4 min read

Leadership’s Role In Building Trauma-Informed Workplaces

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The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an extended period of uncertainty for all of us. It has forever changed how we interact and work with one another, and has had a profound impact on the mental health of millions of people. For some, that means increased anxiety. For others, it's led to psychological trauma - a state which can't be simply switched off when the workday starts.

As leaders, understanding how to support employees who are affected by trauma is important. While the effect is recent for some employees, others have been dealing with trauma for many years.

Creating a trauma-informed workplace requires leaders to accept that violence and trauma can and will show up, whether it occurs in or outside the workplace or develops from an earlier event, such as adverse childhood experiences.

Understanding Trauma

The Public Health Agency of Canada notes that, "Trauma occurs when people experience an overwhelmingly negative event or series of events, including violence".

Such events can include domestic violence, natural disasters, severe illness or injury, the death of a loved one, witnessing an act of violence, sexual violence, and watching or hearing about traumatic events, including through media (known as vicarious trauma).

Violence can take many different forms and can be experienced once or many times. Violence is often the result of intentional actions to control or abuse someone, but can also have unintended consequences, such as when children are exposed to intimate partner violence. Experiences of violence can also be systemic and less visible. For many marginalized populations, discrimination and systemic violence are everyday experiences.

Workers exposed to trauma may appear exhausted, confused, sad, anxious, agitated, numb, dissociated or blunted. The impact of trauma can come to the surface when an individual is under stress and may affect their performance and behaviour. If left unchecked, this behaviour can become a problem for the individual and others around them.

Workplace Strategies for Mental Health lists factors that can expose workers to trauma in the workplace, such as:

  • Stressful events - accidents, grief, death, injury
  • Organizational stressors - isolation, bullying, toxic workplace, chronic work pressure
  • Physical stressors - fear of safety, extreme working conditions
  • External threats - robbery, natural disasters, lockdowns

The effects of trauma are often delayed, and can continue to affect a person for years. A person who has been exposed to trauma and has developed post-traumatic stress is protected under human rights legislation. With support and treatment, a person can recover and function well. Despite this, few people get the treatment or support they need, often because of stigma or not knowing what support or treatment is available and how it can help.

Leaders of trauma-informed workplaces accept that trauma can occur in or out of the workplace and may influence how workers react to various situations - and they're stepping up to fill the void.

Creating a trauma-informed workplace

Building a psychologically healthy and safe workplace requires leaders to support workplace mental health and commit to creating a trauma-informed environment. Central to this work is assessing the policies in place to prevent workplace trauma and violence, and ensuring the organization is prepared and equipped to support workers, regardless of when or where the trauma occurred.

There are key steps you can take to move toward building a trauma-informed workplace, including:

Develop on-site competencies and a trauma response playbook - If you don't already have one, create a joint health and safety committee, workplace mental health team, or another group that can make informed recommendations to management for building internal competencies and a playbook for responding to workplace trauma. This might include bringing in trauma-informed experts to provide training for various scenarios.

Experts can identify current resource and response capability (e.g., Mental Health First Aid (MHFA), EFAP, community resources, etc.) and create a framework to support employees in crisis, including clarity around how private and confidential information will be protected and when and how external supports (e.g. family member, doctor, or other support) and authorities (e.g. police, ambulance) should or should not be contacted.

Provide a safe place for employees to access support - Stigma and fears around confidentiality and privacy can hinder employees from reaching out for support. Start with identifying a safe room (physical and virtual) and providing trustworthy resources like a nurse or person trained in MHFA to help workers in emotional crisis.

Provide workplace crisis management training for leaders and key staff - The worst time to prepare for a crisis is when you're in it. People supporting your organization in becoming a trauma-informed workplace must understand how to navigate a people-driven crisis (any situation outside the realm of "normal" that requires a response). Crisis training provides leaders and HR with the basics in crisis management, protecting psychological well-being and meeting legal obligations to employees. Remember that those giving support in times of crisis may also require support during or after a crisis. Make sure to build that into crisis management training and plans.

Develop leaders' emotional literacyEmotional literacy is the ability to notice and manage emotions without losing one's temper or reacting in a way that could negatively impact an employee's experience. Leaders must be able to manage their emotions when supporting a worker in a crisis to avoid becoming a source of trauma themselves. Leaders who have developed trauma-management skills are more likely to be viewed by workers as psychologically safe and a trusted source of support as they can manage their emotions under stress.

Define and validate the effectiveness of the trauma supports you have in place - The National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace includes requirements for critical event preparedness, and promotes the importance of Plan - Do - Check - Act. A recent CSA study validated the importance of employers completing the entire process, including "Check," to ensure that supports are working. One way to check is by verifying that the requirements for critical event preparedness are being met.

Build programs to support employees experiencing trauma- Communicate to all workers frequently about the supports that are available to them. Provide all workers with introductory training on trauma and peer support, build the capability for and facilitate critical incident stress debriefings when needed, regularly evaluate EFAP support programs, and provide access to resources like iCBT and psychiatric care.

No employer can promise employees 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 kind of support employees need to recover.

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

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