Stephen White, Ph.D.
In this feature, Stephen White discusses workplace trauma – the impact of life-threatening violent incidents on employees and an organization, and what leadership can do to support recovery and restore business functioning.
The recent attack on the US Capitol and its myriad implications is the subject of intense national attention. Impassioned debate, calls for investigations and the second impeachment of President Trump followed in the aftermath. Arrests of rioters are mounting and events continue to unfold. The landscape for more violence has expanded. As we draw closer to the upcoming inauguration, safety is the order of the day – scouring the mass of online intelligence, undercover work, and heightening security.
The attack itself left an emotional blow and continuing distress for many of those who work in the Capitol. In this regard consider the incident as an opportune teaching moment on the individual trauma and organizational impact of life-threatening violent events involving large numbers of employees. Employers need to understand the predictable and potentially lasting impact of such events and the immediate proactive steps to take that will lessen the wake of trauma in the recovery period.
Although our company specializes in threat assessment and management and has for over 30 years, our name – Work Trauma Services – refers to the specialty we originally provided when I founded WTS in 1982 – assisting organizations suffering sudden loss and psychological trauma due to violent attacks, serious accidents, and natural disasters. At the time, “critical incident stress debriefing” or CISDs at a workplace was a relatively new innovation: psycho-educational sessions with employees at their worksite (or in safe quarters) who had survived serious bank robberies, workplace and campus homicides, or the many losses associated with commercial airline crashes. Onsite debriefing and “grief counseling” is now a standard practice in the aftermath of such high impact incidents, often provided by employee assistance programs or companies specializing in trauma recovery. In our era of mass murders in public places, schools, and workplaces, the lasting scars of these horrific events don’t need any explanation.
Tragically enough, the attack on the Capitol resulted in the deaths of five people, directly or indirectly due to the violence. Minimized at times is the experience of those who were otherwise in harm’s way, or onlookers who witnessed violence and death. As one manager said after 911, whose department members had seen through their windows the twin towers on Greenwich Street collapse, “You don’t just go back to work after watching 3,000 people be murdered.”
Common trauma reactions
Psychological trauma may be defined as a state of profound distress resulting from the losses and memories of exposure to an extraordinary, life-threatening individual or larger scale event. I would venture to say that in the aftermath of the Capitol attack a fair portion of the members, their aides and staff, experienced and may still be experiencing common and more troubling trauma reactions to some degree. These include an intrusive, unbidden detailed memory of their worst moments during the ordeal, intense preoccupation with the event and the safety concerns it generated; strong feelings of fear, anger, sadness, and guilt for some; hypervigilance, and physiological arousal and agitation that is relatively difficult to control. A sequelae of sleep disturbance, problems concentrating, mood swings, exhaustion, and a variety of somatic symptoms frequently follow. The primary reaction for some is emotional numbing, the psyche’s protection from directly experiencing distressing feelings and sensations.
Individual accounts of personal reactions are gradually being revealed. Emotions are close to the surface. At her press conference this past Friday, Nancy Pelosi choked back tears for a moment talking about the anti-Semitism evident among rioters. Another wound is the insult and damage to the Capitol building as a symbol of democracy. Most of those who work there revere it. The place becomes part of their professional identity and a reflection of their “institutional patriotism.” To have it ransacked is part of the trauma. It’s more personal than for the rest of us. The possibility that some members of Congress may have enabled rioters is all the more wounding. How the actions of the Capitol police are being regarded by those they are dutybound to protect will vary, and widely, from gratitude felt by some, to anger for others – furious at the overall failure in preparation and response. There are similarities in the traumatic impact of the attack on the Capitol police and its members, but it is much more complex and I will not otherwise address it in this piece.
Factors influencing trauma
Sometimes people are not in as good emotional shape as they appear or as they say they are. Putting on a brave face is understandable for public officials who want to project resolve. In truth, personal impact and individual reactions depend on a number of factors: how close a person was to immediate danger, but also on one’s subjective experience of danger, as well as individual differences in temperament and personal history. Being in the chamber balcony or barricaded in an office for several hours can be just as terrifying as being in the path of raging rioters because of the lack of information on whether the immediate danger has passed. Prolonged exposure to uncertainty and the profound sense of helplessness associated with life-threatening events can fry someone’s mental circuitry.
We all operate according to a sub-conscious belief on our mental hard drive: “The world is safe. Bad things happen, but not to me.” If that assumption is suddenly rendered invalid, the world looks a lot different, continuing real danger or not. It takes time to regain a sense of control. Nature has her own timetable for each survivor. In spite of their similarities, the needs, circumstances, and coping strategies of those affected may vary widely. For some, the struggle may be debilitating and prolonged. Unfortunately, in the case of the members of Congress, the danger is still present, likely for some more than others. They remain targets, their most vital personal and emotional need is to feel safe, and their personal security is paramount. For them, recovery is delayed. Their family members may be just as affected, completely preoccupied with the safety of their spouse, parent, or adult son or daughter, and suffer their own “vicarious trauma.” They too are in need of recognition and specialized assistance.
Managing traumatic incidents
The larger the scale of a workplace incident, the more employers are compelled to provide focused attention to the impact on employees. Safety, shelter, and connecting with loved ones are the first needs to be addressed. The continuing psychological work in the aftermath is to process what happened and why, and to gradually regain a sense of control according to individual time tables.
Key ingredients of effective trauma management include these elements:
- Succinct explanation of trauma to leadership, what to expect, and the importance of being visible, available, and flexible appropriate to the degree of apparent impact
- Prompt assessment to identify affected individuals. I often drew up a “trauma map,” a literal floor plan, identifying who was where, an objective description of what different people were exposed to, and what is known about individual subjective experiences of threat-to-life.
- Individual and group psycho-educational de-briefings by professionals, participated in and endorsed by leaders, including written materials on coping, tailored to the particular incident and audience.
- Identification and referral of employees with greater psychological needs
Professionals should gauge the “just right” amount of specialized intervention to victims and leaders – not too little and not too much. It is usually ill-advised to intervene on the day of the incident. Most people want to defuse with colleagues and go home to loved ones, especially if they had experienced the profound dread of, “I thought I would never see my family again.” But the sudden change in their perceptions and emotional state continues into the night. Pre-occupation and high arousal disrupt sleep. The next day or subsequently they are receptive to help.
Intervening with individuals: Tips for responders and managers
Properly introduced by management, professional interveners should proactively approach employees and respectfully canvass them for how they are doing. Passing out 800 numbers “for help if you are feeling stressed” results in poor returns, is ineffective, and delays human connection.
You may have seen the video of herself that Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez posted, stating, “I thought I was going to die.” This is actually one of the first questions I ask a survivor of a violent incident – “Did you think you were going to die?” A “yes” answer is often diagnostic of a harder time in store for the individual, but is also implicitly and immediately empathic, usually opening the door to a spontaneous recounting of the event and venting its emotional impact. Most people need to talk, and a lot, and repeatedly. Managers, colleagues, friends, and family members need to let that happen. It’s called “healing recapitulation” and helps discharge the surprising amount of agitation that many people experience in the aftermath. Don’t reply with, “I understand.” – You weren’t there. Try this – “I can’t imagine…I’m relieved it wasn’t any worse than it was for you.” Another “don’t” are remarks like, “At least you weren’t where Mr. X was. That was even worse.”
Other good questions are, “Are you having trouble sleeping?… Do you have stark pictures in your head of what you went through?… Do you feel like there is an engine inside you that you can’t shut off?… Do you have the ‘what ifs?’” These often elicit emphatic “Yeses” or “How did you know?!” Interveners need to project a warm, authentic but respectful style, and also read what people need, from a lot of engagement to wanting privacy. If someone asks for a drink of water you go get it for them. This is not psychotherapy. Address practical needs.
Those who were there will seek each other out to share and compare reactions. They are looking for reference points and wondering if they are “going crazy.” They are not, and it is important for interveners, especially clinicians, to emphasize that these unwelcome and intense reactions are normal and in time will fade, even though those who were there will remember this day for the rest of their lives. The spontaneous gathering of survivors seeking confirmation of their personal experiences and wanting to vent should be allowed and facilitated by managers. However, not everyone needs to vent. Facilitated debriefing groups are very helpful but should be voluntary. Those who benefit from them will spread the word and additional sessions will be well attended by new help seekers. Leaders sharing their own impact, reactions, and stories convey permission for self-disclosure and model positive coping.
Resilience, resuming work, and looking forward
Resilience is acknowledging an obstacle realistically, then engaging in re-prioritizing and problem-solving. Painful emotions are not denied, but an optimistic attitude is maintained.If you bend you are less likely to break. Many people are very resilient in the face of crises and the significant challenges they bring. Resuming work is part of recovery for most of those exposed. Conscientious employees are motivated to overcome their impairments, help with recovery tasks, and resume their normal duties and life pursuits.
There are many more details to understanding trauma in a work community, individual strategies for coping with it, and what management can do. Here is a link to some practical guidelines we offer as a public service: https://www.wtsglobal.com/special-workshops/#managingtrauma
Our nation was given a serious wake-up call on January 6, 2021. The scope of what we face is clearer than ever and sobering. A brilliant analysis of how we got here and what we face is offered by historian Timothy Snyder, written just after the attack on the Capitol: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/09/magazine/trump-coup.html
For those in positions of leadership, with whom we entrust the guardianship of our democracy, the attack was not only political, but physical, emotional, and even existential. May we respect their wounds, and may they transform the experience of their ordeal into larger and noble deeds in the service of protecting our republic.
White, S.G., & Hatcher, C. (1988). “Violence and Trauma Response.” Occupational Medicine, 3(4), p. 677-694.