We need trauma-informed workplaces
For several years, we have been experiencing a collective trauma. But trauma is not new to our organizations, nor is it going away. It is estimated that six out of 10 men and five out of 10 women experience at least one trauma, and about 6% of the population will suffer from PTSD at some point in their lives. As we have seen the boundaries between work and home blur and a fundamental shift in our expectations of the places where we work, organizations have struggled to provide the support and leadership that their employees and customers need. This is why it is so important that they take action now to build the cultures that can help them through this crisis and those that we will all inevitably face in the future. To do this, we need to create 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 foresight, planning and commitment, we can be ready to take on the next challenge – whatever it is – and rise to it stronger.
The past two years have been incredibly turbulent as we have faced Covid, racial violence, political upheaval, environmental disasters, war, and more. Anxiety and depression have skyrockets. Organizations have had to deal with issues they didn’t expect and find new ways to support their employees through repeated traumatic experiences.
The reality, however, is that trauma is not new to our organizations. It’s not okay either. Estimates are that six out of 10 men and five out of 10 women experience at least one trauma, and about 6% of the population will suffer from PTSD at some point in their lives. Trauma and distress can arise from a wide range of causes, including domestic violence, sexual assault, racism, bias, harassment, economic uncertainty, political divide, and more. New challenges arise every day, and strife and strife all over our globally connected world affects us all.
As we have seen the boundaries between work and home blur and a fundamental shift in our expectations of the places where we work, organizations have struggled to provide the support and leadership that their employees and customers need. This is why it is so important that they take action now to build the cultures that can help them through this crisis and those that we will all inevitably face in the future. To do this, we need to create trauma-informed organizations.
In my work with organisations, I use a simplified version of the Addiction 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 times of trauma is particularly powerful, and the ramifications are lasting. Indeed, in times of trauma, the twin concepts of institutional betrayal and psychological safety come into play.
When we are in times of crisis, many of us look to our institutions for support and protection. If they don’t, or if they take actions that we fear will harm us or those we love, it can create a second wound, called institutional betrayal. The term “institutional betrayal” was first coined by a psychologist Jennifer FreydWHO describe it happens when an institution you trust or depend on mistreats you. It can arise due to deliberate actions that harm, as well as do not act when an action is expected. These actions or inactions can exacerbate already difficult circumstances. Institutional betrayal can arise due to the large-scale actions of an organization, such as a Covid response that leaves many workers feeling vulnerable and trapped, or the actions of an individual, such as a belittling response from a manager. to an allegation of harassment or bias.
The flip side of institutional betrayal is psychological safety. Widely popularized through the works of Amy Edmondson, psychological safety is the feeling that within a team or an organization, it is acceptable for someone to admit that they have made a mistake, that they do not know the answer or that he is in trouble. In a recent study, Google has found that psychological safety, more than anything else, is critical to a well-functioning team. And the fastest way to build psychological safety was for team members to support each other through tough times. As Charles Duhigg of The New York Times Magazine said, “To feel ‘psychologically safe,’ we need to know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recrimination. We need to be able to talk about what’s messy or sad, and have difficult conversations with colleagues who drive us crazy. We can’t just focus on efficiency.
So if we fail to respond appropriately in our work with those who experience trauma, we can add a second wound to the first. But if we respond well, we build trust and connection. Either way, how we support each other in times of crisis will ripple through our organizations for many years to come.
How do we ensure our organizations have the skills and resources to deal with trauma effectively? the Centers for Disaster Control and Prevention identifies six guiding principles for a trauma-informed approach: 1) safety; 2) reliability and transparency; 3) peer support; 4) collaboration and mutuality; 5) empowerment, voice and choice; and 6) cultural, historical and gender issues. I would simplify them into three general concepts:
- Acknowledgment (“I will be heard”)
- Support (“I can get the help I need”)
- Trust (“I will be treated fairly”)
As I talk about in my delivered, The empathetic workplace, an important aspect of a trauma-informed approach is a willingness to listen and acknowledge the pain of those who experience trauma. Sharing a trauma story can be healing, mentally and even physically. However, it is not enough simply to allow people to share their experiences; they also need to feel truly heard. Acknowledgment can be as simple as a manager saying to an employee whose spouse is dying, “Thank you for letting me know. I’m sorry for everything you’re going through,” or an office-wide communication that addresses community trauma. The key is that an acknowledgment does not deny the experience of those who suffer (“Everything will be fine”) nor distract from it (“Let me tell you how I persevered through something similar” ). When we fail to recognize the pain someone is experiencing, we may switch to toxic positivity or even gas lighting.
There are often tangible forms of support people need in times of trauma and distress, such as mental health resources, referrals to medical information, and help with funerals and other expenses. Such support can make an incredible difference in a person’s recovery and demonstrate that the organization is there for its employees when they need it.
It is also important when working with people in crisis that we communicate frequently and clearly. When the unthinkable happens, we often feel caught off guard and insecure. When it is difficult to regain control of our lives, receiving information can help. Like John F. Kennedy noted, “In a time of turmoil and change, it is more true than ever that knowledge is power. Therefore, another type of support the organization can provide is frequent and reliable communication. This communication can take any form, from an SMS alert system to a dedicated Slack channel updating employees on the ongoing crisis to a daily email from the CEO. Whatever you use, it’s important that the communication is consistent and reliable.
We all feel more confident when we understand the rules. If the policies and values that an organization has in place have only one name, it creates at best a feeling of unease and at worst a moral wound. Thus, the trauma-informed organization should have policies and procedures that genuinely support employees in need (some good starting points are these Report of the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on harassment and this model Politics on domestic violence, sexual violence and harassment) and ensure that these policies are widely known and followed. Policies must firmly implement the organization’s stated values, and training on them must be thorough, effective, and ongoing. (See here for some great tips.)
It is especially important that leaders express their commitment to the values of the organization and be unwavering in their adherence. When bad behavior is not addressed, it can become contagious; very quickly, the values of the organization are eroded and toxicity takes over. For people to feel safe raising issues, they need to understand the rules and trust that those rules will be enforced fairly and transparently.
It has been two years since the coronavirus began its sweep across the world. As vaccines become more widely available, its grip on the way we work is loosening. Employees returning to the office have changed, however. The Great Resignation showed that employees have different expectations of their organizations than 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 about its employees beyond the short-term profit they generate, that shows a genuine interest in who they are, and supports them through good times and bad, will win. loyalty, commitment and trust – and will deserve it.
It may not be possible to predict or avoid the next crisis our organizations will face. However, with foresight, planning and commitment, we can be ready to take on the next challenge – whatever it is – and rise to it stronger.