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Trauma-Informed Workplaces

A trauma-informed approach to supervision can make the difference when fostering healthy interactions in the workplace. In this article, we look at recognizing and understanding trauma-driven behavior, and fundamentals of trauma-informed approaches to communications and collaboration.

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What is trauma?

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), trauma occurs when

  • a person experiences events or circumstances that are
  • physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening, and
  • cause a lasting impact to the person’s well-being.

Symptoms of trauma can be physical, cognitive (mental), emotional, and/or behavioral. These responses are described in more detail in the Washington State Department of Health’s COVID-19 Behavioral Health Group Impact Reference Guide. It’s important to note that adults not currently experiencing trauma may still be impacted by long-lasting trauma caused by adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

A trauma-informed organizational culture

Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Katharine Manning describes a trauma-informed organization as “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.”

SAMHSA has identified four assumptions necessary for a trauma-informed organization.

1. Realization of the widespread impact of trauma and understanding of potential paths for recovery.

In a trauma-informed culture, people’s behavior is understood as coping strategies designed to survive adversity. Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine offers the following tips for developing realization:

  • Provide educational webinars.
  • Add discussion items to leadership meetings.
  • Make clear the organization’s stance on employee support, and back it up with action.

2. Recognition of the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others.

Missed deadlines. Tense relationships with coworkers. Blame and shame. Errors. Are these performance issues? Or are they signs of stress or trauma? A trauma-informed approach will address these issues quite differently than a corrective approach. It shifts the focus from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?”

3. Response — fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices.

A trauma-informed managerial response to workplace interactions has several components:

  • Set aside your own reaction to the behavior.
  • Express concern with a focus on observable behavior.
  • Offer tangible support, such as an adjusted workload or schedule.
  • Encourage the employee to seek support from the EAP.
  • Ensure policies are fair and objective, and not simply “at the manager’s discretion.”

4. Resist re-traumatization.

  • Cultivate psychological safety in the workplace.
  • Quickly address harassment, intimidation, or bullying.
  • Provide ways for receiving employee feedback, such as pulse surveys or focus groups.

A trauma-informed approach

In cooperation with SAMHSA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) outlines six guiding principles for trauma-informed approaches.

1. Safety

Writing for the Society for Human Resource Management, Ludmila N. Praslova, PhD SHRM-SCP recommends cultivating safety via a model of non-violent communication for employees, which has four components:

  • Observe and describe what’s happening, without judgment. For example, “I noticed you didn’t speak at the meeting,” instead of “You were ignoring us.”
  • State how you feel while avoiding victimization. For example, “I’m confused,” instead of “I’m insulted.”
  • Connect your needs to your feeling. For example, “I’m confused and need some time to process.”
  • Request a concrete action.

2. Trustworthiness and transparency

In an article for Forbes, HR leader Jim Link says, “The best way [to be transparent] is through clear communication — not only around the ‘what,’ but also the ‘why’ and the ‘how.’” He gives the following advice for getting started:

  • Be transparent about compensation. Employees want to know if they will be treated fairly.
  • Communicate organizational values, vision, and plans to achieve that vision. Employees should understand the mission and the role they play in it.
  • Encourage employees to take advantage of professional development opportunities. If there’s a selection process, make sure employees know how those decisions will be made.

Communicating process is especially during uncertain times when you can’t speak to outcomes.

3. Peer support

In mental and behavioral health, a peer is someone who has had similar life experiences. According to Mental Health America, peer supporters:

  • Offer emotional support.
  • Share knowledge and skills.
  • Provide practical assistance.
  • Connect people with resources and opportunities.

Peer support may occur informally through naturally occurring connections in the workplace between people who connect with others who are “like” them. It can also be a more formal program in the workplace.

4. Collaboration and mutuality

In a 2021 article, Mandy Davis, LCSW, Ph.D., director of Trauma Informed Oregon, shares three mental health benefits of collaboration and mutuality:

  • Healing, which happens in relationships, not in isolation.
  • Sharing of power and decision making.
  • Involving everyone in trauma-informed approaches.

Trauma-informed management looks for ways to share power and decision-making. It emphasizes partnering and reduction of power differences.

5. Empowerment, voice, and choice

Opportunities to contribute perspective and make choices meets basic human needs for autonomy and control. Davis offers the following guidelines for providing choice:

  • Remember that being offered a choice may be a new experience for some people. Avoid re-traumatization by ensuring you can deliver on the options offered.
  • Choices offered should build resilience, self-confidence, and relationships.
  • Allow “no” to be a valid choice.
  • Strike a balance between providing opportunities while not burdening staff.

6. Cultural, historical, and gender issues (diversity awareness)

Given the trauma, both historical and personal, experienced by people with marginalized identities, employee education in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is essential for trauma-informed workplace interactions. Davis notes that we cannot move past cultural stereotypes and biases until we “uncover, repair, and transform” them.

Washington state government is fortunate to have dedicated resources that support building a more inclusive and just community. For more information about DEI educational opportunities, contact your agency training manager.

Washington State Employee Assistance Program. 50 years, 1972 to 2022.

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The Washington State Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is a free, confidential program created to promote the health, safety and well-being of public service employees and their household adult family members. The EAP is available to provide confidential and expert consultation in a variety of areas. Reach out to EAP online or by calling 877–313–4455. To find out if the Washington State EAP serves your agency or organization, contact your supervisor or human resources department.

Links to external websites are provided as a convenience. The Employee Assistance Program and the Department of Enterprise Services do not endorse the content, services, or viewpoints found at these external sites. Information is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to replace the counsel or advice of a qualified health or legal professional. For further help, questions, or referral to community resources for specific problems or personal concerns, contact the EAP or other qualified professional.



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