3 Go-To Elements for Trauma-Informed Workplaces

Nathan Gerbrandt

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, writing, and speaking about Trauma-informed care lately. It’s a topic near and dear to my heart. In fact, Vicki Enns, Randy Grieser, and I have just finished a new book called A Little Book About Trauma-Informed Workplaces. We hope it will serve as a guide to those wanting to make their workplace more trauma-informed.

As I consider what a trauma-informed workplace looks like, I reflect on the diverse jobs I’ve had in social work, government, and outdoor physical labour. Like most of us, I’ve worked in healthy environments, while others were so highly stressful and toxic that I didn’t stick around long. Thinking back to these experiences, I see elements of trauma-informed safety pop out as these workplaces either aggravated or protected me from the stresses and traumas in my life.

Why is workplace safety important to a trauma-informed environment?

One of the central aspects of trauma is the experience of a threat to physical or psychological safety. This threat can continue to affect a person’s ability to feel fully safe in future environments and interactions. When an organization does not give attention to the varying safety needs of its clients and staff, it risks harmfully impacting those that are vulnerable.

Trauma-informed safety needs to be wholistic and encouraged in community with each other. This includes paying attention to community members’ physical, social, and psychological needs. Too often, those responsible for workplace safety only focus on the physical, or only give attention to social and psychological concerns. Instead, we need to co-create safe environments where people within the organization take on a responsibility to consider others in their decisions. These are workplaces where people trust that others have their best interests in mind.

When we focus on creating safe spaces and building relationships characterized by trust, we encourage strong, healthy, and resilient workplaces.

Trauma-informed safety does not mean we all need to become trauma specialists. Rather, we need to consider how trauma impacts people and then create workplaces that promote healthy connection and well-being for everyone.

When I reflect on my experiences of safety throughout my various jobs, there are what I call the “go-to” elements that capture the wholistic view of psychological, social, and physical safety:

Go-to leaders are people with authority or influence who build trusting relationships with staff or clients. This type of leader reassures people that they have someone they can consult with in a position of authority, someone who is empathetic and understands their unique context.

In one stressful and toxic workplace, I remember frequently feeling calm when a highly relational and intuitive manager protected myself and his team. He stood out for his integrity and made it his role to shield us from the traps of political decisions and abuses of power.

Go-to safe spaces are physical places where staff or clients can go if they feel overwhelmed or unstable. These are places where a person can be physically and psychologically comfortable, away from stress and work pressures. It is helpful to clearly identify a safe space for people to use when needed.

I once worked in an office that provided financial and addictions support services to recently incarcerated high-risk offenders. Their stories were heartbreaking and the risk of vicarious trauma and violence made the need for physical and emotional safety very real. Thankfully our lunchroom offered a place of sanctuary with a sign emblazoned over the doorway that read, “All talk of work shall cease upon entry.”

When an organization does not give attention to the varying safety needs of its clients and staff, it risks harmfully impacting those that are vulnerable.

Go-to peers are people with whom we have camaraderie and can exchange mutual support within our work environments. These are safe and trusted people we feel confident raising difficult questions or concerns with, knowing they will be met with respect and confidentiality.

One person from my first job offered me the personal reassurance I desperately needed at the time to balance the professional challenges I was facing. When I needed a safe outlet (or someone to debrief with) after a difficult exchange or when I was feeling the frustration of being a small cog in a poorly-functioning machine, he would always listen.

Workplaces that foster these three “go-to” elements of safety are not immune to harmful things happening, but they do reduce their potential. And with the workplace culture and connection these elements create, organizations will be better equipped to navigate these situations with care and consideration. When we focus on creating safe spaces and building relationships characterized by trust, we encourage strong, healthy, and resilient workplaces.


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Author: Nathan Gerbrandt (MSW, RSW)
Managing Director, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

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