The impact of trauma at work
In today’s culture and society, we are becoming increasingly aware of the impacts of trauma on individuals and the devastating toll it can take. There is a growing openness — in both acknowledging and understanding — that exposure to trauma and traumatic events can led to burnout, moral injury, and stress related disorders such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
However, defining trauma is tricky. Each individual’s response to a traumatic event(s) can be experienced across a spectrum that is influenced by many factors such as individual’s childhood experiences, resiliencies, nervous system, attachment styles, exposure to trauma, coping strategies and environment, to a name a few. It is for these reasons that numerous people can experience the same traumatic event and some will experience very little ongoing negative impacts while others can experience an immobilizing response that impacts their ability function in the same capacity they could prior to the event(s).
A Traumatic Event can be:
- a recent, single traumatic event
- a single traumatic event that occurred in the past
- a long-term, chronic pattern of exposure to traumatic events
Trauma Informed Care is not “treating” the psychological effects of trauma. That is reserved for highly trained professionals. Trauma Informed Care is the consideration that a person has had adverse experiences throughout their lifespan that alter their ability to tolerate distress and fear responses. Consider it a “universal precautions” approach to interacting with others. Most importantly, we can do this without having to ask or inquire about an individual’s trauma history. These approaches should be considered when interacting with clients/customers as well as employees.
For example, at a dentist office we would not consider asking someone if they have a history of being sexually assaulted but if we did consider that any patient could have had this experience, there are easy things we can do to be cognizant of how we interact with all patients. We might suggest informing the patients prior to being touched “I am going to put my hand on your arm right now” and explaining what is going to happen before it happens: “we need to put this vest on you for an x-ray it is quite heavy, and it will be placed across your chest is that ok?”
These are simple, but effective, Trauma Informed practices that can allow individuals to predict what is coming, prepare themselves, or decline if they feel it would be too triggering.
Trauma Informed Care at work
This is particularly relevant in workplaces. In general, individuals spend a significant amount of their time at their workplace. If a workplace is toxic, bullying or ostracization is occurring, and communication is passive aggressive or aggressive in nature, individuals with a trauma history can be significantly triggered. Alternatively, these events themselves become patterns of exposure which can become the cause of an employee’s decreasing ability to tolerate stress.
The development of stress related symptoms after exposure to trauma(s) is a normal response to abnormal events. Being in environments of highly toxic workplaces is not “normal” and the goal should never be for an employee to learn to tolerate this kind of stress. Rather the employer should minimize the impact of toxic/chronic stress on the employees within the workplace.
Developing moral injuries
When employees experience unacceptable/abnormal events in their workplace and adequate steps are not taken to acknowledge and fix the problem we begin to see the impacts of “moral injury.” This could be anything from being required to work without adequate personal protective equipment, or a workload being so demanding that it results in diminishing standards of care.
There are various ways to look at and understand common trauma responses. An easy way to think about it is that it is that when the nervous systems experiences fear it has automatic survival responses that activate for protection. Think about watching a scary movie. When you are startled and jump at the imagery you are experiencing an automatic response. The brain recognizes fear and danger and responds as if you’re at risk.
Sometimes, after a trauma event or exposure to ongoing traumatic experiences the nervous system starts to struggle to differentiate between real fear (a bear is chasing me) and perceived fear (it would be scary to be chased by a bear but there is no bear here) and it begin responding to all fear as if it is real and happening.
Walter Cannon, an American Physiologist, coined the term “fight or flight” response when studying these automatic/acute body responses to threatening situations in the early 1900’s. Since then, the research has continued to grow and expand our understanding of these automatic responses of the nervous system. We now know that there are various other responses for survival such as freeze (inability to move against threat) and fawn (immediate attempt to try to please to prevent conflict). In workplace situations where there is power differences — and individuals do experience threat to their livelihoods if they were to lose their employment — we can begin to understand how responses such as freeze and fawn can be misinterpreted as agreeability versus fear.
The opportunity for employers
An employer never has that right to ask employees about their personal experiences with trauma but implementing and understanding Trauma Informed practises help to protect both the customer and the employee and help promote psychological wellness. One can easily conclude how this helps reduce employee turnover and sick time, while improve morale and overall productivity and performance. Through education and awareness, workplaces can collectively become a more psychologically safe environment for those who have experienced trauma.
Jennifer Berard is the owner of Jennifer Berard & Associates, a private psychology clinic specializing in trauma, substance use disorders, anxiety, depression and grief.