Health and Safety

By Noi Quao

On a Friday evening last November in Paris, after many people had left work and were enjoying a night on the town, a series of coordinated terrorist attacks occurred.


That evening, 130 people were killed and more than 350 people were injured in a shocking event that made headlines around the world. The city was on lockdown and many lives were turned upside down. The following Monday, most Parisians began their coping process – by returning to work. In addition to speaking candidly about their experiences, most people were merely determined to get back to routine. The events were horrific, but the story also became one of resilience.

When traumatic events occur, the aftermath commonly interferes with a person’s ability to function normally in their personal life and at work. Everyone reacts to traumatic events in their own way. In many cases, it can take days or even weeks to return to normal routine. Some experience the temporary effects of a traumatic event, such as an increase in errors, irritability or customer service complaints. Others experience more severe effects, such as increased anxiety, depression, absenteeism or – in more extreme circumstances – post-traumatic stress disorder.

A recent study by Morneau Shepell found that more than half (52 per cent) of employees indicated that the reason for their most recent absence from work was a non-illness related issue. These same employees were more likely to report higher work-related stress and lower levels of support from their organization for mental wellness. Regardless of the reaction to a traumatic event and how a company provides support to its employees, increased absenteeism or a decrease in productivity often has a negative impact on an organization’s bottom line.

When employees are properly assisted by the HR team and other leaders within the company, the negative impact of a traumatic event on employee engagement and workplace productivity can be mitigated.

Advice for employers

For employers and colleagues of someone affected by a traumatic event, it is important to keep open lines of communication. The best ways for employers to support their employees in light of a traumatic event is through the following:

1. Acknowledge that the event occurred. The past cannot be erased, so it is best to speak about it directly with those affected. Explain that you support your colleague and, if applicable, acknowledge awareness of your shared experience of the traumatic event.
2. Encourage the return to work and household routines in the shortest time possible. Pair this with the right support through counselling, which is often provided through an employee and family assistance program (EFAP).
3. Be ready to listen to the employee’s story/concern without providing insight of your own. Though you may want to share stories of similar traumatic events, they may not be well received. In many cases, it is best to simply listen.
4. Offer practical support. Rather than saying, “Let me know if you need anything,” offer practical assistance, such as helping to meet a deadline or giving the employee a ride home after work.

Most people who return to work after a traumatic event – as many Parisians did last November – are doing so in an effort to return to their usual routine. It is important to provide a balance between pushing for the return to routine and compassion. The best way to do this is offer support, listen and take employees’ reactions into consideration.

In the wake of a traumatic event, it is essential for leaders to provide an environment of support for all employees affected, whether from an internal resource or through external expertise.

Noi Quao is manager, Traumatic Event Support Services at Morneau Shepell.