Dealing with trauma in the workplace

A pharmacy staff member in Tasmania has been diagnosed with PTSD after being threatened during a recent robbery

In October last year, Benjamin Robert Joseph entered Tasmanian pharmacy armed with a folding pocket knife, and demanded morphine from a staff member at the counter.

“Give me what I want, what I asked for, morphine,” he said, flashing the knife to the employee.

He then walked behind the counter and stood at the back of the employee, who warned a fellow staff member about the knife.

He continually told the staff members not to activate the alarm, with words to the effect of, “If I hear an alarm, someone will get hurt.”

As he left, he told the staff members that he would come back if an alarm was activated. The clear inference was that he would come back to carry out his threat to harm them, presumably by use of the knife, the Supreme Court of Tasmania heard.

Last week Mr Joseph was sentenced to three years’ jail, backdated to February and with a non-parole period of 18 months.

During the sentencing last week, the primary staff member who was threatened during the robbery shared her victim impact statement.

She said she had feared for her safety during the course of these events; that she was personally threatened with the knife and was terrified that the defendant would use it. She said that she did not think she “would get out of there”.

Since the robbery, the pharmacy staff member has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She has suffered panic attacks and continues to have flashbacks and difficulty sleeping.

The staff member has not been able to return to work. Her partner spends 24 hours a day with her as she is too scared to be alone, the court heard.

The report also confirms that the employee has severe ongoing symptoms associated with the PTSD diagnosis, including depressed mood, changes in concentration and cognition, avoidance of triggers, hyperarousal symptoms including panic attacks and sleep disturbance, and ongoing intrusive memories and nightmares. She continues to require ongoing medical and psychological treatment.

After a violent incident in a pharmacy such as a hold-up it is normal to feel some anxiety about returning to work and to feel a bit “jumpy” if anything happens which prompts thoughts of the event, says Kay Dunkley, Executive Officer of the Pharmacists’ Support Service (PSS).

“For example if someone enters the pharmacy wearing similar clothing to the perpetrator it may put you on edge as you normal stress reaction prepares you for ‘fight or flight’. Other common symptoms include emotional upset, fear, sadness, guilt, anger, sleep disturbance including unusual dreams and appetite disturbance.

“However these symptoms should resolve within a month. When someone has ongoing feelings of anxiety and stress for more than a month after a violent incident in a pharmacy such as a hold-up it is important to seek professional advice.

“Likewise if the symptoms are more severe than those described above and prevent return to work and normal routine professional advice should be sought earlier.

“Immediately after a traumatic event it is normal to want to talk about it and sometimes debriefing of those involved can be helpful, but if you don’t want to talk about it that is fine too,” says Ms Dunkley.

“It is really a personal decision which should be respected by others. However it is not healthy to try to ignore your feelings or to try to dull them with alcohol or other substances.”

Her tips include:

  • Lead a healthy lifestyle, look after yourself by eating well and exercising. Exercise is great stress buster.
  • Avoid other stresses in your life as far as possible but keep to your normal routine including work.

If you know someone dealing with workplace trauma, Ms Dunkley suggests helping them return to their normal routine. “Accept that they may be anxious but avoid being over protective,” she says.

Family, friends and colleagues can also help by being opening to listening if those involved in the incident want to talk about it. However, make sure not to push the conversation if there is a reluctance to talk about it.

Getting further help:

A good option is to speak to a GP, who can make a referral to a psychologist. A psychologist can be accessed directly without a GP referral, however it is beneficial to involve the GP in order to have a mental health plan established which will enable the visits to the psychologist to be subsidised by Medicare.

In addition the benefit of seeing both a GP and a psychologist is that there is a team approach and if medication is required the GP can prescribe this. If possible find a psychologist who specialises in trauma support.  A good way to find a psychologist with this area of interest is through the Australian Psychological Society “Find a Psychologist” website using the search term “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder”.

Pharmacists and pharmacy staff will be covered by the pharmacy’s Work Cover insurance policy for medical and psychological assistance after a traumatic incident in the pharmacy and this can be discussed with the Manager of the Pharmacy, says Ms Dunkley.

In addition, some pharmacy insurance policies will fund access to a psychologist for debriefing of staff involved after a hold-up or other violent incident. This should be discussed early on with the Pharmacy Manager to ensure that the claim is lodged as soon as possible.

Many pharmacy owners will want to support their staff and may be willing to cover the expenses involved in bringing in a psychologist in to debrief staff after an incident.

Affected staff can contact the PSS if they need someone to talk to. The organisation’s 1300 244 910 line is available 365 days a year, from 8am-11pm.

Additional resources:

National Centre for Post Traumatic Mental Health



Australian Psychological Society


You may be interested in reading:

Safety tips for pharmacy staff

Reminder to lock up shop after pharmacy robbery

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1 Comment

  1. Anne Todd

    I agree with all the suggestions here, after a hold up in my pharmacy the staff group involved (myself included) attended several group sessions with a psychologist and those that wanted had access to confidential one on one sessions.We still had one staff member who ended up leaving as found similar edginess when customers came in difficult to cope with – a new work environment helped her cope.
    For the rest of us it seemed talking it out soon after the event helped greatly.

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