Trauma-Informed Workplaces: Building a Better Business with Empathy and Awareness

July 1, 2021 • MEM

According to the National Council of Behavioral Health, 70% of American adults have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives. Trauma can affect our ability to think, learn, and manage change. It can also make it hard to relate to others. All of these skills play an important role in working safely and efficiently on the job.

On this episode of the WorkSAFE Podcast, we are joined by Randy Grieser to discuss trauma-informed workplaces. He is the Founder & Chief Vision Officer of ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership and the Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute. Grieser has a graduate degree in social work and is passionate about sharing the importance of creating healthy workplace cultures. He believes that leadership requires employers to always be intentional about what they do, and how they do it.

First, we’ll talk about what trauma is. Then, we’ll share what it looks like in the workplace. Finally, we’ll provide some steps to become a trauma-informed workplace.

Listen to this episode on the WorkSAFE Podcast, or read the show notes below.

Trauma and its impact

For Grieser, mental health is just as important as physical health. And it isn’t just for companies in social services or healthcare. “Mental health should be just as much on our minds as physical safety, in my opinion,” he explained. In any workplace, trauma can play a role.

What is trauma?

Trauma occurs “when a person experiences a threatful situation that overwhelms their coping resources.” As a result, they feel overcome by stress, helplessness, and fear for their safety. Many people think trauma only comes from major situations. For example, a near-death experience, or a car accident. But Grieser is quick to point out this isn’t the case.

Trauma is about the impact an event has on a person. For instance, COVID-19 and its impact – both personally and globally – can cause trauma. So can family background and childhood experience. Even a toxic work environment can cause trauma.

“One of my favorite definitions of trauma is ‘trauma is wound’,” he added. Many people are good at hiding trauma, especially in the workplace. Employers may not even know about it unless a worker is in a crisis situation. But when you ignore an injury, it starts to get worse. Further, it starts to affect other areas of your life.

The ripple effect

When trauma starts to show up in behaviors and performance, Grieser labels it as “the ripple effect”. It happens when trauma that has been pushed into the shadows moves to the forefront. Everyone responds to trauma differently. For example, workers can react in a number of ways to an incident on the shop floor. Some may feel prepared and know what to do. Others may freeze. A few may feel emotional effects later. “We can’t be judging people because their response to a situation is different than what our response to the situation is,” he stated firmly.

How trauma shows up in the workplace

For some people, the impact of trauma lasts only a day. However, for others, it can last for weeks. In the workplace, trauma shows up mainly in performance and behaviors. An affected employee may start to show up late. They might seem disconnected from work, and other team members, or act differently. For instance, an employee who was laid-back and engaged before, might come across as short-tempered and distant now.

Fire fighters walk toward fire truck

Becoming a trauma-informed workplace

Many employers may worry about crossing a line with employees. In a workplace that isn’t informed, workers may be criticized or judged for changes in their behavior. If it gets in the way of work, then they may even face consequences. But Grieser explained that leaders should approach situations like these with curiosity and care. “Shift judgment to curiosity,” he recommended.

For Grieser, the word ‘trauma’ needs to be used in the workplace. “Trauma exists. Trauma is real. Trauma impacts people,” he said. “As a result of that, it can’t help but impact the workplace.” Some businesses have a healthy, trauma-informed workplace – and don’t even know it. Employees there feel safe, respected, and trusted. Creating a culture like this isn’t about providing exercise classes or organic food. Perks like that don’t mean much to employees who are seriously struggling. It’s about leadership leading with empathy and empowerment, instead of fear and control. It’s also about being aware of mental health.

5 steps to a safer workplace

“Culture doesn’t fall far from where leadership is,” Grieser added. It can be confusing for employees when some leaders are caring and empathetic, and others aren’t. He often points out that a consistent culture can’t be built with both types. Leaders need to be on the same page. Grieser offers 5 steps to help employers create safer workplaces:

  1. Promote awareness about trauma
  2. Shift attitudes and become curious
  3. Foster safety, both psychological and physical
  4. Provide choice and control
  5. Highlight strengths

Support employees

Grieser advocates for asking how employees are doing. This conversation can be easier to have around performance reviews or quarterly check-ins. However, it’s also important to discuss when there are obvious changes in an employee’s behaviors. He recommends asking,” ‘Is there something else going on that would help me understand why this is happening?’” Asking the question allows employees to open up if they want. They can share, or not share – but the opportunity to do so is there.

The goal of these conversations is to get to the root of any issues. Then, start to fix them. Even though these problems may not stem from the job, they can affect it. That’s when employers need to get involved. “It’s okay for people to have a bad day. It’s okay for people to not be doing well,” Grieser shared. “When that begins to impact other people in the workplace, it becomes a workplace issue.”

Provide resources

“It’s one thing to be aware of trauma, but if you’re aware of trauma and don’t do anything about it, what’s the point of even being aware?,” Grieser asked. Employers have an opportunity to offer employees help. If you have an employee assistance program (EAP), then recommend private counseling. Explain the benefit to employees using simple language; Grieser feels that benefits should be easy to use and understand. If you don’t have an EAP, then share local or online resources.

Employers can also provide training and resources to staff. The Crisis & Trauma Institute provides training and free resources, including a free e-book, webinar, and a workplace assessment. Seeking local training is also an option.

It’s okay for employers to point out that an employee’s emotional state isn’t acceptable for the workplace. “At the end of the day, the current status is not okay,” Grieser finished. Becoming a trauma-informed workplace is not just about helping employees. It’s also about creating a safer and better business for all.

For free safety posters, sample policies, and safety toolkits, visit our Resource Library. Then, learn more about supporting employees with substance use disorder in this WorkSAFE Podcast episode.

July 1, 2021
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