What Does a Trauma-Informed Workplace Mean and Why Is It So Important?

Twenty-five years ago, the word ‘trauma’ was mostly used in connection with war veterans or people who were involved in or witnessed particularly terrible events such as violence or a natural disaster. Then in 1995, a study was conducted that showed how certain experiences in childhood —of which we all have undergone to some degree— are major risk factors for the leading causes of illness, disability and death, as well as poor quality of life.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences – or ACE study – prompted more research which is now indicating that trauma is at the core of all mental and physical illnesses.

Becoming “trauma-informed” means simply that we recognize that people have experienced many different types and levels of trauma in their lives, and that it is reflected in our personalities, health, behaviors, and reactions.  Trauma-informed workplaces seek to educate employees about the impact of trauma on clients, co-workers, friends, family, and ourselves because what can often happen is that, trauma survivors get re-traumatized by well-meaning colleagues, caregivers and community service providers. Gaining insight and tools to deal with workplace trauma triggers is crucial to prevent re-traumatization, illness and burnout.

To become Trauma-informed, employees must have access to training and education whereby they can:

  • Gain a deeper understanding of the true meaning of various levels of trauma that are often considered ‘normal’ and repeatedly overlooked.
  • Realize how trauma affects the brain, behaviors, perceptions and reactions.
  • Learn mindfulness-based cognitive-behavioral (MBCB) strategies to help themselves, clients, patients and co-workers who are reacting to triggers from past trauma.
  • Develop authentic compassion towards self and others who are experiencing a trauma trigger ‘outbreak’.
  • Realize the importance of setting nurturing boundaries around other peoples’ trauma.
  • Identify personal biases and environmental challenges to implementing a trauma-informed practice.

A trauma-informed workplace provides a structure and nurturing culture of understanding, recognizing, and responding to the effects of all types of physical, psychological and emotional trauma. Employees in a trauma-informed organization are savvy at not reacting to another person’s trauma reaction, but rather they understand the biological mechanisms that cause the person’s unexpected words and behaviors, and don’t take them personally.  In trauma-informed workplaces there is no need for blaming and shaming, but rather compassion and kindness are offered to help the person become centered and calm again.

Trauma triggers can occur on a micro or macro level.  Either way, it causes a fight/flight or freeze reaction in the person and their executive functioning loses control, their ‘mind’ goes blank, and they cannot concentrate as their nervous system is revved up in high gear and irrational thoughts take over.  This happens daily to many people who are holding unprocessed trauma.

An example of a micro level trauma might be an accountant who has a boss that is constantly standing over his shoulder.  If the accountant had a father who stood over him while he was trying to complete homework and screamed at him if he could not understand, the boss’ behavior could inadvertently send the accountant into fight or flight, causing him not to be able to think clearly and make mistakes, not to mention the wear and tear on his nervous system if this happens often.  In a trauma-informed workplace, the accountant would have enough security to explain to his boss that he becomes triggered when stood over.  The boss will be educated on trauma information and change his behavior.

A macro level trauma might look like this: Nancy who is a nurse in a brain surgery recovery unit in Better Hospital Systems.  One patient who came in with a head injury from a car accident was placed on her unit.  She was violent and out of control and 6 security officers were assigned to her room where another patient was recovering from brain surgery.  Despite extensive security, it was difficult for them to contain the violent patient’s constant screaming of obscenities, and rage as she would fling herself through the dividing curtains, landing on the patient in the nearby bed. Nurse Nancy knew that the other female patient in the room recently left a 20-year abusive marriage and she watched as the violence in the room caused this patient to go into an extreme fight/flight state with a racing heart, panic, sweating, and emotional overload.  The patient’s condition rapidly declined, however Nurse Nancy felt helpless to do anything about it as there was no other bed available in the hospital until the next day. Nurse Nancy feels responsible for the patient's demise.

In addition, Nurse Nancy herself was triggered as she had experienced police officers coming unannounced to her home when she was 8 years old. They were looking for her father and found him hiding in the barn. They 'took him away' and she did not see her father for 6 months.  Since that time, she becomes 'frozen' when uniformed officers of authority come in her working space, and she finds it difficult to think clearly enough to carry out her job duties.  

In a trauma-informed hospital, the staff would be well-versed on the detrimental effects of violence on the patients’ recovery – under any circumstances, and the violent patient along with the 6 security guards would have been taken to another area of the hospital.  Furthermore, Nurse Nancy would have felt secure enough in her trauma-informed workplace culture to let her supervisor know the reason why she was not able to carry out her duties and the supervisor would offer professional support with understanding and compassion.

Having this awareness and understanding of the mind-body effects of trauma triggers allows for openness and honesty for the highest good for all involved, including the organization.

To learn more about becoming a trauma-informed workplace and providing your employees with the next level of mental health support within your organization, request our Corporate Integrative Health information kit.

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Article written by:

Dr. Nickerson's professional experience as a psychologist and personal passion for developing the mind-body-spirit connection have fueled her success and devotion to training individuals and organizations to foster whole wellness.