What You Need to Know About Building a Trauma-Informed Organization

Today, we are hearing more buzz about trauma-informed organizations. But what does it mean to be trauma-informed? What is the significance to the organization and its people? How does an organization become trauma-informed?

Understanding trauma and how it impacts individuals is vital for creating a safe and mentally healthy organization where everyone can thrive.

What is trauma?

Before discussing what a trauma-informed organization is and what it looks like, we must have a basic understanding of what trauma is and how someone may respond to a traumatic event. A traumatic event is any overwhelming, scary or life-threatening situation that an individual cannot escape or control, affecting their ability to cope.

Trauma can stem from a range of events or situations, including natural disasters, disempowerment, violence, bullying, discrimination and racism, intimate partner violence, abuse and accidents. When we think about trauma, big emotions tend to come to mind. Most individuals know what it’s like to have heavy feelings, even if they have never experienced a traumatic event.

Individuals don’t have to be directly involved in a traumatic event to experience trauma. Vicarious trauma occurs when individuals are exposed to trauma through the stories or experiences of others. Doctors, attorneys, mental health professionals and first responders are examples of professions where individuals are likely to be subjected to vicarious trauma.

Symptoms of trauma can appear in four distinct ways:

  • Physical sensations – feeling tense all the time
  • Feelings – changes in mood (i.e., sadness, irritability, fear)
  • Thoughts – flashbacks or nightmares
  • Urges – avoiding reminders of the situation

Trauma exists when these symptoms persist.

It is estimated that 70 percent of U.S. adults have experienced some type of traumatic event in their lives at least once. Furthermore, about six out of every 100 people will have post-traumatic stress at some point in their lives.

How does trauma show up in the workplace?

Prior traumatic experiences influence how individuals react in the present moment. Trauma can show up at work as it does in someone’s personal life – it has no boundaries. People usually respond with anger, anxiety, or withdrawal when trauma is activated.

Work may cause trauma or be a reminder for people with past traumatic experiences, reinforcing a lack of control and helplessness. For example, if an individual has a manager who constantly raises their voice, it could remind them of an abusive parent or ex-partner.

It’s important to remember that an inherent power imbalance exists in organizations where the employee has less power than the organization. That lack of control can reinforce the trauma that the individual may have experienced.

Trauma impacts our ability to learn, think, manage change and relate to others. Individuals affected by trauma may be disengaged and are at greater risk for absenteeism and presenteeism. Others may isolate themselves and not be as social as they once were. And in some cases, individuals may struggle with substance misuse due to trying to cope with a traumatic event, which can create safety concerns in the workplace.

What does it mean to be trauma-informed?

Being trauma-informed starts with recognizing that individuals come into the workplace with myriad life experiences – some of them may be traumatic. It is understanding that there have been moments in their lives where they haven’t always had control.

Trauma-informed organizations account for this knowledge in their decision-making. For example, when considering implementing a new company policy, trauma-informed organizations will seek to identify how it might impact employees.

Inevitably, organizations are going to have missteps that potentially affect individuals. When these missteps occur, trauma-informed organizations hear and validate concerns with empathy, support, accountability and a commitment to improving.

Trauma-informed organizations use feedback, like surveys or complaints, as opportunities for growth. Rather than taking a defensive approach where blame is placed on an individual or team, they are curious and look for the lessons that can be learned from the experience.

Being trauma-informed can profoundly impact organizational culture and set organizations up for success.

How to implement a trauma-informed approach in your organization

Building a trauma-informed organization requires everyone’s involvement from the top down. Every team member must buy into the initiative and play a critical role. But like any corporate initiative, a trauma-informed organization starts at the leadership level.

Creating a supportive environment requires an executive leadership team that cares. Leaders must help team members feel empowered to make a change. When team members don’t feel connected to organizational values or are unclear of what they are, change is nearly impossible at the individual level.

So, how can organizations effectuate change and establish an environment that is supportive of team members impacted by trauma? Here are five key considerations for operationalizing a trauma-informed organization.

Solicit feedback from your team.

Getting feedback from your team members is a critical first step in understanding the current environment and what your organization could do differently to support them. Feedback can be obtained through pulse surveys, one-on-one discussions with employees or even through exit interviews.

When soliciting feedback from your team members, be clear about why you need their input and how your organization plans on using the data it collects. Consider keeping survey responses anonymous so your people can give their honest feedback without feeling like they will be mistreated if their views are critical of the organization.

Make it an organizational policy.

After you understand the environment and identify your organization’s trauma-informed approach, adding it to your policies is critical. Establishing a policy is fundamental to legitimizing your efforts and solidifies that being trauma-informed is a core value, making it a part of the fabric of your organization.

When rolling out your policy, consider allowing your team members to provide additional feedback – there may be something your organization overlooked. This will also help team members feel like their voice is being heard.

A trauma-informed policy sets clear expectations for all team members and offers a precise path when corrective action is necessary.

Offer training and skill-building for leaders and managers.

Building a trauma-informed organization requires educating leaders and managers on mental health awareness and giving them the practical tools to engage in meaningful conversations with team members. Empathy is an essential skill that many leaders and managers need to gain. Teaching them to get curious and understand how to support their team members is critical for creating a safe environment.

Organizations must also ensure their managers have the right skill set to recognize when someone may be struggling. For example, suppose they notice performance concerns from an otherwise productive and reliable team member. They should approach the situation with curiosity instead of threatening disciplinary action.

When leaders and managers get curious, they can refer team members to the most appropriate organizational resource. This requires them to understand the resources they have at their disposal to support their employees.

Address impactful events.

There are times when organizations may fear addressing events that profoundly impact their team members, whether within the organization itself or society. They hesitate to address these events for fear of saying or doing the wrong thing – so they do nothing. Organizations may create more harm and encourage disengagement when they fail to address traumatic or impactful events.

Trauma-informed organizations understand it’s better to take the risk than do nothing. Even when they get the messaging wrong, addressing impactful events shows team members that they acknowledge what happened, creating an open dialog for individuals to address their concerns and giving them space to cope.

Provide support for your employees.

Being trauma-informed also requires that organizations have resources to support team members when they have been impacted by trauma. A significant first step is investing in a high-touch employee assistance program that connects team members to appropriate resources.

Peer support groups and employee resource groups provide individuals with spaces to connect with others who have experienced trauma. These basic connections are core to us as human beings and help team members understand that they are not alone in what they are going through. Your employee assistance program provider should be able to help you facilitate and support your peer support and employee resources groups.

Committing to a trauma-informed approach will help prepare your organization to meet the challenges your team members may face, whatever they may be.

Want to dive deeper into understanding trauma-informed organizations? Check out our Symposium Series webinar on How Your Organization Can Be Trauma-Informed in 2023.

Post Written by

Organizational Management Consultant

Paige is an Organizational Management Consultant at BHS. In her role, Paige serves as a senior clinical liaison providing BHS client companies with clinical consultation, guidance, and troubleshooting on high-risk, complex or problematic situations. Her areas of expertise include empathetic leadership, change management, transformation leadership, employee engagement, leadership development and coaching, and customer service.