We Need Trauma-Informed Workplaces

We Need Trauma-Informed Workplaces

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For the past few years, we’ve been experiencing collective trauma. But trauma is not new in our organizations, and it’s not going away, either. Estimates are that six in 10 men and five in 10 women experience at least one trauma, and approximately 6% of the population will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. As we’ve seen the lines between work and home blur and a fundamental shift in our expectations of the places we work, organizations have struggled to provide the support and leadership that their employees and customers need. That’s why it’s so important that they take steps now to build the cultures that can see them through this crisis and the ones we’ll all inevitably face in the future. To do that, we need to build trauma-informed organizations. 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. It may not be possible to predict or avoid the next crisis our organizations will face. However, with forethought, planning, and commitment, we can be prepared to meet the next challenge — whatever it may be — and come through it stronger.

The past two years have been incredibly turbulent, as we’ve faced Covid, racial violence, political upheaval, environmental disasters, war, and more. Anxiety and depression have skyrocketed. Organizations have had to confront issues they never expected and find new ways to support their employees through repeated traumatic experiences.

The reality, though, is that trauma is not new in our organizations. It’s not going away, either. Estimates are that six in 10 men and five in 10 women experience at least one trauma, and approximately 6% of the population will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. Trauma and distress can arise from a wide array of causes, including domestic violence, sexual assault, racism, bias, harassment, economic uncertainty, political division, and more. New challenges arise every day, and conflict and strife anywhere in our globally connected world affect us all.

As we’ve seen the lines between work and home blur and a fundamental shift in our expectations of the places we work, organizations have struggled to provide the support and leadership their employees and customers need. That’s why it’s so important that they take steps now to build the cultures that can see them through this crisis and the ones we’ll all inevitably face in the future. To do that, we need to build trauma-informed organizations.

In my work with organizations, I use a simplified version of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration definition of trauma: Trauma is an emotional injury that affects performance and well-being. The same incident can affect different people differently, so the goal is to assess each individual and provide the supports they need. 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.

Why It’s Important for Organizations to Be Trauma-Informed

The way organizations support people during periods of trauma is uniquely powerful, and the ramifications are long-lasting. This is because in times of trauma, the twin concepts of institutional betrayal and psychological safety come into play.

When we are in a period of crisis, many of us look to our institutions to support and protect us. If they fail to do so, or if they take steps that we fear will harm us or those we care about, that can create a second injury, called an institutional betrayal. The term “institutional betrayal” was first coined by psychologist Jennifer Freyd, who describes it as occurring when an institution you trust or depend upon mistreats you. It can arise due to deliberate actions that harm, as well as from failing to act when action is expected. These actions or inactions can exacerbate already-difficult circumstances. Institutional betrayal may arise due to an organization’s large-scale actions, like a Covid response that leaves many workers feeling vulnerable and trapped, or the actions of an individual, like a manager’s belittling response to a claim of harassment or bias.

The flip side of institutional betrayal is psychological safety. Largely popularized through the work of Amy Edmondson, psychological safety is the sense that within a team or organization, it is acceptable for someone to admit that they made a mistake, or don’t know the answer, or are struggling. In a recent study, Google found that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work. And the fastest way to build psychological safety was for team members to support each other through hard times. As Charles Duhigg at The New York Times Magazine put it: “To feel ‘psychologically safe,’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, and to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency.”

Thus, if we fail to respond appropriately in our work with those experiencing trauma, we can add a second injury to the first. But if we respond well, we build trust and connection. Either way, the manner in which we support each other in times of crisis will reverberate in our organizations for many years to come.

How do we ensure that our organizations have the skills and resources to navigate trauma effectively? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies six guiding principles for a trauma-informed approach: 1) safety; 2) trustworthiness and transparency; 3) peer support; 4) collaboration and mutuality; 5) empowerment, voice, and choice; and 6) cultural, historical, and gender issues. I would simplify these to three overarching concepts:

  • Acknowledgement (“I will be heard”)
  • Support (“I can get the help I need”)
  • Trust (“I will be treated fairly”)

Acknowledgement

As I discuss in my book, The Empathetic Workplace, an important aspect of a trauma-informed approach is the willingness to listen to and acknowledge the pain of those experiencing trauma. Sharing a story of trauma can be healing, mentally and even physically. It isn’t enough merely to allow people to share their experiences, though; they need to feel genuinely heard as well. An acknowledgement can be as simple as a manager saying to an employee whose spouse is dying, “Thanks for letting me know. I’m sorry for all you’re going through,” or an office-wide communication that addresses a community trauma. The key is that an acknowledgment neither denies the experience of those suffering (“It will all work out for the best”) nor distracts from it (“Let me tell you how I persevered through something similar”). When we fail to acknowledge the pain that someone is experiencing, we can veer into toxic positivity or even gaslighting.

Support

There are often tangible forms of support that people need in times of trauma and distress, like mental health resources, referrals to medical information, and assistance with funeral and other expenses. Such support can make an incredible difference in a person’s healing and demonstrate that the organization is there for its employees when they need it.

It’s also important when working with those in crisis that we communicate frequently and clearly. When the unthinkable happens, we often feel blindsided and insecure. When it feels difficult to regain a sense of control over our lives, receiving information can help. As John F. Kennedy said, “In a time of turbulence and change, it is more true than ever that knowledge is power.” Therefore, another type of support that the organization can provide is frequent and reliable communication. This communication can take any form, from a text alert system to a Slack channel dedicated to informing employees about the crisis at hand to a daily email from the CEO. Whatever you use, it’s important that the communication be consistent and dependable.

Trust

We all feel more confident when we understand the rules. If the policies and values an organization has in place are in name only, it creates a sense of unease at best and moral injury at worst. Thus, the trauma-informed organization should have policies and procedures that are genuinely supportive of employees in need (some good places to start are this U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) report on harassment and this model policy on domestic violence, sexual violence, and stalking) and ensure that those policies are widely known and followed. Policies should robustly implement the organization’s stated values, and training on them must be thorough, effective, and ongoing. (See here for some good advice.)

It is particularly important that leaders are vocal in their commitment to the organization’s values and unwavering in upholding them. When bad behavior is not addressed, it can become contagious; very quickly, the organization’s values erode and toxicity takes over. For people to feel safe raising issues, they must understand the rules and trust that those rules will be applied fairly and transparently.

It’s been two years since the coronavirus began its sweep across the globe. As vaccines are more widely available, its grip on the way we work is loosening. The employees who return to the office have changed, though. The Great Resignation has shown that employees have different expectations of their organizations than they did a few years ago. They desire purpose and connection, and they want to be seen. The organization that shows through its actions that it cares for its employees beyond the short-term profit they generate, that shows a real interest in who they are and supports them in good times and bad, will earn loyalty, engagement, and trust — and will deserve it.

It may not be possible to predict or avoid the next crisis our organizations will face. However, with forethought, planning, and commitment, we can be prepared to meet the next challenge — whatever it may be — and come through it stronger.

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