Coping with tragedy

Oct. 1, 1997
Early intervention keys a successful return to the work force.Every year, about 5,000 people lose their lives in truck-related crashes. Truck drivers who witness or experience traumatic events such as death, serious injury, or even the threat thereof have remarkably similar responses afterward, says Lyle L. Labardee, president of Post-Trauma Consulting Associates.Unfortunately, few companies have

Early intervention keys a successful return to the work force.

Every year, about 5,000 people lose their lives in truck-related crashes. Truck drivers who witness or experience traumatic events such as death, serious injury, or even the threat thereof have remarkably similar responses afterward, says Lyle L. Labardee, president of Post-Trauma Consulting Associates.

Unfortunately, few companies have developed the structure for navigating the emotional fallout. "Nobody knows what to say," Labardee explains. "That often isolates individuals even further, leaving them alone to cope with feelings they don't understand. This leads to an overpowering sense of grief, powerlessness, and alienation."

Symptoms often associated with traumatic events include:

Disbelief. The event generally is so far beyond the normal range of experience that people lack a frame of reference, often feeling that the event is not really happening.

Numbness. This refers to the temporary suspension of feelings concerning the event.

Confusion. An inability to think clearly during and after the traumatic event. The simplest and most routine of tasks become difficult to focus on.

Intrusive images. Vivid recollections of the incident occur sporadically and when least expected.

Grieving. It's not uncommon for workers to experience depression, anger, irritability, anxiety, helplessness, and loss of motivation.

Physical reaction. Periods of increased heart rate, excessive sweating, elevated blood pressure, headaches, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting are common.

Behavioral changes. These include changes in sleep and appetite patterns, loss of interest in socializing, and a tendency to withdraw.

Not properly dealt with, post-traumatic stress can lead to long-term cognitive, emotional, and behavioral problems known as post-traumatic stress disorder. This syndrome is marked by persistent, intrusive images, avoidance of things associated with the event, and a heightened sensitivity for at least 30 days following the event.

Here are some of the things that Labardee feels should be done to help get the employee up and running:

* Acknowledge the event as traumatic and significant.

* Establish a positive course of action, emphasizing restoration of work and social life.

* As soon as possible, and away from the scene, provide an opportunity for the individual to vent feelings and reactions about the incident in a non-threatening environment.

* Inquire about the physical, cognitive, and behavioral symptoms being experienced and provide information about the normal grieving process.

Post-traumatic stress is not limited to the individual most directly involved in the traumatic situation. It can affect everyone in the organization in similar -- if less intense -- ways. A frightening event that happens to a co-worker can represent varying degrees of personal threat to others in the organization. In an effort to manage the threat, employees will often inquire about the details of the incident to help understand why it happened and reassure themselves that it will not happen to them. This provides a measure of control that can help put the threat to rest.

Sadly, too many companies sweep the information under the carpet in an effort to diminish the impact of the event. Without adequate management of the event, companies risk losing valuable employees.

About the Author

Tom Moore

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