Leadership

How to Create a Trauma-Informed Workplace

It’s crucial for all leaders to strive to create trauma-informed workplaces.

Given my clinical training as a social worker and my past experiences of working with trauma in a variety of settings, I have some unique perspectives about how trauma impacts the workplace. After transitioning out of direct social work practice, one of the things I quickly realized was that trauma’s effects are not limited to healthcare or social service settings. Trauma has a tendency to seep into workplaces and impact people’s behavior, performance, and relationships.

 

The effects of trauma can ripple across all areas of a person’s life and shape their interactions and relationships at home and at work.

 

What is trauma?

Trauma occurs when a person or group is confronted with a threat to themselves or others and that threat overwhelms their coping resources and affects their physical, mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual health. Trauma is prevalent in our world and impacts all of us, including our staff, colleagues, and clients. The effects of trauma can ripple across all areas of a person’s life and shape their interactions and relationships at home and at work. It even affects whole organizations by impacting the ways in which we do our work, serve our clients, and achieve our missions.

Our workplaces can be negatively influenced by the pervasive power of trauma, and they can also unintentionally amplify its impacts. However, by embracing trauma-informed principles, our organizations can also contribute to the positive transformation of individuals and relationships affected by trauma.

Trauma-informed workplaces understand the presence of trauma, acknowledge the role trauma can play in a person’s life, and promote work environments that support the individual and collective well-being of all staff and clients. They create a sense of belonging, connection, and safety through their attitudes, policies, and practices. As a result, organizations that are trauma-informed are more resilient and better able to achieve their missions. Every workplace, in every sector, can benefit from becoming trauma-informed.

By embracing trauma-informed principles, our organizations can also contribute to the positive transformation of individuals and relationships affected by trauma.

 

In A Little Book About Trauma-Informed Workplaces, my co-authors and I outline five key principles that trauma-informed organizations embody:

1. Promote Awareness

In trauma-informed organizations, leaders and employees are aware of the pervasiveness of trauma and its significance in people’s lives. They understand that when anyone’s sense of well-being or survival is threatened, it can cause lasting emotional and psychological injury. They know that the subsequent effects will usually cause vulnerability and influence how staff and clients engage with supports, handle stress, perform their tasks, and simply maintain hope and energy to function.

Educating staff about trauma is integral to generating awareness. All those who work in the organization should be provided with opportunities to grow in their awareness of the prevalence and impacts of trauma and apply this learning to their work. Regardless of the specific route taken to promote awareness, training should encourage thoughtful reflection about trauma and explore how to create meaningful interactions. This is optimally done through relationships and connection with others.

2. Shift Attitudes

While trauma awareness is valuable at a knowledge level, an attitude shift is necessary in order to change how we engage with people. By shifting attitudes, we are able to put our awareness of trauma into action. This shift impacts the questions we ask and creates a mindset of curious empathy that we can bring to our interactions. It is demonstrated by responding to people, organizations, and communities in ways that reflect awareness of the role trauma can have. When we shift our attitudes, our biases recede and healthy responses to trauma become the norm.

Traumatic experiences can cause people to react with the protective survival instincts of fight, flight, and freeze behaviors. Because these survival instincts can also emerge in everyday situations that aren’t actually threatening, these behaviors are often misunderstood and difficult to respond to. While they are useful in the face of actual threats, they can come across as unhelpful or challenging when they don’t seem to match the situation. When we recognize the possibility that trauma may be a factor in these behaviors, we can understand and approach them with an attitude of empathetic curiosity.

Fostering a safe environment requires paying close attention to the varying needs of different people.
3. Foster Safety

One of the central aspects of trauma is the experience of a threat to physical or psychological safety. This threat can continue to affect a person’s ability to feel fully safe in future environments and situations. When an organization does not give attention to safety, it can make both staff and clients vulnerable and create barriers to engagement. Therefore, fostering safety helps reduce the impact of past damaging experiences.

Fostering a safe environment requires paying close attention to the varying needs of different people. These can range from the physical, such as the need for adequate lighting and safety rails, to the psychological, which could include managing conflict or disrespectful behavior. It is important to consider both the physical and psychological elements of safety. Too often, those responsible for safety limit their focus to physical areas or only give token attention to psychological concerns.

4. Provide Choice

A significant aspect of traumatic events is the lack of choice and control that people experience. The helplessness felt in an overwhelmingly threatening situation can leave lasting imprints on a person’s sense of power to take back control over their lives. Therefore, it’s important for trauma-informed workplaces to provide meaningful opportunities for choice.

Offering opportunities for choice can be a juggling act of consulting, reconciling differences, and sharing responsibility. Providing staff and clients with choices means respecting their unique identities and affirming the natural diversity among individuals and communities. It means intentionally inviting minority voices and those with less organizational power to share their experiences and suggestions. At times, it will require us to respect the choices and voices that run contrary to – or even challenge – the status quo. These challenging voices are to be expected, and it is through these conversations that we can begin to create healthier, more trauma-informed workplaces.

Becoming trauma-informed is not a simple, straightforward process – it may take an organization in multiple directions instead of on a linear path.
5. Highlight Strengths

Every person has inherent strengths that help them survive. For people who have come through traumatic experiences, highlighting strengths is especially relevant because it helps to emphasize and build up their inherent resilience. After all, they have survived because of their strengths and have found new and creative ways to live and overcome obstacles.

Unfortunately, rather than focusing on strengths, organizations sometimes emphasize the differences, problems, and weaknesses of staff and clients. This can lead to withdrawal, low morale, disconnection, and, at worst, re-traumatization. However, when we identify what is going well and build on these successes, the powers of resilience and connection can take hold and flourish. Resilience is the ability to survive and adapt in the face of stress and adverse life experiences, and it is extremely valuable for healing from trauma.

 

Becoming trauma-informed is not a simple, straightforward process – it may take an organization in multiple directions instead of on a linear path. It takes hard work, and there may be successes in one area followed by setbacks in another. Just as the impacts of trauma are complex, the implementation of trauma-informed principles can be complicated. But by working intentionally, following the principles, and asking thoughtful questions, leaders can help their organizations navigate the process with care and consideration.


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