Last reviewed 15 June 2019

Psychological first aid can significantly reduce long-term emotional damage if employees are exposed to a traumatic event, such as a distressing workplace accident or a terrorist attack. Karen Matovu, Head of mental health training for managers at Validium, lists the six essential steps to providing support after a traumatic incident.

1. Become knowledgeable about normal reactions to abnormal events

Faced with shock and distress, many people panic. Because they feel frightened and threatened, their instinct is to want to escape quickly or fight their way through it. Others can become almost paralysed with fear and unable to think or do anything.

It is important for those of us supporting employees in this state to understand that all these reactions are natural responses to unexpected, sudden and powerful experiences. By being aware of these different reactions, managers and colleagues are much more likely to stay calm and be in a position to help others without becoming overwhelmed by the intensity of their distress.

2. Empower, educate and encourage

Often when helping distressed people, we think we know what they need. However, one of the most important things managers can do is to empower employees to think about what they need for themselves.

In practice this requires empowering them to take a proactive approach to their own recovery. You can help by asking them what they most need to feel safe and secure again, and supporting them to meet this need for themselves. If they want someone they trust to collect them, encourage them to make the call themselves instead of doing this for them. It’s important to be compassionate, but in a way that gets them to start functioning again.

3. Remember the ABC of psychological first aid

Just as there’s an ABC for physical first aid:

  • Airway

  • Breathing

  • Circulation

there’s also an ABC for providing psychological first aid:

  • Attend to

  • Basic needs with

  • Compassion.

Psychological first aid is basically a series of helpful conversations that gently directs people to a position of stability, safety and calm. The most effective psychological first aid often comes from friends, family and colleagues who can use their familiarity with the distressed person to offer practical, non-intrusive support. We have a heightened alertness and a heightened memory for specific acts of kindness during stressful times. So if you can offer this immediate support it will be remembered.

4. Prepare managers and leaders

Although professionally trained trauma management specialists can be swiftly deployed to deliver appropriate psychological support in the aftermath of an incident, it’s the immediate response of managers and leaders that has the biggest impact on the health of employees.

Anyone in a position of authority needs to know how they will approach internal communication as well as external communication. There is a plethora of training workshops on handling the media during and after traumatic events, but what about communication to staff?

Employees will be sensitive to the tone and words of the organisation at this time, so ensure that all communication is frequent, regular, factual, compassionate and action-focused. Otherwise social media communication will take over and become the authority voice.

5. Plan for the unexpected

The very nature of traumatic events means they are bolts from the blue. No one could have anticipated them when they set off for work that morning. Even so, you can better manage the unexpected by developing a business continuity plan that not only looks at practical considerations — such as relocation of workspace and contacting next of kin — but also how best to meet the psychological needs of employees. The better prepared you are with training, information and practical resources, the more engaged and positive your staff will be during the recovery.

6. Create support networks

Most people are resilient and will recover with the support of family, friends and the wider community. That’s why, as well as encouraging empowerment and education, any psychological first-aid strategy should also encourage people to connect with others for support.

The more engaged and interconnected people are during a normal working day, the more likely they are to support each other after a crisis. Employers can help create support networks by facilitating group discussions on topics of interest or concern to employees.