Trauma in the Workplace: Building a Resilient Culture

Written by Ann Divine and Temitope Abiagom.

Trauma is not new in the workplace, and it is not unique to front-line workers or occupations such as health and social services. As a human experience, trauma is widespread across various industries and populations. A recent World Health Organization(WHO) study reveals that 70 percent of people across 24 countries have experienced traumas, with an average of three traumatic events, including adverse childhood experiences, violence and loss of a loved one, throughout a lifetime. Nonetheless, given the universal human test of the past two years because of the coronavirus pandemic, political upheaval, social justice unrest, and economic uncertainties, the concept has been brought to the fore in employee management and decision making.

“Trauma is prevalent in our world and impacts all of us, including our staff, colleagues, and clients. The effects trauma can ripple across all areas of a person’s life. Trauma often shapes our interactions and relationships at home and at work. It even affects whole organizations by impacting ways in which we do our work, serve our clients, and achieve our missions.” (CTRI, 2021)

Marginalized groups including Indigenous peoples, communities of color, newcomers, people with disability and gender-diverse people have been disproportionately impacted because of historic, institutional and systemic racism, discrimination, chronic poverty, and environmental factors. The rise in repeated traumatic experiences in the workplace has prompted employers to find new ways to support their employees. This is a new area for many employers and workforce development professionals. It has created an opportunity to advance trauma-informed approaches and build a resilient workplace culture.

Trauma is a result of an event or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically and/or emotionally harmful. Trauma has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, social, and emotional well-being. As a wound of the soul, trauma can arise from a variety of causes including violence, bullying, excessive workload, sexual harassment , bias, racism, economic distress, micro-aggressive behaviours, toxic work environment, the loss of a loved one, adverse childhood events, migration and more. Traumatic events can be difficult to define because people may respond to the same event differently and those events or circumstances may be more traumatic for some people than for others.

To be trauma-informed means leaders and employees must have some awareness of its significance in people’s lives. They are not called upon to be experts in the field. They need to build awareness, educate themselves and engage in open dialogue. This requires a shift in thinking and attitudes about what the workplace environment should look like. Creating physical and psychological safe spaces are important and give people the chance to be open and free to express themselves, knowing that they will not be judged but instead greeted with empathy and compassion. Such actions will foster resilience, and strengthen belief in oneself, with the full confidence that they are being supported by their organization.

A trauma-informed organization is one that operates with an understanding of trauma and its negative effects on the organization’s employees and the communities it serves and works to mitigate those effects. New challenges arise every day and leaders must be prepared to support their workforce and build a trauma-resilient culture.

Expressions of Trauma in the workplace

When people experience trauma and feel their safety, dignity and belonging have been threatened, they tend to protect themselves by engaging in one or more of the following levels of safety:

Social Engagement: At this level, an individual may seek support from a trusted colleague, mentor or professional.

Flight/ Fight: Some expressions at this level include angry outburst, quitting and quiet quitting.

Shut down/ Freeze: At this level, individuals may feel isolated with feelings of shame, guilt, rage, loss of mental flexibility, distrust, and may experience difficulty engaging with others.

Trauma effects how people see themselves, others, and the world around them. It breaks trust and betrays people’s inherent need for safety and belonging to the workplace. On the other hand, trauma can lead to the development of new strengths, insight, and coping mechanisms.

Becoming Trauma-Informed

When building a trauma-informed and resilient workplace, the goal is not to treat trauma but to minimize the harm caused by traumatic events and to have adequate support in place for when and if trauma happens. Grounded in the understanding that many individuals have experienced trauma, employers and supervisors must move away from blaming the individual, be non-judgmental and deal with workplace conditions that caused the emotional or physical injury.

Fostering a supportive and inclusive environment is the first step in advancing trauma-informed approaches in our workplaces. An environment that actively promote openness, transparency, continuous education, equal opportunity, and respect.

The Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration in the US Department of Health and Human Services (SAMHSA) six principles of a trauma-informed approach are as follows:

• Safety
• Trustworthiness and transparency
• Peer support
• Collaboration and mutuality
• Empowerment, voice, and choice
• Cultural, historical, and gender inclusion

How do we respond when and if traumatic experiences occur in our workplaces since some situations are just going to be out of our control? The following phases can act as a guide:

Acknowledgement: Ensure that individuals feel heard and seen.

Support: Offer adequate support including peer support, professional counsellors, regular check-ins and time off. Approach each situation as a unique incident and let the individual take the lead in their own recovery journey. People often recover from trauma in the context of relationships, leverage the power of social human connection to build a resilient team.

Action: To demonstrate trustworthiness, organizations must act and implement changes that affect culture, policies, practices to eliminate triggers and promote wellbeing.

The way organizations support their staff during periods of trauma is uniquely powerful and will determine whether staff feel safe or betrayed. Recognizing that everyone will have a unique experience and the way we support each other during period of trauma will echo in the organization for many years to come.

Cost of a Trauma-Unconscious Workplace

The investment in a trauma-informed approach is nowhere close to the cost of a trauma- unconscious workplace. Some of the costs include:

Opportunity Cost: Trauma may account for low productivity, performance, lack of innovation and creativity with negative impact an organization’s bottom line and impact.

Indirect Cost: Impacts on stakeholders and the communities the organization serves.

Remedial Cost: Direct costs that arise from treating the damage that workplace trauma causes. For example, absence from work, mental health, labour claims, complaints and re-building team trust and community.

Conclusion

Adopting a trauma-informed approach is not accomplished through a single technique or checklist. It requires an intentional approach with constant attention, caring awareness, empathy, and cultural change at an organizational level. To connect is to be human. To be human is to be compassionate and respond appropriately to emotional and physical injury in others.

Authors

Ann Divine, MA, CEO Ashanti Leadership & Professional Development Services Inc.
Temitope Abiagom, RSW Subject Matter Expert , Ashanti Leadership & Professional Development Services Inc.

Additional Resources

https://novascotia.ca/dhw/addictions/documents/TIP_Discussion_Guide_1.pdf
https://www.toolkitnb.ca/fact-sheets/being-a-trauma-informed-employer/
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4-tcKYx24aA
https://ctrinstitute.com

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