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Foster growth and resilience by applying a trauma-informed approach in your workplace

Foster growth and resilience by applying a trauma-informed approach in your workplace

Aggressive, hostile, uncivil and disrespectful behaviour is on the rise in Canadian workplaces. In a survey of 5000 Canadian workers conducted in 2022 by Western University, University of Toronto and the Canadian Labour Congress, 70% of respondents indicated they had experienced at least one incident of workplace violence and harassment in the last two years.

In February, WSPS Health and Safety Consultant, Kristy Cork, presented Defusing Workplace Tensions: Navigating Turbulence with A Trauma-Informed Approach at the Conference Board of Canada’s Better Workplace Conference — a session focused on helping leaders understand how employing a trauma-informed approach that prioritizes employee health and safety and psychological safety can help mitigate this risk.

The effect of trauma on behaviour

Trauma is a deeply distressing or disturbing event or experience that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope. It can result in a lasting impact on their mental, emotional and sometimes physical well-being. 

In the session, Cork and participants discussed factors that may be exacerbating this issue, such as financial concerns, workload, grief, and residual impacts of the pandemic, such as a greater propensity for policing one another, polarization on various issues, new work structures, increased reliance on technology, isolation and fear.

“People are in a heightened state of alertness and with so many inputs and stressors and issues hitting us all at one time, it can be challenging to self-regulate emotions.”

What does it mean to apply a trauma-informed lens?

Psychology Today defines being trauma informed as recognizing “the pervasiveness of trauma in the world and seek to be responsive to this unfortunate reality. It means becoming aware of trauma’s many personal and societal consequences, anticipating how trauma survivors may respond to our words and actions, and doing our part to create a world that does not cause further harm. Even more, being trauma-informed means helping to create a world that can foster growth, resiliency, and healing as well.”

Applying a trauma-informed lens doesn’t mean leaders and employees need to know all about one another’s past traumas. It also doesn’t mean that people have a free pass to behave poorly or harm or harass others. You should still have and uphold clear expectations and accountability for behaviour and a code of conduct in your workplace.

However, being trauma-informed requires us to understand that people react differently to situations and perceived threats and stressors. Past traumas can cause someone to react disproportionately. An incident may have imprinted on their mind and when something similar happens, often referred to as a trigger, it causes their body to respond to the perceived threat.
They may shut down, become more aggressive or agitated. In a trauma-informed environment, colleagues understand how to manage and de-escalate the situation in a supportive manner.

Examples of supportive actions:

  • Considering how an individual normally behaves and seeking to understand rather than judge.

  • Recognize that when an individual is triggered, they may not be in full control of their actions.

  • Create a sense of safety

  • Avoid dominating or invading their space.

  • Talk in a low and slow manner.

  • Regulate don’t educate when people are in flight, fright or freeze mode.

  • Give the individual a sense of control by offering up choices for next steps when the threat is gone, they feel safe and          have had a chance to decompress.

Break down barriers to reporting incidents

You can’t deal with this issue if you don’t know what is going on in your workplace. People are often fearful of reporting because they worry others will retaliate or that it will be a career-limiting move. They may not trust that it will spur any action or change. 

While anonymous reporting may seem like an obvious antidote to the problem, Cork cautions that, “When someone reports violence and harassment anonymously, it is a huge indicator of lack of trust because they don’t feel safe to own it or attach their name to the report. It also makes it very difficult to conduct a full investigation. However, if your workplace is struggling with trust, it is better to get an anonymous report than no report at all.”

You want to make data-informed decisions and avoid guessing when you’re coming up with initiatives for psychological safety and deciding where you want to invest money and energy. Methods of data collection and idea generation could include:

  • Conducting surveys

  • Creating a safe work culture group

  • Involving employees in discussions about feeling safe and designing methods of reporting

  • Using tools such as Guarding Minds at Work, and StressAssess

  • Assessing EFAP and benefit usage

  • Exit interviews

  • Exploring possible linkages with health and safety incidents

Most importantly, Cork says make sure that if you solicit ideas and suggestions, you follow up. “You must be prepared to do something if people share and put themselves out there. That takes a lot of courage, and you want them to trust the process.”

Provide meaningful support after an incident

Cork notes there is an emotional and psychological impact for everyone involved after an incident occurs. “If someone has been violent or aggressive or is yelling, it shakes us – even those who feel they deal well with conflict. Everyone will go home thinking about what has occurred. The individual who didn’t react well may feel ashamed and embarrassed because they didn’t have control over their actions. They may normally be good at regulating their emotions, but they weren’t in this moment, and they may not even fully understand what happened.”

She stressed that employees shouldn’t be expected to shoulder the burden of “getting better” on their own. She illustrated the point by saying we wouldn’t tell workers who were experiencing physical health and safety issues to go away on their own and work on it and get stronger; we modify work processes and the environment and provide training to keep them safe. However, when it comes to psychological safety and resilience, there is a tendency to point employees to resources and expect them to come back and continue working in the same environment and under the same conditions that caused them harm in the first place.

It is important to provide meaningful support that takes individual needs into account. “EFAP may work for some and not for others. Some people are never going to reach out to EFAP. They may not trust that it is confidential. Ask people what they need and how they want to be supported. Do they want check-ins, peer support or someone to talk to? People shouldn’t be forced to talk if they don’t want to. You want them to feel safe to seek help and normalize the conversation.”

Build a trauma-informed workplace

Now, perhaps more than ever, we need to create safe environments where people don’t fear that letting others know they’re not okay will be a career-limiting move. Leaders need to figure out what hazards are negatively impacting psychological safety, reduce the risk of burnout and fatigue and increase opportunities for employees to thrive and succeed.

For more information to help you get started, check out these resources:

WSPS Violence and Harassment Toolbox

Mental Harm Prevention Roadmap

Workplace Strategies for Mental Health

Copenhagen Psychosocial Questionnaire

Doctor Dan Siegal

Guarding Minds at Work

Canadian Mental Health Association


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