How to cope with workplace trauma following the Toronto van attack

Experiencing a traumatic event in the workplace may trigger anxiety or depression, experts say.
Experiencing a traumatic event in the workplace may trigger anxiety or depression, experts say. People Images/Getty Images

Bearing witness to a traumatic event, or knowing someone who was involved in one, can have a heavy impact on one’s mental health.

Such events can take place anywhere at any time, but when they happen at your place of work or so close to it, workplaces and employees can become profoundly affected leaving many to wonder what role their employers have in providing support and helping in their recovery.

READ MORE: ‘We don’t know you, but we love you’: Hundreds gather at Toronto van attack memorial

It’s a question that’s coming up after Monday’s attack in Toronto’s north end after a man named Alek Minassian allegedly drove a white van into a group of pedestrians, killing 10 and injuring 14.

At Yonge and Finch streets, where the incident took place, there are many small and big businesses that surround the area, and early reports already discovered that one victim, identified as Anne Marie D’Amico, worked at a nearby company called Invesco. Her death prompted the company to release a statement in response to the news of her death.

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“Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with all those impacted by this tragic event,” Peter Intraligi, president of Invesco Canada, wrote. “I can now confirm that unfortunately one of our employees has succumbed to her injuries. Out of respect for her and her family, we will not be providing any further comments.”

In instances like these, immediate and close colleagues or other employees of the company or nearby companies may feel impacted by the news. This impact can stem from knowing a victim, knowing someone who was injured in a related incident or the event may trigger memories of another incident that has affected an individual, MarryAnn Kempe, past chair of the Canadian Professionals in Human Resources of Manitoba, explains.

“A traumatic event would be anything that’s significant to an individual or a company,” Kempe says. “It doesn’t only have to do with the workplace, but it can be individual.”

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“Any kind of event can be considered traumatic,” Sonya Tonkovich, occupational health and safety specialist with the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, adds. “It’s often something that frightens or makes people feel overwhelmed or distressed. It’s usually unexpected, so there’s that element of shock.”

Any sort of violence and anything criminal in nature – like what was experienced in northern Toronto – is most certainly considered a traumatic event, Tonkovich says. Other examples include natural disasters and accidents – basically anything that threatens one’s safety or security or the life of others around you can be considered a traumatic event by a workplace.

READ MORE: How to manage panic attacks – and why you should never ignore them

When an employee experiences such an event, their reaction to what took place can range depending on the person. For some, there may be no immediate reaction at all, Kempe says, while for others, they may experience depression and/or anxiety, act out or keep to themselves. Depending on how impacted by the event, substance abuse may be a risk factor as well, Tonkovich says.

But employees should know that they are not alone and that help is available for them through their workplace and community.

“Our employees are the heart of our organizations,” Kempe says. “[Providing support] provides healthy workplaces and healthy employees. We’re all human – we don’t live in a vacuum – so we’re all going to have human experiences and being able to respond to that just makes us better people and better organizations.”
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First off, Tonkovich says organizations should have comprehensive workplace mental health strategies or programs in place for when traumatic events do occur. These programs would act as a preventative measure by providing mental health resources to workers.

“Having something in place ahead of time gives you options when you need it,” Tonkovich says.

READ MORE: What we learned from Alek Minassian’s Incel-linked Facebook page – and what we’d like to know

Should you as an employee need help to cope with a traumatic event at work, talking to someone you trust is always a good place to start, both Kempe and Tonkovich say. This can be a colleague or your manager.

If you feel like you need additional support, visit your human resources department. The HR department at any workplace is equipped with all the information one needs to find that support and how to navigate the system to get it. For example, there may be an option in your workplace benefits that provides counselling.

Depending on the organization, there may be sick days available to use or the option of short-term disability, Tonkovich says. If you’re not sure what is available to you, then your HR representative would know what resources you have at your fingertips through your work, Kempe adds.

However, should you feel that a colleague is feeling the effects of a traumatic event at work, don’t be afraid to approach a manager or HR about your concerns.

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If you feel your workplace is not providing adequate support in times of crisis, it’s important to know that everyone has legislative rights. These rights can vary by province, Tonkovich says, but typically, everyone has similar rights.

“Generally speaking, the law does provide the right to a healthy and safe workplace for all workers,” Tonkovich says. “Employers have a legal obligation to keep their workers healthy and safe.”

In Ontario, for example, the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act stipulates three rights for workers: the right to know about hazards, the right to protect yourself and the right to participate, Tonkovich points out.

And if you’ve gone through your workplace and feel you’re still lacking in support or feel that your concerns are not being adequately met or have any lingering questions, then perhaps an option is to get the joint health and safety committee involved, a health and safety representative or their union should you be represented by one.

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