A few months ago, I went for a walk with a friend who manages a medium-sized team in a national non-profit. This last year was rough. Her team started 2022 already worn down by the pandemic and the constant crises that service users were experiencing. To add to it all, almost all of the staff experienced chaotic and stressful situations in their personal lives in addition to the chaos at work and in the world. By the time fall came around, everyone was on a short fuse and not getting along. They seemed to be constantly reacting to each other, assuming bad intentions, and generally not feeling like a team.
I asked her what she knew about what might be happening internally in the organization to add to these tensions. “Well,” she said, “we had quite a few people requesting burnout leave at the height of the pandemic, and I’m not sure we’ve really addressed the ongoing impacts of that. I wonder if people still aren’t really doing well, and we are expecting them to go back to work like everything is normal. I think we haven’t really made space for the trauma of it all.”
Why a trauma informed workplace is important
A core belief in how we understand work in this society is that to be a “good employee” people should be able to leave their complex lives at home and show up emotionally in control, able to be productive, solution-oriented, and ready to make rational decisions.
But we are whole people wherever we go, and we bring the whole beautiful chaos with us.
One of the things we bring with us – or that is created or worsened in the workplace – is trauma and toxic stress.
What is trauma?
We can understand trauma as an emotional and physiological response to a terrible event, ongoing series of events, or state of chronic and toxic stress that overwhelms our nervous system. It can be thought of as too much, too soon, too fast or for too long.
I don’t think I know anyone who hasn’t found the last couple years to be extremely difficult. We are all exhausted. Many of us are living in constant stress. While this might not be too much too fast, it is absolutely too much for too long. The impacts of ongoing stress are very similar to the impacts of a traumatic event.
Trauma is much more common than we think. A 2016 population survey done in 24 countries found that over 70% of respondents experienced at least one traumatic event, with over 30% exposed to four or more. The United States had one of the highest levels at 82.7% (Canada wasn’t included in the survey). The actually number is probably much higher, as this study did not include many sources of trauma and toxic stress such as intergenerational trauma, many kinds of childhood experiences that can lead to toxic stress, or social identity trauma stemming from ongoing experiences of oppression (racism, homophobia and transphobia, ableism, and so on). And these studies were done before the pandemic, which many mental health practitioners have recognized as a new collective source of chronic stress and trauma (see here and here).
While not everyone who experiences traumatic events will develop overt trauma symptoms that lead to a diagnosis, most people are carrying some impact of past trauma with them throughout their lives. We can assume that trauma is present in the workplace. And many workplace issues make trauma worse or even create it.
How does trauma and toxic stress show up in the workplace?
Trauma impacts our ability to form trusting relationships and make choices in alignment with what we really want, as our reactions can get stuck in survival energies such as fight/flight/freeze/appease. These reactions can show up in a range of ways and can become habitual when we don’t have the support and safety to process the traumatic experience.
Some of these reactions might be easier to identify as a trauma response. Examples include:
- Big overwhelming emotions of fear and anxiety, anger, sadness and behaviours that accompany those emotions
- Feeling numb, disengaged, unmotivated, and depressed
- Constantly looking out for danger or having trouble trusting other people
- Chronic health problems and complex syndromes
- Feeling overwhelmed by disagreement or negative feedback, which can lead to a range of reactions from avoidance to appeasement to fighting
However, some of the ways we respond to trauma can appear like being a “good employee” and are rewarded by workplace norms of productivity, professionalism and excellence.
For example, a mid-level leader in an organization has low tolerance for emotions, his own or other people’s, and so he throws himself into work as a way of not feeling anything. He stays late every day, and says yes to anything his supervisor wants from him. He is frequently recognized as a top employee, but he is disconnected from friends and missed a major family reunion because of a work deadline. He never takes vacation because if he slows down, he can’t tolerate the feelings that come up for him.
When someone works nonstop for many hours and never takes a break, this can be a way of managing the stress of stuck trauma energy. When people are rewarded for this behaviour, it reinforces the trauma patterns, and creates an environment where other people are held to standards that may be too much too fast. .
It’s important to note that all of these reactions make a lot of sense, particularly in workplaces that are not trauma informed or ensuring people’s wellbeing. If someone is experiencing discrimination, harassment or toxic power dynamics, then of course it makes sense not to trust people. If I have reason to believe that negative feedback might impact my job security, it makes sense that I would have a hard time receiving it. These reactions are all adaptive. They help people survive unsafe conditions. A trauma informed workplace tries to remove as many of those unsafe conditions as possible.
How might your workplace be creating conditions that add to or create trauma and toxic stress?
For more about trauma responses check out this blog post.
How to be trauma-informed
In her book The Politics of Trauma, Staci Haines explains that safety, belonging and dignity are essential human needs. As she says,
“We are tracking for safety, adapting to belong, and organizing ourselves to find dignity. We are at our best when we have, and can offer, all three. We need to understand these more deeply to understand the impacts of trauma and oppressive social conditions, as well as how we heal and create equitable social change.” (133-4)
One way of thinking about a trauma-informed workplace is that it supports people to experience safety, belonging, and dignity, and to offer the same to others.
How can we create safety at work?
Safety is physical, mental/psychological, spiritual and relational. To be safe, we need a range of conditions to be met, from having enough food to eat and a warm place to sleep, to freedom from harassment and other kinds of psychological threat, to a sense that the people I interact with can be trusted to care about my wellbeing and not purposefully cause me harm.
Some specific ways that workplaces protect people’s safety include:
- Offering wages and benefits that allow people to have financial security
- Providing comprehensive health benefits (including mental health), vacation and wellness leave
- Supporting the development of collaboration, trust and mutual respect
- Committing to and actualizing principles of psychological safety (for more information check out the National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety)
- Demanding a workplace free from hostile, bullying, harassing or discriminatory behaviour and holding people accountable when they cause harm
- Encouraging people to take breaks, integrating rest and rejuvenation into work cycles, and creating a work culture that prioritizes work/life balance
- Supporting everyone to build their emotional comfort with disagreement and feedback
For a great example of an organization that is prioritizing employee safety check out FreeFrom’s explanation of their salary and benefits.
We can also have a felt sense of safety or a lack of safety that may or may not connect to current conditions. Trauma interrupts our felt sense of safety. When someone is triggered because of a past trauma, they are often experiencing a felt sense of a lack of safety, even potentially in situations where there is no immediate threat. To be a truly trauma-informed workplace, it’s important to understand what happens when we get triggered, and how to support people to move through the experience.
How can we create belonging at work?
Think about a group of people in which you feel most able to be yourself. People let you know you are welcome, and they appreciate and accept all aspects of who you are. People in this group may get upset with you if you do something wrong, or hold you accountable if you make a mistake or cross a boundary, but you feel confident that these moments don’t change how they fundamentally feel about you.
That is what belonging feels like. Belonging is a fundamental element of human wellbeing. Many traumas that we experience come from, or are made worse by, not feeling belonging in the moments when we most need support and care.
Workplaces that strive to create a sense of belonging have more engagement, innovation and general wellbeing.
Some specific ways that workplaces create belonging include:
- Openly and explicitly celebrating a diversity of ideas, experiences and identities
- Prioritizing relationship building and caring team culture
- Committing to tangible strategies to implement principles of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI), in recognition of the added barriers to belonging faced by equity deserving groups
- Encouraging and supporting opportunities for people to get to know one another beyond their work tasks
- Building everyone’s capacity to disagree and have conflict with respect
- Taking a coaching, learning and development approach to feedback and mentoring that ensures that everyone feels valued and like there is a future for them in the workplace
- Expecting that everyone treat each other with respect, and holding people accountable, with care, for any harm they cause
- Using restorative approaches rather than punitive approaches to address performance or behaviour issues
How can we support people’s dignity at work?
And finally, dignity is our fundamental and inherent worth as human beings. It’s not about what we have done or how much we have achieved. Dignity is the inherent knowing that no matter how unimportant I might feel, I am absolutely enough just as I am.
When we experience trauma at the hands of other people (which is the majority of traumatic experience), it can be very hard to hold our sense of dignity and self-worth.
The following are ways to support people’s dignity at work:
- Celebrate when people respect their own boundaries, for example, by saying no to an increased workload or giving clear feedback about how someone’s behaviour has impacted them
- Be transparent about how power is being used and how decisions are made, and name and address abuses of power
- Support people’s autonomy and agency whenever possible, and involve them in decisions that impact their work or wellbeing
- Give lots of positive feedback and identify areas for growth that are based in people’s strengths and interests
- Give people new responsibilities that will stretch their capacities without setting them up for failure
- Take a coaching approach to leadership that helps people identify what they bring to the team
- Expect everyone to show each other respect and demonstrate appreciation whenever possible
- Listen, appreciate, and believe people when they share their knowledge and lived experience
Bringing it all together
My friend who works in the nonprofit had a great insight when she guessed that her workplace’s increased conflict and difficult dynamics were likely because people had not fully recovered from all of the trauma and stress and resulting burnout of the last couple years.
This insight helped her to assess and address the problem at its root – stress, trauma and burnout – rather than treating the symptoms and having the problems recur.
For her, the first step was to make a strategic commitment to addressing the collective trauma of that last couple years. She started by naming it openly with her staff in a group meeting. People had the opportunity to share about how they had been impacted. By making it ok to acknowledge that people were struggling, she moved them one small step closer to safety, because it was no longer necessary to pretend to be ok. Meeting as a group helped to build a sense of being “in it together,” which created a bit more of a sense of connection and belonging. She also invited them to share ideas about how the organization might become more trauma informed, and promised to involve people in the process, which is an important part of supporting people’s dignity.
That conversation was a great start. However, like any complex workplace change process, becoming more trauma informed takes time, ongoing commitment and accountability. Becoming trauma informed is part of a larger culture transformation. It can’t happen without a focus on justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) and psychological safety, because trauma is worsened and created in the context of inequitable, unjust and toxic conditions.
This work is long and complex, and it is also inspiring. When workplaces take wellbeing seriously, people want to stay and bring their best to their work.
One element of being a trauma-informed workplace is creating enough safety for people to feel able to take interpersonal risks. Check out our upcoming learning opportunities for leaders: Building Emotional Agility and Generative Conflict: Leadership Skills for Healthy Workplaces to help you create an environment of honest communication. You can also sign up for the Big Waves mailing list for special promotions and to be the first to know about the upcoming launch of an at-your-own-pace conflict skills training!