, and request a one-to-one meeting in a private, safe space. If you feel the space is not appropriate, suggest an alternative or go for a walk. Briefly explain the issues you are facing – it is up to you to decide how much detail or context to disclose. Focus on your work experience and what you need to manage your trauma and be an effective employee.

What kind of support can you get?

Flexible or remote working can be helpful for trauma survivors who may need time or space to deal with panic attacks or flashbacks. If it is not already clear, ask about your company’s flexible working policy. You may also be able to ask to adjust your workload or deadlines, or to access counselling support if needed.

Your employer may be able to provide specialised equipment to help with concentration problems, fatigue or memory problems. If a standing desk, voice-recognition software (to help mitigate memory loss or concentration issues) or other computer equipment would be helpful, ask how you can request it.

Organisations are not legally required to provide specialised equipment as trauma is not covered by the equality act. However, they have a moral responsibility to accommodate individual needs and create a psychologically safe environment.

If you are struggling or feel you could benefit from mental health support, please speak to your GP, and/or try contacting supportive organisations such as The Seasonal Affective Disorders Association[10], The Samaritans[11] or Campaign Against Living Miserably[12] (CALM). There is also information on wellbeing and support via the NHS website[13] as well as the National Association for People Abused in Childhood[14].

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