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Trauma and the inclusive workplace

Kintsugi, via Wikipedia

Humans are soft, squishy things. When we smash against hard or sharp objects, we take damage. It’s a fact of life; a fundamental constraint of how we work. We are permeable.

Meanwhile, the workplace requires humans. Even as automation continues its march, every business endeavor finds itself relying, somewhere along the line, upon human ingenuity and exertion.

With that in mind, we can see that no workplace can be truly inclusive without being kind and thoughtful about the possibility of trauma in its humans. Unfortunately, the workings of trauma are poorly understood. In blindness to these phenomena, it’s possible to make them worse. Without understanding how trauma affects your humans, it’s unlikely they can do their best work with you.

Let’s talk about what trauma is, and how it interacts with the workplace.

Like a hung process

Let’s use a computer analogy. Trauma is pain that has yet to find resolution. You can think of it like a hung process that won’t exit. It’s consuming CPU, and you can’t get it to go away. Trauma is a spinning pinwheel cursor on your brain.

The more CPU going to trauma, the less CPU is available to do the things we find important and rewarding.

The origins of trauma are numerous. Trauma commonly cited in media may include sexual assault or combat duty in war. But trauma can be rooted in other things: childhood abuse, mistreatment in the workplace, scars from racist interactions, even social exclusion. As we consider this list, it becomes clear that the more marginalized someone’s identity, the higher their exposure to risk of trauma.

But trauma isn’t a minority problem:

Exposure to traumatic events, PTSD symptoms, and functional impairment were assessed online using a highly structured, self-administered survey. Traumatic event exposure using DSM-5 criteria was high (89.7%), and exposure to multiple traumatic event types was the norm.

Thus, workplace performance can be highly dependent on how much trauma is activated, or triggered, in someone’s day to day interactions.

What’s a trigger?

“Trigger” is a term that’s been sadly misused, mostly in bad faith, to the great frustration of those who live with trauma. To be triggered is not to be angry, frustrated, or otherwise upset, even if these feelings may attend a triggering event. When you are triggered, your trauma has awoken and started to consume outsized CPU. Triggering events can take even the most effective and capable person and reduce their productive output to nil. Some triggers and traumas can produce a fight-or-flight response that mirrors the most dire and immediate physical threat.

But even without a trigger, traumas can be costly. The vigilance that develops as a means of protecting from future trauma imposes a cost all its own.

So what can we do?

First, it’s important to understand that trauma is real and it’s playing out right now in your workplace. Even if you don’t understand it, even if you’re not aware of it, even if no one has told you about theirs.

Trauma is a factor on your everyday work. Accept this.

After that, it’s important to try to understand what events may be triggering to people in your organization. If someone has pulled some racist shit, that may produce more than anger. It may be legitimately triggering to those who have trauma around their race. That trauma can then sap away the effectiveness of those afflicted. Similarly, an incident of sexual harassment at work can produce immediate feelings of humiliation, frustration, fear, and/or anger. But under the surface, they can also be triggering.

The less safe someone feels at work, the less they’ll be able to contribute. Eventually, they may leave, seeking a place that feels safer, so they can do their best work.

It is essential to take seriously the factors that impact a sense of psychological safety. Set the expectation that people will be treated with respect—and that violating that expectation has consequences.

But perhaps most importantly, it’s essential to treat the people with compassion. Too often, when someone is doing less than you hope at work, the reflex is to blame them for the problem. It’s easy to assign uncharitable assessments of their work ethic and character. But as we see, trauma can make the best of us clam up and produce nothing. If you were impressed with someone at the interview, but they’re doing less than you expected, it may be more productive to ask what is wrong with your workplace, rather than to shift all blame to them.

If you want to build an inclusive workplace, the human elements aren’t optional. The more you can understand about the emotional needs and psychological safety of your people, the better their work—and all of your work—will become.

Danilo is a software developer, interaction designer and technology educator. He is CTO of Vaya Consulting, a firm dedicated to building healthy, inclusive workplace culture.

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