Leading from the front: How to spot symptoms of trauma and support your people

As the crisis continues in Ukraine, people in Australia and across the world are coping with trauma responses and impacts on a day-to-day basis. As leaders, we must be able to recognise the signs our people might be struggling – and know how to help. More locally, some may be dealing with the impacts of the NSW and QLD floods earlier this year. Or, a traumatic event may have happened in someone’s personal life.

What is trauma?

Defined by the Australian Psychological Association as a ‘very frightening or distressing event that results in a psychological wound or injury’, a trauma is most simply understood as an emotional reaction to a distressing event.

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It’s important to note that a ‘distressing event’ can take many forms. These might be global or national disasters. For example, for those with friends and family in Ukraine, the threat of them being hurt is a fear they face every day. Others may be triggered by past trauma, especially those who have fled countries experiencing violent conflict. For some, the fact these events are happening at all is distressing. This can be due to the uncertainty, shock, or a feeling of helplessness that causes heightened stress and anxiety…

Whether directly or indirectly impacted, the workplace can be a vital, yet often overlooked, source of support. Empathetic distress in response to others in pain is a very human response. Understanding the potential for trauma is important, but as a leader you should be on the lookout for such responses in your people. So, how do we spot the signs?

Spotting the signs of a trauma stress response

Like any mental health challenges, the most effective way to gauge someone’s feelings is to ask. Reaching out to a colleague to check if they’re okay could be the important first step to them feeling better.

While trauma is usually considered an emotional or mental response, there are often physical symptoms as well. The signs can differ for each person but there are some common responses to check for:

Physical responses of trauma

  1. Heart palpitations, trembling or sudden sweating
  2. Breathing difficulties
  3. Headaches or muscle aches
  4. Tiredness, fatigue, restlessness
  5. Difficulty sleeping or eating

Behaviour changes from trauma

  1. Being more irritable than usual or being easily startled
  2. Increased use of alcohol and/or drugs
  3. Avoiding others, loss of interest in social activities
  4. Increased anxiety, panic attacks
  5. Difficulty concentrating or making decisions.

If you’re noticing any of these behaviour changes in your team, it might be time to step in.

How to help your people through trauma

For most people, the workplace is a consistent source of human contact. Working together fosters familiarity, and managers, leaders or co-workers can often be the first to notice when someone is struggling. The pandemic has shone a spotlight not only on mental health, but on the opportunity and responsibility that business leaders have to ensure mental health and wellbeing is an organisational priority.

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Discussing mental health can be intimidating and you might be unsure what to say, but reaching out is always better than saying nothing. For many people, knowing they’re not alone is an important first step to feeling better. Here are some practical tips that may help for supporting your own team:

Let your people know they have your support

You can do this in a few simple ways. Ask them directly, “Is there anything more I can do to support you right now?” Recognise that they are doing the best they can to manage their emotions. Listen and be present. Remember, social connection is the best way to help others heal and recover.

Offer to connect them with support

Ask them what support they need right now. Be aware this may change from moment to moment. If you have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), make sure the individual has details of how to use the support system. Organisations like Headspace or Beyond Blue are also only a phone call away.

Find ways to alleviate work pressures

If someone is experiencing traumatic stress, it will be enormously challenging to focus on work. Consider offering to help where you can, redistribute work across the team if possible or delay deadlines. Check-in with them regularly so you can keep across their workload.

Pay attention

It will take extra effort, but try to pay attention to their cues, both verbal and non-verbal. Be prepared to be gentle when stepping in to provide your support.

If you don’t already have one in place, consider partnering with an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). There are often options available for different sized organisations and it will give you and your team access to support resources. This might include counselling sessions but also tools, advice and resources for leaders and managers.

Helping yourself through trauma

Sometimes being a good leader means setting a good example. As much as you are taking care of your team, you must also take care of yourself. You can show others the importance of mental health and wellbeing, and help normalise needing support.

Feeling powerless in response to a situation that is out of your control is a very normal human response. If you are the one experiencing a traumatic stress response, there are some practical things you can do to help yourself. This acronym ACT may help:


Acknowledge you are having a physical or emotional reaction. Acknowledging that you have experienced a traumatic event is essential to your recovery. Do not avoid or deny any feelings you notice. Tell someone like a partner, family member, friend or a trusted colleague/manager.


Care for yourself. Where possible, stick to your regular routine, exercising control over the areas of your life that you can. Try to eat healthy and find balance in your life. This can be especially hard but routine helps keep us going. Also be aware of your alcohol intake and drug use, including caffeine. These may cause agitation and cause you to feel worse later.


Time can be the best healer. Be patient with yourself. Recovering from a traumatic event may happen quickly or it may be a slower, more gradual process. Either way, whatever your recovery process looks like, it’s completely normal.

Keeping mental health front of mind

It isn’t easy being a leader in this rapidly changing world, with teams increasingly looking to you for guidance. Recent international and local crises have been traumatic, and even engendered a sense of hopelessness for some people.

As one of Australia’s largest Employee Assistance Programs, we know first-hand the struggles workplaces have been facing. But we’ve also seen the incredible difference that good support systems and positive wellbeing environments can make. So let’s start from the top and ensure our people feel supported, through whatever challenges we might face.

About the author

Marcela Slepica is the Director of Clinical Services at AccessEAP and has more than 20 years’ experience in providing psychological services across a range of industries including health, finance and human resources. Her experience includes counselling, critical incident stress management, manager support, mediation, organisational consulting and training. Understanding the needs of an individual, team or organisation and empowering them to find solutions and help themselves is Marcela’s passion. She is interested in promoting well-being and mental wellness in all its aspects, from physical to mental to emotional and draws on her skills and expertise to effectively manage clinical services at AccessEAP. She is also responsible for the design and delivery of mental health programs, and professional and personal development training.