Building a resilient culture through
Trauma isn’t new in the workplace and it isn’t 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 per cent of people across 24 countries have experienced trauma, with an average of three traumatic events, including adverse childhood experiences, violence, loss of a loved one, over the course of 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 of 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 colour, 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 have prompted employers to find new ways to support their employees.
While this is a new area for many employers and workforce development professionals, it also offers an opportunity to advance trauma-informed approaches and build a resilient workplace culture.
Trauma results from 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.
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/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 aren’t 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 workplaces or the environment should look like.
There’s a need to create safe environments, both physical and psychological safe spaces, where people can be open and free to express themselves, knowing 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 they’re being supported by their organization.
A trauma-informed organization is one that operates with an understanding of trauma, 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 outbursts, quitting, quiet quitting.
Shut down/freeze: At this level, individuals may feel isolated with feelings of shame, guilt, and rage. They may lose mental flexibility, become distrustful, and have difficulty engaging with others.
Trauma affects how people see themselves, others, and the world around them. It breaks trust and betrays people’s inherent need for safety and belonging in the workplace. On the flip side, though, trauma can lead to the development of new strengths, insight, and coping mechanisms.
When building a trauma-informed and resilient workplace, the goal isn’t to treat trauma but to minimize the harm caused by traumatic events and to have adequate support in place for when and if trauma does happen.
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/physical injury.
Fostering a supportive and inclusive environment is the first step in advancing trauma-informed approaches in our workplaces. We must create an environment that actively promotes openness, transparency, continuous education, equal opportunity, and respect.
The Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (SAMHSA) recommends six principles for a trauma-informed approach:
2. Trustworthiness and transparency
3. Peer support
4. Collaboration and mutuality
5. Empowerment, voice, and choice
6. Cultural, historical, and gender inclusion
So, 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: Individuals feel heard and seen.
Support: Offer adequate support including peer support, professional counsellors, regular check-ins, time off. Approach each situation as a unique incidence and let the individual take the lead in their own recovery journey. People often recover from trauma in the context of relationships, so 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, and practices to eliminate triggers and promote well-being. The way organizations support their staff during periods of trauma is uniquely powerful and determines whether staff feels safe or betrayed. Recognize that everyone has a unique experience and the way we support each other during a 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 no where 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 impacts on an organization’s bottom line.
Indirect cost: For example, impacts on stakeholders and the community the organization serves.
Remedial cost: Direct costs that arise from treating the damage of workplace trauma. For example: absence from work, mental health, labour claims and complaints, and re-building team trust and community.
Adopting a trauma-informed approach isn’t accomplished through any 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.
- by Ann Divine, CEO of Ashanti Leadership & Professional Development Services Inc. and…
- Temitope Abiagom, RSW, a subject matter expert with Ashanti Leadership & Professional Development Services Inc.