Workplace Trauma and Self-care for the HR Professional

Dennis Portnoy
June 7, 2010 — 3,134 views  

Richard's body is shaking uncontrollably as he falls off the cafeteria chair. Frightened and helpless, his fellow workers run to help. Twenty minutes later the paramedics pronounce him dead from a heart attack. Everyone at work is in shock, and concerned about his wife and young children. In the following days, the grief and anxiety at work is so obvious it is palpable.

How could this happen? He was only forty-four, a runner who ate natural food.  Suddenly, you are faced with contacting the family, arranging funeral details, researching benefits and counseling options, breaking the news to everyone, comforting upset employees and holding it all together.

Employees not only experience grief reaction, but traumatic events often trigger past losses that are unrelated to the current event at work.  An accident or death can evoke memories of loved ones who died years ago, and can make them question their mortality and safety. For example, an employee who wasn't even close to Richard was flooded with the memory and feelings from her brother's death that occurred several years ago. In addition to managing the reactions of others, you have to deal with your own reactions.

Exposure to employees' anxiety and emotional suffering is stressful. You are also impacted by the traumatic event and may be experiencing a grief reaction. Supporting employees who are traumatized can take a toll on you.  Whether it is a terrorist threat or incident, a natural disaster, accident or death, when traumatic events occur at work, regardless of the severity, you are on the front lines. Even when there are job layoffs, you are often the one who has to break the bad news. People look to you for answers and support. You put your feelings and needs on hold and are strong for everyone else, often forgetting that your wellbeing is impacted by the event. You are not only exposed to others' anxiety and stress, but often have a personal connection with the employee who died or got injured.

Exposure to a distressed employee can lead to secondary stress. With primary stress you are present at the stressful event. Secondary stress occurs when you are exposed to others' traumatic narratives about a stressful event. You can experience another person's trauma as if you were present at the scene. If you do not take care of yourself you can be susceptible to secondary stress. Several researchers have documented the effects of secondary stress on helping professionals. They found that helpers often develop Post Traumatic Stress symptoms. These include hypersensitivity, excessive numbing, intrusive thoughts or images about a traumatic event, helplessness as well as typical reactions associated with burnout. Long-term effects include a heightened sense of vulnerability that often evokes doubt about the world being a safe place.


When you are experiencing grief, stress and giving to others, it is important to pay extra attention to nurturing yourself. Attending to your self-care builds resilience to outside pressures. Self-care can include taking walks in nature, focusing on spirituality or going to the gym.

Engaging in escape activities such as drinking alcohol or over eating may numb you and make you feel better but is not real self-care.

Recognizing the importance of self-care does not necessarily translate to taking better care of yourself. During times of extreme stress your typical ways of taking care of yourself may not be enough. The consequences of self-neglect become more severe when faced with supporting traumatized employees.

It is important that you understand the psychological obstacles that limit attention to self-care such as attitudes that prevent you from asking for help or viewing your needs as selfish.

Also, believing you are less entitled to your needs as those you are helping who you view as suffering more.  

Solution: Making sure you get emotional support

Self-care also involves sharing your feelings with supportive people. Being able to ask for and accept emotional support will help you heal and cope with the stressful event. You may need to make time to vent with colleagues, family, friends or a counselor.

For some people attending to their needs for support may feel unfamiliar. Old familiar roles and family dynamics from childhood may get in the way.

If you grew up in a family that encouraged being strong and self-sufficiency, or you had to be strong asking for help can feel like failure. If you were in a confidante’ role with a parent it will be easier to give than to receive.

You may have received spoken and unspoken messages that taught you to equate reaching out with weakness. When you are too identified with being strong for others you feel distain for and disown parts of you that you think are weak including your needs for support and nurturing.             


When people turn to you for information and support it is easy to get too involved with their problems. You are often the one that has to deliver bad news to employees and to the affected person’s family. When you are assisting traumatized employees it is crucial to keep a healthy distance between you while being empathic and supportive.

One of the best ways to take care of yourself is to maintain clear boundaries when giving to others. Having clear boundaries helps you maintain appropriate distance.

Supporting distressed employees without firm boundaries can increase susceptibility to secondary stress or traumatization.  “Taking on” their pain can impact your health and effectiveness. You need to be present and empathic without taking on the full impact of their suffering.

Your body will alert you to the physical cues when your boundaries are weakening. You need to identify and pay attention to these cues. Perhaps your breathing gets increasingly shallow and areas in your body get tense. When boundaries are firm you can clearly sense in your body the line where you end and another begins. You are able to give without compromising your wellbeing, and do not allow work to intrude on your personal life.

You can strengthen your boundaries by challenging the beliefs and self-expectations that undermine clear limit setting. If your self-worth is tied to supplying answers, fixing problems or being strong for others, you may overlook your limits and needs. Rescuing people from their discomfort can be a way of warding off your own feelings of powerlessness or failure.

You may need to challenge your cherished beliefs and self-expectations about what it means to help others.

It is also helpful to look at how the role that you played growing up in your family shaped your boundaries.

Many people who are in a helping role have an exaggerated sense of responsibility. Feeling responsible for others’ happiness can erode your boundaries. When boundaries are weakened you become too focused on rescuing others and overly involved with your role as a helper.

Susan walks nervously to each office and work area, listening attentively and consoling employees. She is part of an HR team for a company of 300 employees. When the young wife of an admired employee was hit by a car everyone who worked with the surviving employee was devastated. Those who worked in the same department described co-workers as a close-knit family. People had various emotional reactions including shock, grief, and fears about their own and their loved ones’ vulnerability and safety. Susan was experiencing the same reactions. She knew the employee and met his wife on several occasions. In addition to having to deal with her own feelings, Susan was expected to provide comfort and practical answers to others.

Susan was rattled by the events and completely lost track of her reactions and needs. When there had been other crises at work she was overcome with feelings of powerlessness. She felt that she couldn’t do enough for others and attempted to push her discomfort away by trying even harder to fix things. Her exaggerated sense of responsibility manifested in the following ways:

* Being overly invested in work and in fixing people’s problems.

* Feeling responsible for the wellbeing and mood of others.

* Taking on peoples’ suffering.

* Measuring her worth by her competence.

* Feeling guilty and at fault when things go wrong and felt compelled to fix situations that are unresolved.

When she was not able to solve a problem or lift someone’s mood she often felt guilty, powerless and flawed.

Supporting someone who is in distress often involves allowing that person to have their discomfort while being with them in a caring way without rescuing or making it all better. This is often difficult for someone who has an exaggerated sense of responsibility. Taking on too much responsibility can prevent you from reaching out for support and paying attention to your needs.


Susan grew up with a lot of adult responsibility. She looked after her younger siblings and helped her parents with the family business. She learned early on to put their others needs before her own needs. Her sense of identity and self worth was defined by being responsible, dependable and strong for others. This led Susan to overlook her needs and limits and get overly invested in fixing people’s problems.  

We tend to re-create familiar roles from upbringing in the workplace.

Over time, Susan recognized how her role as the responsible one in her family was impacting her work style and self-care. She saw that her expectations were unrealistic and how her assumptions were not relevant to her adult life.


Being super responsible can also be a way of coping with a difficult family environment. It can be a wise coping strategy when you are young. If you grew up in unpredictable or chaotic household fixing and rescuing can offer a sense of control. If you had to provide a stable influence for an unstable parent, refraining from being super responsible may have resulted in overwhelming chaos. Even as an adult who no longer lives with your parents, you may be convinced that being less responsible will lead to the same consequences as when you were young. Your rational mind knows that your life will not fall apart if you are less responsible. The adult logical part of you recognizes that you have the resources to cope with disapprove or rejection. However, your younger, emotional brain feels that you lack these inner resources and that outdated threats still exist. You need to distinguish between threats from the past and current realities, and remind yourself that you are being influenced by inaccurate and outdated information.

Being overly responsible and defending against outdated threats interfere with self-care. The following questions can help you recognize how your upbringing may be influencing your behavior as an adult:

* What behaviors got you acknowledgement from your parents?

* Did your parents convey messages (spoken or unspoken) about being self-sufficient and not relying on others? 

* When you are not acting as responsible as you think you should, do you feel like a failure? Do you feel guilty?  Does your self esteem decrease?

* Picture yourself being less responsible when you were younger - refusing to be a confidante to a parent or being less helpful with chores. Would there have been any consequences such as disapproval, withdrawal of attention, being scolded? Would there be increased family tension or chaos?  

When crisis strikes in the workplace HR professionals need to take care of themselves. It is important to understand and address attitudes that interfere with self-care.  You will be more effective when helping distressed employees and better able to cope with your own stress. 

Dennis Portnoy conducts training, seminars and presentations. He has also presented over a thousand Critical Incident Debreifings for companies in the San Francisco area. He can be reached at [email protected].

Dennis Portnoy