Difficult events in the workplace

Jodie Voth, MMFT, RMFT
Manager, Employee Assistance Services
David Charabin, MSW, RSW
Counsellor, Employee Assistance Program
May 16, 2021

A variety of events that happen in a workplace can impact a person's emotional well-being and ability to do their job. Sometimes these events are critical incidents or "near misses" where a person's life is threatened. However, an event doesn't need to be critical to be stressful. Something like seeing a child the same age as one of your own, injured in the emergency department where you work, could be just as impactful.

Other events, although not critical, may still be upsetting. Examples of such events are grief at the loss of a colleague, a breakdown in workplace relations or conflict with colleagues.

People may also be affected by experiencing an accumulation of events – such as in the case of compassion fatigue, which happens when people repeatedly deal with the distress of others. It's important to remember that the results of these incidents can reach far beyond the individuals directly impacted or injured.

Stressful events impact us all differently

No one is immune to the effects of these types of events, but everyone is affected differently. Several factors work together to influence how deeply an individual may be impacted by a difficult event.

The first of these factors has to do with the amount of stress that a person is already experiencing in their life. This includes both current issues and past stressors. Think of a drinking glass with water in it. The amount of water in that glass represents the current stress in an individual's life. If the glass is already full, it won't take much to make it overflow. One difficult event may overwhelm our usual ability to cope.

In addition, a person is more likely to be overwhelmed by an event if it reawakens difficult experiences from the past. Even the most diligent employees may be unable to concentrate if stress is too high.

Second, the more directly involved a person is with the event or those impacted by the event, the more likely they are to experience a greater degree of distress. For example, a person is likely to be less affected if they were simply to hear or read about the event than if they were present when it occurred.

Third, a person's ability to utilize healthy coping strategies will help. Healthy coping strategies may involve talking to friends and family, maintaining a good balance between work and home, exercise, and good eating habits.

What happens to people when difficult things happen?

Following a distressing event people may experience physical, mental, behavioural and/or emotional aftershocks. Physical complaints such as headaches, upset stomach, chills, feeling tired and trouble sleeping may occur. As well as these physical reactions to the incident, confusion, difficulty concentrating and a sense of reliving the event in one's mind can happen. Some may notice changes like being easily startled, avoiding the place where the incident occurred or withdrawing from friends and family. Others might feel irritable, angry, sad, guilty, afraid, lost or numb.

Individuals may experience some or all of these effects as well as others not listed. Even though these reactions are normal responses to a stressful event, people may feel overwhelmed and unable to cope with day-to-day demands. For most people, things go back to normal quickly but for some, symptoms may last longer. If this happens, it is important to seek additional assistance.

How to respond,

Because these types of events may seriously affect emotional well-being, how we respond can affect a person's recovery and limit further risk. This means there are things that can be done right after an event by the people affected and the organization that will help people return to their lives and work.

Personal responses

There are several things that people can do to help manage the effects of a stressful event. Many of these activities are healthy lifestyle habits that become especially important during a time of distress.

• Regular exercise

• Healthy eating

• Social connection

• Rest and relaxation

• Journaling

• Hobbies

• Normal routines

• Avoiding drugs and alcohol

• Avoiding life changes or big decisions

• Self-acceptance. (Remember that your reactions are normal and that you are allowed to feel out of sorts.)

Organizational responses

The whole workplace may suffer when people feel overwhelmed by a stressful event. People may become disillusioned with their workplace if they believe their problems are not being taken seriously or that they are not being given adequate support.

Leaders can play an important role by providing support to their employees following a difficult situation at work. Shortly after an event, it is essential that those affected be provided with a chance to talk about what happened. Getting people together for a few minutes to acknowledge the event can help to restore some stability in the workplace.

This is a time to talk about what people experienced and decide if additional support is needed. If those involved feel that they would benefit from additional support, it is a good time to talk about what might be helpful and to tell the group that it will be arranged. Sharing information about what has occurred is often useful to staff as this can answer questions about the event.

It is important to remind the group of the supports that are available to them, both inside and outside the organization.

Finally, make sure everyone has information on how to get in touch with these supports. Staff and management can both be impacted by an event in the workplace. When those in leadership positions are affected, helping others to pull together may be difficult. In such times, leaders may draw on extra support. Our Employee Assistance Program offers consultation about how to respond in a manner that is supportive and appropriate to the event that has taken place.

In any workplace there is the potential for difficult events to happen. We know that each person will have a different reaction to the same event. The correct response to difficult events helps the individuals involved and improves the health of the organization as a whole.

If you or others in the workplace are struggling and need support, Manitoba Blue Cross’s counselling services are available to all Manitobans, regardless of whether or not you have coverage with Manitoba Blue Cross. Find the available support that's right for you here.