How to Support Employees using a Trauma-Informed Lens

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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

The world is going through multiple collective traumas: the onset and continuation of the Covid-19 pandemic, racial and political unrest internationally, natural disasters, and impending threats of a financial recession. And while all of this is happening, employees are expected to go to work and be productive, despite our varying responses to traumatic events. When they’re over, we’re expected to act as if nothing ever happened at all, returning to “business as usual” for the sake of our employer’s bottom line and our individual need for a paycheck to survive. Our brains, however, don’t negate the experience as quickly, if ever.

How Trauma Shows Up

We talked about workplace trauma and PTSD in a previous blog post that examined the ways in which our jobs can be harmful and the long-lasting effects of work-related trauma. This is further supported by research that shows that many will experience at least one traumatic event at some point in their lives. But some people experience multiple, ongoing, and/or complex traumas that significantly impact the way they process what may seem like normal, day-to-day interactions. This is because trauma changes our brains, making us hypervigilant in situations that others wouldn’t perceive as threatening, for example.

We’ve all had that “fight, flight, or freeze” feeling at some point in our lives. Maybe it was because your boss sent a curt email requesting your immediate presence in her office or anxiety about an upcoming performance review. While those scenarios would naturally warrant a nervous response, those suffering from trauma react similarly to what may be perceived as ordinary occurrences. 

The slam of a door, the onslaught of emails begging for priority, never-ending to-do lists, and the ongoing pandemic that has altered our routines and way of life are just a few of many potential triggers for people with traumatic pasts. According to researcher Whitney Iles, this results from an overactive amygdala, the part of our brains that works to keep us safe. When a person experiences trauma, the amygdala becomes hypervigilant, constantly scanning for threats, even when there appear to be none. Other parts of the brain are affected by trauma as well: our prefrontal cortex struggles to perceive time, making planning and goal setting very difficult. Neurochemical systems like cortisol and norepinephrine become dysregulated, increasing vigilance behaviors in commonplace situations. 

Trauma in the Workplace

Because people who have experienced trauma have a heightened fight-or-flight response, they may struggle with executive functioning. This may result in trouble with planning, following or thinking through processes, and communicating their needs. Additionally, your employees may have issues arriving to work on time, prioritizing tasks, and keeping up with communications like email or Slack. Once you understand how trauma affects the brain, you can start to understand why your entire team might be “missing the mark” lately or why projects are taking longer than expected to complete. Perhaps people are more on edge or some seem to shut down altogether. Whatever the individual response may be, leaders have a responsibility to be aware of the potential causes and how to take a trauma-informed approach to manage people with complex backgrounds in contemporary settings.

How to Support Your Team

  1. Become trauma-informed.
    Conduct research on how trauma affects the brain to increase your understanding of the behaviors your team may exhibit as a result. Consider attending training or investing in scientific literature to enhance your knowledge.
  2. Commit to fostering psychological safety.
    Create an office culture where people feel safe to take risks and fail, knowing that leadership will support them regardless of the outcome. Be clear in your assessment of performance, but compassionate in your delivery. Allow people to share to the degree that they are comfortable without plans to use what was told in confidence against them. Encourage collaboration and model peaceful conflict resolution. Normalize rest and prioritize mental health. 
  1. Offer support.
    Ensure that there are resources in place to support all staff members. This can include generous leave policies, mental health benefits, flexible hours, as well anonymous feedback and reporting structures. If you have an “open door policy” then truly abide by that – which means allowing your employees to come to you with concerns that you will actively listen to and address promptly. 
  1. Be clear.
    Many office cultures operate on unspoken rules and expectations that employees learn along the way. For neurodivergent employees or those experiencing trauma, ambiguity can be perceived as exclusion and feel threatening. State expectations clearly, report objective observations (instead of saying, “you overreacted during the meeting” report objectively, “I noticed that your voice became louder and you started talking faster. Are you able to explain why?”), and reserve personal judgment.  
  1. Be willing to try.
    As with anything new, taking a trauma-informed approach to managing a team will be a lot of trial and a lot more error. We are human and prone to mistakes. That’s ok! The fact that you are willing to take a more informed, compassionate approach to leading your staff already speaks volumes about who you are. Give yourself grace, but be willing to keep working towards creating a better workplace for all.