How to build resilience to trauma in the workplace: event review

How to build resilience to trauma in the workplace: event review
Written: Paul Clifford & Chris Barrell

Last week was Mental Health Week with Friday being World Mental Health day. In Australia we are certainly seeing the profile of mental health rising and this is a great step forward in normalising mental health conversations. While there have been some great activities hosted around Australia and Victoria (see Mental Health Foundation VIC), as well in the media with programs on the ABC as part of Mental-As, there have also been activities focused specifically on mental health in the workplace.  This included last Wednesday’s “Building Resilience to Psychological Trauma at Work Seminar.  Coordinated by FBG and 2CRisk, the seminar explored what organisations can do to better prepare their staff to manage potentially traumatic situations at work.

The review below was prepared by Chris Barrell, an Organisational Psychology Masters student currently on placement at FBG.  Here’s what Chris learnt from attending the seminar.

Enter Chris...

This seminar was my first real exposure to what organisations are doing to enhance workplace resilience. It was incredibly valuable to see how far some organisations have come with their policies and practices in this area and to see their passion for the topic. 

Overall the following 6 key points stood out to me.

1.    Utilise a strategic & risk management approach

To enact any change in an organisation you need a plan.  Changing an organisation’s practices with regard to resilience and mental health is no different. Nick Arvanitis from Beyond Blue outlined a four step approach:

  1. Awareness – education of signs and systems
  2. Reduce stigma – by sharing experiences
  3. Support others – use mental health first aid
  4. Minimise risk – utilise a risk management framework


Facilitator and Panellists at the Building Resilience to Psychological Trauma at Work seminar
From Left:  Simon Brown-Greaves FBG Director and seminar facilitator; Andrew Douglas M+K Lawyers; Randall Newton-John On-the Line; and Dr Alex West Victoria Police.

During the panel discussion, Andrew Douglas from M+K Lawyers was firm in his belief that planning is critical. He noted that so often organisations aren’t strategically focusing on these problems but are instead spending most of their time worrying about reactionary measures. Andrew’s optimum plan structure was as follows:

  1. Plan – the risks, controls, resources, people, money, time
  2. Process + policy – how will we enact our plan
  3. Training + competency – what do people need to be able to do, and how will we up-skill them
  4. Supervision – providing managers and those responsible for supporting others with supervision to keep everyone on-target
  5. Monitoring – regular monitoring ensures that if something isn’t working it can be changed
  6. Reporting – what metrics are we most interested in and truly reflect our goals?

He stressed that mental health in the workplace has to be tackled across all levels of the organisation including the top, targeting problematic areas, tracking success and monitoring and evaluating progress as plans roll out.

2.    Mental health is important!

We know mental health is important, but do you know how important?  Neglecting mental health issues and their effects are costing Australian business $10.9 Billion per year.

Considering this is a preventable problem, that’s a lot of money going to waste.


Picture source: Heads Up

Nick Arvanitis, from Beyond Blue’s Workplace division was the source of these startling statistics, referencing a report conducted jointly between PwC and Beyond Blue (see this video for more).

The video shows that improved mental health in the workplace absolutely pays off – your employees will be happier, healthier and work more effectively, giving you savings and productivity gains in all areas of your business (with ROIs above $6!).

Nick also talked about four different types of stigma that must be overcome in order to improve workplace mental health.  They are:

  • Personal stigma – “People with mental health issues need to harden up”
  • Perceived stigma –  “People will think I’m weak if I talk about my problems”
  • Self-stigma –  “If I just hardened up I wouldn’t be so anxious all the time”
  • Structural Stigma – “My organisation wouldn’t support me anyway, even if I did ask for help”

In Nick’s experience and from his research, he has found that the best way to reduce stigma is from personal contact with individuals who open up about their mental health. This contact must be continuous (a one-off meeting isn’t enough), credible (they must be influential) and local (they must be relatable). With time he says, a systematic plan of reducing stigma with personal contact has been proven to work.

3.    Get everyone on board – most importantly the board

A culture where people pay adequate and proper attention towards mental health requires a significant change from where most organisational cultures are now. Cultural change requires commitment and without everyone on board it’s going to be exceptionally difficult to get any change over the line.

Buy-in from the top of organisations is even more critical. Dr Alexandra West, a senior psychologist with Victoria Police spoke about the flow on effect of senior leadership commitment that trickles down the ranks. She talked about the importance of communication using organisational language that is persuasive to the executive team.  This could involve talking about the situation from their point of view, including:

  • What needs to be done
  • What the risks are
  • Consequences of those risks
  • How it affects them and the organisation

4.    Organisations don’t increase their staff’s mental health overnight – it takes time

Messages from both Alex from Vic Police and Rod Wise, the Deputy Commissioner, Operations, Department Justice, Victoria indicated that their respective organisations were not always as successful in managing mental health as they are now. In fact for both it was a long and effortful journey but it has undeniably paid off with better workplaces for staff, better experiences for the community and incredible organisational outcomes such as reduction of work cover premiums at Victoria Police by over 94%!

Speakers told of how their organisations in the past focused on reactionary measures to mental health issues.  As organisational knowledge increased investment shifted from tertiary interventions to primary and secondary interventions and hence achieved outcomes such as reduced sick leave, compensation claims, presenteeism, and managed to increase productivity and efficiency.


Tertiary Interventions


  • Crisis management and investigative costs
  • Reduces impact of negative consequences
  • Provides ongoing support to those in need (treatment, compensation, rehabilitation)


Secondary Interventions
  • Addresses early warning signs with heirarchy of controls
  • Moderate return on investment
  • Stops hazards getting out of control


Primary Interventions


  • Preventative measures - creates a safe and healthy workplace
  • High return on investment
  • Majority of investment should be here...but is not currently


5.    Mental health should be and must be treated the same as safety

Another clear message was that approaches toward mental health and psychological health should not be any different than approaches toward safety.

You probably have extensive OHS policies and procedures, and you’ve probably spent a great deal of time and money minimising and controlling the physical hazards involved in your work. This could be anything from trip hazards to heavy machinery.

However, has the same ever been done for your psychological hazards? Most likely not.

Implementing a psychological risk framework should be no more difficult than managing physical risk. In fact, time could be saved by simply integrating psychological health considerations into OHS frameworks. For example, managers with poor leadership styles that are heavy on micro managing and light on trust or communication may be a hazard for employees which may face an increased risk of stress. Negative consequences of increased stress include reduced productivity and increased work cover claims, investigation costs and unexpected leave. A control approach to this hazard might involve leadership training for these managers to give them a more effective toolkit of leadership techniques.

This is not just good for the health of your employees.  It is also a legal requirement. If a line manager hasn’t dealt with the apparent psychological risks towards their subordinates in a controlled and systematic way, they can be found legally responsible and consequently prosecuted.  If an organisation does not have a controlled and systematic method for dealing with psychological risks a.k.a. mental health hazards, the senior management and its CEO can also be found legally responsible and face prosecution.

It isn’t just good for the health of your employees, it’s a statutory requirement – Andrew Douglas


6.    Psychological first aid preferable to group debriefing

Debriefing was another hot topic at the seminar, with a distinction being made between operational and emotional debriefing.

Operational debriefing is the debriefing of an entire incident including the logistics, causes, emergency responses, etc. This type of debriefing focuses on the end to end response to the incident and is common in organisations that face critical incidents.

Emotional debriefing has a focus on the psychological response of those who responded to the incident. The debate picked up here with some challenging the efficacy of group debriefing.  Research such as this meta-analysis by Litz, Gray, Bryant and Adler (2006) found that psychological debriefing was not effective for recently traumatised people. Instead, it recommends psychological first aid. Alex explained that Victoria Police use the psychological first aid model based on trauma treatment guidelines from the Australian Centre of Posttraumatic Mental Health. Organisations that have been using group emotional debriefing did acknowledge that they have been changing the way it is set up, with a more casual format and absence of senior personnel.  For more information on psychological first aid see this booklet developed by the Australian Psychological Society in tandem with the Australian Red Cross or watch this video from Life Saving Victoria and Ambulance Victoria. 


7.    Peer support groups

Peer support was another topic that garnered a lot of interest during the seminar. Peer support programs involve employees trained in psychological first aid who are available to assist their colleagues in the workplace. 

Several participating organisations shared their experiences in setting up peer support programs and whilst all described the program as highly valuable, some explained their   difficulties in getting traction.

Andrew Douglas suggested a reductionist approach. He advised organisations to start with a small selection of peers and invest in solid skill building in this small group.  The program’s reputation will grow if the small group of peers successfully integrate themselves and their peer support practices into the daily running of the organisation. Building a business case for funding and more peers may follow.  

Peer support can be a serious driver of culture. The Fisheries area of the Department of Environment & Primary Industries found this out as their program went on.  By making peer support a visible part of the workplace, supportive behaviours start to envelope the organisational culture.  Peers need to be chosen carefully because if you are starting a peer network with small numbers, each person will be critically important to the success of the program.



The seminar provided a wonderful opportunity to facilitate a discussion about resilience and responses to trauma and mental health issues in the workplace.  If you have any questions about any of the above feel free to e-mail Paul pclifford @ or Chris cbarrell @, comment below or join the conversation on LinkedIn at The Mental Health in the Australian Workplace Group.



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Guest Wednesday, 26 June 2019