Principles of a Trauma-Sensitive WorkplaceFeb 17, 2023
Every employee comes to work with a different history, and the experiences they bring with them can have a huge impact on the way they see the world and interact in the workplace. Past traumas may impact their ability to do their job, react appropriately, or build relationships with others. It is estimated that six in ten men and five in ten women experience a trauma in their lifetime, with 6% of the population experiencing PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder)1.
Many employers likely do not feel equipped to manage employees dealing with trauma or feel that it is not their responsibility to interpret these past experiences. When an employee is unable to effectively manage their day-to-day tasks due to trauma, getting help from a mental health professional, such as an Occupational Therapist, is necessary. However, organizations still play a part in helping employees stay healthy and productive at work.
Being a trauma-sensitive organization can help build psychological safety and reduce the negative effects of trauma on employees. Employers are not expected to have all the answers, but it is important to approach each situation with empathy and work towards building a culture of trust and understanding.
Components of a Trauma-Sensitive Workplace
According to Kim Barthel, trauma sensitivity comes from the heart and is a way of being with people. It means being curious about people and appreciating the history being brought with them into this moment2. At work, employers can bring the following principles of trauma sensitivity into situations and policies to create safer environments for employees.
Appreciate there is always a reason for the behaviour.
If an employee has decreased function or is acting out at work, there is always a reason. Employees want to do their jobs well, but their health can be a deciding factor in their success. Knowing this can help guide your approach to providing support. If employees are willing to share their past pains, acknowledge the trauma and its role in the employee’s behaviour. Even if you don’t know the employee’s story, you can understand the effects of trauma on the brain and how that might be affecting the employee. Trauma can present in a number of ways, such as:
- Decreased ability to think and problem solve (executive function)
- Exaggerated arousal and emotion to minor triggers
- Stuck in overload or dissociation, appearing tuned out and shut down
- Less capacity for memory and new learning
- Difficulty self regulating
Promote a culture of comfort and safety.
A culture of psychological safety is one that allows employees to come to work and be their authentic selves, without fear of repercussion, judgement, or harm. This means knowing one can come to work and be mentally, emotionally, and physically safe. Organizations should make known what their values are and what workplace policies they have to support them. Policies on bullying and harassment, anti-discrimination, sexual harassment, and violence should be established and strictly adhered to.
Recognize situations that are potentially retraumatizing.
Every person comes to work with different experiences and responds differently to trauma. You might not be able to protect employees from every retraumatizing situation. However, if you are aware of possibly traumatic events, you can inform employees of potential crises, provide support to help them navigate the situation, and build policies and procedures around how to prepare for or react to triggers.
Potentially traumatic events could include:
- Emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
- Exposure to intimate partner violence
- Criminal behaviour resulting in incarceration
- Historical trauma (disconnecting cultures from families, relationships, and cultural practices)
- External trauma (effects of war, being a victim of a crime, sudden death of a loved one)
- Structural violence (institutionalized racism, sexism, classism, etc.)
- Living in extreme poverty
A trigger is anything that may remind an individual of an experience that occurred. A sound, a visual, or a comment that relates back to the traumatizing event can activate the fear response and present in out-of-the-ordinary behaviour. If an employee is experiencing a reminder, they could appear as aggressive, distracted, showing frustration or overwhelm, disengaged, or showing little emotion.
Reinforce training for all staff that builds consistency.
Training your team can empower employees to know how to support themselves and others in times of stress. Leaders can be trained on how to support mental health and how to create a culture of inclusion. Training for employees can include mental health awareness, resiliency, mindfulness, diversity, and overall psychological safety at work. Committing to consistent training and implementation of psychological safety protocols can help prevent employees from sliding into the injured or ill mental health zone. It also shows employees you are serious about your organization’s values and the mental health of all employees.
Transform language used to describe behaviour.
Organizations should learn language that destigmatizes mental health and promotes compassion. Avoid words like “crazy” or other words that imply someone’s experiences are not valid. Recognize that decreased work function or unhealthy workplace behaviours can stem from “what has happened to them” rather than because “something is wrong with them.”
Focus on an employee’s behaviour rather than their personality. Avoid globalizing behaviour (using words like always and never) and use “I” instead of “you” language. Language should focus on promoting healthy behaviours rather than blaming or expressing judgement.
Recognize the role of relationship as a healing force.
Healthy relationships with coworkers, family and friends, and mental health professionals can all offer a type of healing experience. Talking to someone about the trauma, and having them acknowledge that the trauma happened, can be empowering. Even outside of talking about the trauma, simply building connections and engaging in social interactions is a way to build resiliency to life’s challenges. Employers can help employees gain social resiliency through increasing team interactions such as group skill-building. They can also promote a healthy work-life balance that prioritizes spending time with family and loved ones.
How Can Gowan Consulting Help?
At Gowan Consulting, we are committed to ensuring workplaces are psychologically healthy and that employees and managers have the tools and resources they need to address existing and potential risks of trauma in a timely manner. We offer Occupational Therapy intervention for all mental health conditions, including PTSD. Our programs include the following:
- Training, such as Leadership Training, can help you identify employees who may be at risk and in need of Occupational Therapy.
- Group resilience training and mental health improvement programs, which include stress management, coping strategies, relaxation techniques, mindfulness training, problem solving and communication skills, and DBT tools and techniques for managing anxiety.
- Individual education and strategy development to promote health and wellness while staying at work.
- Early intervention to assist in successful return to work and stay at work. Make a referral with Gowan Consulting for Occupational Therapy services.
 Manning, Katharine. We need trauma-informed workplaces. Harvard Business Review. (2022, March 31). Retrieved February 16, 2023, from https://hbr.org/2022/03/we-need-trauma-informed-workplaces
 CAOT Professional Development. Webinar. Trauma-Sensitive Practice. Presenter: Kim Barthel, Reg. OT (BC). April 11, 2022.