3 min read

How To Build a Trauma-Informed Workplace Culture

How To Build a Trauma-Informed Workplace Culture

Violence and harassment, including uncivil, disrespectful, and abusive conduct, are on the rise in Canadian workplaces. 

We don’t have to wait until something happens to address this issue. As leaders, we can take steps to create a trauma-informed workplace that encourages understanding and embraces diverse perspectives.

What is trauma?

The Public Health Agency of Canada notes that, “Trauma occurs when people experience an overwhelmingly negative event or series of events, including violence.” This can include:

  • Stressful events – accidents, grief, death, injury
  • Organizational stressors – isolation, bullying toxic workplace culture, chronic pressure
  • Physical stressors – feeling unsafe, extreme working conditions
  • External threats – natural disasters, robberies

Recent research from Mental Health Research Canada revealed that 22% of respondents have been exposed to trauma in the workplace. The numbers are even higher for racialized individuals and the 2SLGBTQ+ community. For many marginalized populations, discrimination and systemic violence are everyday experiences.

As leaders, we must expect that violence and trauma can and will show up, whether it occurs inside or outside our organizations or develops from earlier events, such as adverse childhood experiences. 

How does ignoring trauma impact employees?

The effects of trauma are often delayed and can continue to affect a person for years. Workers exposed to trauma may appear exhausted, confused, sad, anxious, agitated, numb, disassociated, or blunted. The impact of trauma can come to the surface when an individual is under stress and can lead to performance and behavioural issues. If left unchecked, it can become a more serious problem for the individual and others around them. 

With support and treatment, employees can recover and function well. 

What is a trauma-informed workplace?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that “adopting a trauma-informed approach is not accomplished through any single particular technique or checklist. It requires constant attention, caring, sensitivity and possibly cultural change at an organizational level.” They identify six principles that characterize trauma-informed workplaces.

  1. Safety
  2. Trustworthiness and transparency
  3. Peer support
  4. Collaboration and mutuality
  5. Empowerment voice and choice
  6. Cultural, historical and gender issues

What role do leaders play in creating a trauma-informed workplace?

You can’t promise employees that they will not be exposed to a traumatic event, however; by taking steps to build a trauma-informed workplace, you can mitigate the negative impacts of trauma and offer the support employees need to recover.

Tips for getting started 

Building a psychologically healthy and safe workplace requires leaders to support workplace mental health and commit to creating a trauma-informed environment. Below are a few steps that can be taken to get started.

Develop a trauma-response playbook 

Create a joint health and safety committee, workplace mental health team, or a working group dedicated to creating a playbook and making recommendations to management in aid of building competency in workplace trauma. This might include inviting experts in to speak or provide training.

Develop emotional literacy

Provide leaders in the organization with training to build trauma-management skills so employees view them as a trusted source of support. Building these skills will also help leaders learn how to manage their emotions when lending support to others so they don’t become a source of trauma.

Provide workplace crisis management training for leaders and staff 

Crisis training can provide leaders and staff members with the tools and skills to navigate a people-driven crisis (any situation outside the realm of “normal” that requires a response) to meet legal requirements and protect the psychological well-being of employees. 

Build programs to support employees experiencing trauma 

Assess and develop policies to prevent workplace trauma and violence and develop tools, programs and resources to ensure the organization is ready and equipped to support workers, regardless of when or where trauma occurs.

Inform employees about the supports that are in place and remind them regularly

Provide introductory training to let employees know what is available and how to access support, including, if available, EFAP programs, iCBT and psychiatric care. 

Train employees on trauma and peer support

Provide introductory training on trauma and peer support to build capacity for navigating critical incidents and debrief after an incident occurs.

Provide a safe place for employees to access support 

Stigma and fear about confidentiality and privacy can prevent employees from reaching out for help. Create a safe room (physical and virtual) where employees can feel safe about accessing the support they need when they’re in emotional crisis.

Evaluate programs and supports regularly to ensure they are effective.

As CDIC notes, creating a safe, trauma-informed workplace isn’t something that you will ever complete. It is an ongoing evolution that should be fueled by evaluation and continuous improvement.

We can only scratch the surface of this issue in a blog post. If you would like to learn more about trauma, violence and harassment and how to improve psychological safety in your workplace, plan to attend “Defusing Workplace Tensions: Navigating Turbulence with a Trauma-Informed Approach,” an informative session, sponsored by Workplace Safety & Prevention Services, taking place on February 27th at the Better Workplace Conference.

The session will stress how important it is to give workers the skills to support and protect mental health and safety. Participants will reflect on their personal conflict resolution strategies, with an emphasis on learning effective communication for de-escalating agitated individuals.

Register here.

Get to know the author – Dr.  Bill Howatt and Michel Rodrigue


Aspiring Workforce

3 min read

Aspiring Workforce

With labour shortages in Canada projected to reach two million workers by 2031, and rising rates of absenteeism, presenteeism, and turnover, it is...

Read More
Are You Thinking Broadly Enough When it Comes to Protecting Employees From Workplace Impairment?

5 min read

Are You Thinking Broadly Enough When it Comes to Protecting Employees From Workplace Impairment?

When you hear the phrase workplace impairment, what comes to mind? If you are like most people, you likely think about substance use, such as...

Read More
Domestic violence may be looming over your workplace. Are you ready to protect employees?

3 min read

Domestic violence may be looming over your workplace. Are you ready to protect employees?

A recent article published in WSPS’ eNews highlights the importance of protecting employees from domestic violence. This pervasive threat may be...

Read More