A person with short hair wearing a blue shirt, sitting at a desk in an office as they transitions back to work from a traumatic event.There are tactics for employees returning to work after a traumatic event, as there are tactics for employers looking to provide support. Learning these tactics helps everyone better understand how to navigate stress and mental health, whether in an industrial workplace, an office, or beyond. From employees and employers all the way to occupational therapists and doctors, these tactics serve as a resource to help people get back to work.

Set Safety Boundaries

On an employee’s first day back to work, it’s important that employers meet with them right away. Employers should not avoid them or think that it’s better to stay out of their personal lives. Of course, employers do not want to intrude, but making them feel safe and secure at work is critical. During this meeting, set safety boundaries. By defining these boundaries, everyone can more easily abide by them.

What these safety boundaries should be is up to the employee, in conjunction with the employer’s means of support. Employees should be direct and polite when discussing their boundaries, and convey how they are feeling as well as possible. Both employee and employer should also come up with solutions in the event that boundaries are disrespected.

Some safety boundaries to consider include:

  • An employee could ask to move their desk to a more comfortable location;
  • Employees could inform their employers about triggers and work to avoid them;
  • Higher-ups could create a sign-in sheet for visitors;
  • Higher-ups could allow their employees to go on more breaks, within reason, to mitigate stress as it arises.

Be Transparent

Employees at this time should try to be transparent. Coworkers, managers, and bosses may not know what’s going on outside of work or understand what recovery from a traumatic event is like. It’s important to give them some benefit of the doubt in that regard. In being transparent, employers will more easily be able to respect and accommodate an employee’s needs.

In order to prioritize transparency, employees should speak to their human resources (HR) manager immediately upon returning to work, as well as their managers. Employees should communicate authentically and try not to sweep anything under the rug.

Be Supportive

Employers should have empathy and show support for their coworker who has just returned to the office after a traumatic event. There are myriad ways to show support, and the simple act of trying means more than doing nothing.

Below are a few ways to show support:

  • Listen: One of the most important things that employers, HR, and coworkers can do during this time is listen. An employee that just went through a traumatic event may not need your advice and definitely doesn’t need your opinions. Lend them an ear and be nonjudgmental.
  • Keep offering your companionship: Coworkers and such should continue offering their companionship, just as they did before the event. If asking your coworker on walks, saying hello in the morning, and goodbye in the afternoon was a part of your routine before, it should still be a part of your routine now.
  • Give them space: While it’s important to check in on people, don’t go overboard. Everybody processes trauma differently and some may want more space than others. Read social cues and don’t ask intrusive questions.
  • Do not judge: Coworkers and managers should make sure not to judge. Stress can cause unusual symptoms and it’s no one’s place to be judgmental.
  • Acknowledge the event: As previously mentioned, it’s essential that employers and coworkers acknowledge what has happened. Pretending nothing has happened is a sure-fire way for things to go sour.

Delegate Tasks

When delegating tasks, managers should go easy and be patient for the time being. After a traumatic experience, some people may find daily tasks overwhelming, especially if they’re handed several at once. Try to give them a reasonable amount of work, lenient deadlines, and flexible schedules, if possible. Employers may also wish to gradually increase their employee’s working hours over the duration of their recovery.  Remember that this won’t last forever, but they will need some time to adjust.

Maintain Autonomy

As an employee transitions back to the workplace, employers should be sure not to question or diminish their autonomy. While they’ve just gone through a traumatic event and are still recovering, it’s important that they maintain a sense of self and are respected throughout this process. Managers and coworkers should act as facilitators, rather than controllers, as their employee returns to the workplace. The simple act of facilitating provides workers a sense of autonomy without forgoing their role as a boss.

Create Advocacy and Set Standards

After an employee discusses what has occurred to their higher-ups, management and HR should set up an advocacy program. People who have gone through a traumatic event may be discriminated against in their place of work, potentially through unconscious bias. Having a written advocacy plan ensures the employee that they will not lose their job, provided they’re meeting certain standards. It also maintains that any form of discrimination will be dealt with and sets standards for other employees.

An advocacy program essentially provides a safe place for an employee to discuss what they’ve gone through at work, without the fear of being discriminated against. The employee at this time should inform management and HR of their triggers and how they cope with them so that employers know what to expect and how to react.

It may be helpful for HR to reach out to the employee’s occupational therapist or doctor when creating an advocacy plan. It is the role of occupational therapists, as it is the role of doctors, to provide health-related advice. These professionals are great resources to have on hand.

Check-In With People

As discussed throughout the article, regular check-ins are of the utmost importance. As such, the employee and HR should schedule follow-up meetings. These meetings could be weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly — whichever makes sense for the employee’s recovery period. In addition to scheduling follow-up meetings, managers and coworkers should engage in regular and impromptu chats with their employee who’s just returned. This helps make the workplace environment more comfortable and casual for everybody.

The company as a whole can do the following to check-in:

  • Ask if there is anything you can do to help;
  • Ask how they’re doing, without overstepping their boundaries;
  • Avoid asking intrusive questions;
  • Keep lines of communication open via email, text, or in-person;
  • Continue sharing information about company news or workplace celebrations;
  • Remind other employees to keep in touch and to reach out.

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