While the workplace can be a source of stress for many, it can also be a place of healing. With trauma so widespread, organizations must understand how to create or strengthen a psychologically safe and healthy workplace; a trauma-informed workplace that recognizes trauma at both the individual and systemic levels.
Without trauma-informed safeguards in place to help staff process their emotions, anyone working with clients who have experienced trauma will likely experience chronic emotional stress. This stress can then negatively affect their own physical and psychological health. In particular, when staff try to create a compassionate, emotional connection with clients to have a deeper understanding of their experiences, staff are even more likely to experience forms of chronic emotional stress such as secondary traumatic stress and burnout.
Traumatic events impact everyone differently, based on personal experiences that can even be traced back to our first years of life. The greater the number of adverse experiences a person has survived in their life, particularly in childhood, the more likely they are to struggle with stressful events throughout life. Genetics, socioeconomics, demographics, existing health conditions, and home and work environments all play a role in how we react to tragedy and stress. An organization must ask itself, “What trauma history does my staff have?”
The Secondary Traumatic Stress Committee of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network has identified the following concepts as essential for creating a trauma-informed system that will adequately address secondary traumatic stress:
- Recognize the impact of secondary trauma on the workforce.
- Recognize that exposure to trauma is a risk of the job when serving traumatized children and families.
- Understand that trauma can shape the culture of an organization in the same way that trauma shapes the world view of an individual.
- Understand that a traumatized organization is less likely to effectively identify its clients’ past trauma or mitigate or prevent future trauma, develop the capacity to translate trauma-related knowledge into meaningful action, policy, and/or improvements in practices.
It is important to integrate these elements into direct services, programs, policies, and procedures, staff development and training, and other activities directed at secondary traumatic stress.
Powerful antidotes to trauma include peer and community support, and connecting to meaningful spiritual practices and work. When others share their personal experiences and stories with each other, it creates a sense of connection and community which promotes healing. Many workers are missing out on this powerful antidote in this time of increased telecommuting. Here are some key ideas that can help:
- Leadership spending more one-on-one time with their staff. Have check-in conversations that focus on listening to what your staff is struggling with, acknowledge their feelings and experiences, recalibrate expectations together and discuss resources for support.
- Build trust and display transparency. Your staff benefits from brief, frequent communications that inform them about the business, job security, and any new policies or procedures that have been put in place. Use this time to articulate future goals and instill hope. Addressing current events in a direct, meaningful, and respectful way will help foster solidarity and camaraderie.
- Create ways for your staff to request accommodations or resources in which they won’t feel guilt or shame about their needs. They may be looking for flexible work policies and mental health resources, and they might also require basic needs like housing, food, security, and child care. Helping staff connect to resources will help to reduce their level of stress.
- Encourage workers to participate in self-care activities and support them in doing so. Many workers report not feeling as though they have the time to participate in self-care due to work demands. Encourage and incentivize activities like yoga, meditation, exercise, and provide trainings that create awareness of chronic emotional stress and the importance of self care. Foster a culture that allows and encourages staff to seek support, keep caseloads manageable, and access mental health services.
- Optimize facilitative supervision practices. Facilitate staff wellness through management strategies such as reflective supervision; a practice in which staff and supervisor meet regularly to address feelings regarding client interactions.
Traumatic events are unexpected and uncontrollable. Prolonged powerlessness only increases distress, so help your staff recover faster by establishing predictability and control wherever it’s possible. Recognizing and supporting skills that strengthen accountability, the ability to make daily decisions and to have choices, will aid employees in healing from the trauma they have experienced and regain a sense of confidence and empowerment at work. Trauma shapes us but doesn’t define us. We can’t control the events that occur and disrupt our lives. But we can control how we reflect, learn, and grow from the experience. A trauma-informed approach is about uncovering the value and meaning in what happened and carrying forward a sense of gratitude for life, work, and relationships that will help us handle what’s ahead.
By Ellen Perez, M.S.