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Traumatic stress sufferers: work as therapy or trigger?

Scott Williams (Raj Soin College of Business, Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio, USA)
Jonathan Williams (Raj Soin College of Business, Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio, USA)

Management Research Review

ISSN: 2040-8269

Article publication date: 18 January 2021

Issue publication date: 16 July 2021




While a return to work following trauma exposure can be therapeutic, this is not always so. As with many topics related to traumatic stress in organizations, several contingency factors complicate the effort to draw an overarching conclusion about whether returning to work is therapeutic. The purpose of this paper is to present important determinants of whether work is therapeutic or triggering for those with traumatic stress conditions. The need for contingency approaches in the study of traumatic stress in organizations is illustrated.


Literature on traumatic stress in organizations is reviewed.


Three of the key determinants of whether a return to work is therapeutic or triggering for traumatic stress sufferers are trauma-type contingencies, condition-type contingencies and work-setting contingencies. For instance, human-caused and task-related traumas are more likely than natural disasters to make a return-to-work triggering. Additionally, the time since developing a traumatic stress condition is inversely related to the degree of improvement in that condition through the experience of working. Moreover, managerial actions can affect how therapeutic an employee’s return to work is.

Practical implications

These findings suggest the challenges of reintegrating a traumatized employee to the workplace can be highly situation-specific. Careful consideration of the traumatic event suffered by each traumatic stress victim, their traumatic stress condition, and the work setting to which they would return are recommended.

Social implications

Promoting mental health in organizations can contribute to employers’ social performance.


Examination of the factors that complicate predicting whether work is therapeutic posttrauma demonstrates how contingency approaches can advance research on trauma in organizations.



The authors gratefully acknowledge feedback from Shannon Taylor and participants in the Organizational Behavior Research Incubator held during the Academy of Management’s annual meeting August, 2019 in Boston, USA.


Williams, S. and Williams, J. (2021), "Traumatic stress sufferers: work as therapy or trigger?", Management Research Review, Vol. 44 No. 7, pp. 991-1011.



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