OHS Canada Magazine

Trauma-informed workplaces facilitate psychological safety


May 2, 2022
By Bill Howatt

Health & Safety Young Workers Mental Health Psychological Safety

Employers committed to putting the resources and attention towards creating psychologically safe workplaces must accept that employees come to work with different experiences.

Some may be feeling the effects of trauma or have been exposed to workplace situations or events that result in trauma.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA) frames individual trauma as the consequence of exposure to a single event or a series of physically- or emotionally-harmful or life-threatening events. Such experiences can have a long-term, negative impact on workers’ mental, physical, social, emotional or spiritual well-being.

Some workers may be experiencing traumatic events like domestic violence because of past events or current life challenges.

In 2018, 44 per cent of women reported some form of psychological, physical, or sexual violence by an intimate partner. Exposure to domestic violence is a form of trauma that can be defined as normal responses to abnormal situations.

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Many factors, such as losing a loved one and not getting to say goodbye because of COVID-19, can result in trauma outside of work.

Response to stress is personal

Workplace trauma can result from bullying, harassment, and other psychosocial factors that evoke fear and stress, leading to mental harm. How workers respond to exposure to stress is personal.

It is naïve to think that trauma happens only to first responders and health care workers.

Some vocations have a high risk of traumatic exposure resulting in PTSD. Train operators, bus or uber drivers, and construction workers may be involved in or witness an accident because a mistake can result in a life-threatening event.

Regardless of the vocation, trauma is present in all workplaces, whether events occur in the workplace or at home. Trauma-informed workplaces accept that trauma may influence how workers show up and react. A worker traumatized by a stressful event can be in a state of dysregulation that can make them reactive to triggers like people and situations.

Plan-Do-Check-Act approach

Trauma-informed workplaces align with psychological health and safety objectives to mitigate mental harm and promote mental health by using a Plan – Do – Check – Act approach. Preparing for and mitigating the risk of trauma can help workers feel a sense of belonging, connection, and support.

Employers who adopt a trauma-informed approach commit to increasing physical and psychological safety, transparency, peer support, collaboration, and empowerment. They influence a psychologically safe culture while respecting gender and other diversity factors.

How employers can create a trauma-informed workplace

A trauma-informed approach is about supporting workers experiencing trauma and preventing its occurrence. SAMHSA’s three-Rs rubric guides employers on moving the “trauma-informed” journey along:

  • Realize the extent of trauma and the need for access to qualified support.
  • Recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma in workers for early detection.
  • Respond with the knowledge and skills to support workers experiencing trauma.

CEOs and leaders can enhance psychological safety by driving out incivility, acting-out behaviour, silence, fear, and other actions that create unhealthy stress on workers. Following are tactics an employer can use to move towards a trauma-informed workplace:

Create a psychologically safe culture that supports trauma. Pay attention to the words used and promote compassion. Senior leaders can encourage leaders and workers to observe behaviour without judging when interacting with peers. Use language that expresses feeling instead of blaming and eliminate stigma by promoting help-seeking behaviours.

Educate workers about trauma and its signs and symptoms to normalize how people exposed to trauma behave. Be clear on trauma support systems, why they were chosen, what they are, and how they work. Understand how support can instill confidence in workers who believe they have been traumatized to turn to EFAP, crisis management, or psychological services

Train leaders on how psychologically safe leadership can build trust and collaboration and empower workers. Teach leaders how they can support workers experiencing mental impairment in the workplace due to stress, trauma, or a mental illness. Leaders can be trained to support and protect workers from harm within the boundaries of their role.

Provide coping skills training. Introduce basic coping skills to assist workers exposed to trauma and for self-protection. Learning how to cope with trauma is not about learning how to switch it off. It is accepting trauma as a natural healing process and reducing its symptoms. Coping with and healing from trauma may mean living with fewer symptoms and managing bad memories and emotions.

Promote self-help strategies. Many kinds of assistance like peer support, diversity and inclusion initiatives, mental fitness, and mental health programs can help workers experiencing trauma feel supported and understood. Employers should evaluate whether workers value the programs being offered, how they may be helping them cope with trauma, and how the programs are protecting workers from trauma.

Dr. Bill Howatt is the Ottawa-based president of Howatt HR Consulting.

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