It happens every day. A pedestrian sees a bus barreling down the road but is convinced he can make his way to the other side without harm. Most of the time he’s right, and the only harm done is to the driver’s skyrocketing blood pressure. Unfortunately, there are too many times when the pedestrian has misjudged the speed of the bus, the ability for the operator to slow down in time, the operator’s mental alertness, or the quickness of the pedestrian’s own feet. The trauma that unfolds following the pedestrian’s poor judgment isn’t limited to the victim and his family. The operator’s world is immediately turned upside down with the threat of job loss and imprisonment. Even if the operator is cleared of negligence, the image of the accident is often burned into the operator’s memory as intrusive flashbacks, which drift insidiously through their daily interactions and perceptions, deeply impacting employee resilience and engagement.

Driver fatigue has long been considered a leading factor in public transit accidents where human error is the cause. According to research conducted at the University of Florida’s School for Engineering in 2010, the correlation between driver fatigue and crash occurrence among commercial driver accidents was 56.48%. Certainly, lack of sleep, split shifts, late night driving, increased task load, and high-density traffic are salient issues challenging the industry’s safety management.  However, driver fatigue is just one piece of the puzzle when addressing crashes caused by human error. Professional Trauma Exposure among bus operators is a hidden factor in accidents because it erodes resilience and disrupts engagement.   

What is Professional Trauma Exposure (PTE) and how does it impact mental health of the operator and the depot?

PTE is an employee’s exposure to traumatic events, which occur in the workplace. Accidents, assaults, and threats from passengers are examples of traumatic events. However, not every incident leads to PTE.

PTE occurs when an employee feels a threat (real or perceived) to one's safety or identity and is overwhelmed by that threat. In the moment of threat, the body’s stress response system releases survival chemicals directing the body to fight or flee. If the action of fighting or fleeing is not successfully completed, or the outcome is negative, the experience is more likely to cause traumatic effects.



To make matters worse, both experiencing and witnessing violence and crisis cause trauma. Even if an operator is not engaging directly with the mentally ill, agitated, or belligerent passenger who boards his bus, his autonomic nervous system may be releasing survival chemicals throughout his body, which over a period of years will cause both physical and mental health issues and a reduction in mental acuity. This is particularly true when recovery time is cut short and the operator is unable to reset his neurobiology.

Within the transit industry, PTE is common and leads to a lack of compassion and eventual dehumanization of the riding public. It also poisons morale within the depot/garage environment, because an operator with PTE has an overactive threat perception monitor and often perceives threat even when one does not exist. Operators engaging in enemy-imaging talk against management create an enormous challenge to managers’ efforts to build a positive work culture. Negative work environment contributes to isolation and disengagement among the frontline, which translates to greater burnout and disengagement, because the operator population feels there is no supportive place to recover. Therefore, a small number of an individual’s PTE, when not addressed, threatens the resilience of the entire organization. 

At the individual level, operators suffering from PTE are more likely to engage in maladaptive behaviors such as:

  • Abusing drugs to self-medicate symptoms of hyperarousal.
  • Aggression to anyone he perceives is a threat.
  • Mentally tuning out/dissociation.

What is dissociation and how does it raise the risk of accidents?

The clinical term for tuning out is dissociation; a mental process of detaching from reality. Dissociation is viewed on a continuum from mild cases of momentary lapses in concentration to more pathological dissociative responses, such as amnesia and dissociative identity disorder. While most operators momentarily tune out on the job, those experiencing traumatic effects have reported dissociating for longer periods of time.

A common statement among bus operators when learning that dissociation is a feature of professional trauma exposure is “I often get to the end of my run and I don’t remember how I got there.”

Unlike self-medicating (drug abuse), which may be screened for, or aggression, which may be observed, dissociation is difficult to uncover without operator self-disclosure.

A 2012 study in the Journal of Safety Research, “Risk factors Associated with Bus Accident Severity in the United States,” noted that “only a small percent (nearly 4%) of the bus drivers involved in accidents are charged with serious offenses, such as speeding, drowsy driving, and driving under the influence of alcohol.”

Drowsy driving, which is caused by a lack of sleep, is not the same as dissociating while driving. However, both potentially cause slower reaction time, delay in processing information, and lapses in judgment.



What can leadership do to build protective factors to mitigate the impact of PTE in its employee population?

1. Operator education

Bus operators cannot defend themselves from PTE and burnout if they don’t know what it is and how susceptible they are to it. Regular professional development regarding operator safety should always include trauma education. Specifically, operators should receive trauma education that addresses the causes of PTE, identify symptoms of PTSD, incorporate best practices to resolve it, and build greater resiliency for longer, healthier careers.

2. Build more empathetic management and supervisor teams

There is a phenomenon of community erosion, which occurs after an assault or accident. Particularly, if in the aftermath of an assault or accident, a manager’s first response is to ask what the operator did to cause the attack/accident rather than ask how they are and communicate real concern, the operator is likely to feel deeply betrayed by leadership. This sense of betrayal will not only lead to a calcified perception of the company as an uncaring entity, it will color the operator’s perception of the entire work community. With the exception of those workers who are openly hostile to management and co-workers, the worker will exist in a pathological isolation fueled by further negative interactions between the operator and his manager, coworkers, and passengers. The perception that the passengers are “animals” and “subhuman” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy generated from microaggressions of disdain toward passengers, making it more likely for the operator to tune out behind the wheel.

Therefore, the first response by management is a heavily weighted interaction, with long-term perpetuating consequences on the culture of the organization and the safety record of the driver. Teaching management the tools to communicate empathy and other best practices for intervening after traumatic events have occurred are crucial to interrupt this cycle of alienation and distrust that may be permeating an organization. Of equal importance is management education regarding the signs of employee burnout before accidents occur.

3. Check Your Employee Assistance Program’s (EAP) skill and knowledge in trauma informed care

Just as the quality of bus operator performance varies, so do employee assistance programs. The special nature of PTE within the transit industry may create a gap of understanding and skills regarding how to treat it. Survey your workforce for EAP satisfaction. Ensure survey anonymity for a more accurate read. Share the responses with your EAP to motivate them to seek their own professional development regarding trauma and integrative approaches to treatment.

4. Show up for the frontline during good times and bad

Building a resilient and engaged workforce is not a one-time effort. In addition to yearly holiday parties, which are essential to building community, leaders need to set a pattern of concern for their frontline, on and off the job. If an operator asks for help regarding a route’s safety and the leader immediately and authentically responds, that level of support is communicated across the frontline. An equally effective action is when a GM stops to write a note of sympathy or make a call to an operator who lost a spouse to cancer. Creating a culture of support is essential in the fight against burnout and PTE, not just because it raises morale, but also because it opens the door for employees to ask for help before a preventable accident occurs.

Charlotte DiBartolomeo, M.A.C.T. is CEO and founder of Red Kite Project, a resiliency building firm working with the transit industry for the past seven years to mitigate the impact of burnout, which causes absenteeism, high turnover rates, accidents, rule violations, and assaults. Her company partners with Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, GoRaleigh, Metro Transit in Minneapolis, Charlotte Area Transit System, and GoDurham. In addition to her work with Red Kite Project, Charlotte is a faculty member at Drexel University where she developed and teaches Trauma Informed Care in the Department of Behavioral Health Counseling.

To view a webinar on the subject, click here.

About the author
Charlotte DiBartolomeo

Charlotte DiBartolomeo

CEO/Founder, Red Kite Project

Charlotte DiBartolomeo, M.A.C.T. is CEO and founder of Red Kite Project, a resiliency building firm working with the transit industry for the past seven years to mitigate the impact of burnout, which causes absenteeism, high turnover rates, accidents, rule violations, and assaults.

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