5 Principles of Trauma-Informed Workplaces

Nathan Gerbrandt

The following information comes from A Little Book about Trauma-Informed Workplaces, written by myself, Randy Grieser, and Vicki Enns.

Trauma is prevalent in our world and its effects can ripple out, shaping our interactions and relationships at home and at work. It even affects whole organizations by impacting the ways in which we do our work, serve our clients, and achieve our missions.

 

A trauma-informed workplace focuses on five principles:

  • Promote Awareness
  • Shift Attitudes
  • Foster Safety
  • Provide Choice
  • Highlight Strengths

Promote Awareness

In trauma-informed organizations, leaders and employees are aware of the pervasiveness of trauma and its significance in people’s lives. Becoming aware of trauma is not about taking on the role of a trauma specialist. It is about being prepared for the possibility that someone has been impacted by trauma, preventing further harm, and understanding the role each of us can play in promoting individual and collective well-being.

Trauma is prevalent in our world and its effects can ripple out, shaping our interactions and relationships at home and at work.

Educating staff about trauma is integral to generating awareness. All those who work in the organization should be provided with opportunities to grow in their awareness of the prevalence and impacts of trauma and apply this learning to their work.

Promoting awareness also involves assessment, consideration of policies, and ensuring principles continue to be practiced over the long term:

  • By completing CTRI’s Trauma-Informed Workplace Assessment, individuals and organizations can gain a more accurate picture of their approach to trauma-informed principles.
  • Policies should be evaluated and updated with an eye toward enhancing principles. Feedback from staff and clients should be included in this process.
  • Establish some form of ongoing “champion(s)” of trauma-informed principles in your workplace. Champions or committees with this role can be responsible for promoting trauma awareness and monitoring the organization’s evolving long-term progress in embracing trauma-informed principles.

Shift Attitudes

While trauma awareness is valuable at a knowledge level, an attitude shift is necessary in order to change how we engage with people. By shifting attitudes, we are able to put our awareness of trauma into action. This shift impacts the questions we ask and creates a mindset of curious empathy that we can bring to our interactions. It is demonstrated by responding to people, organizations, and communities in ways that reflect awareness of the role trauma can have. When we shift our attitudes, our biases recede and healthy responses to trauma become the norm.

One of our favourite sayings at CTRI is “Shift judgement to curiosity.” At the heart of this saying is a call to approach a person’s behaviour with openness and interest. For example, instead of thinking “What is wrong with you?” when responding to challenging behaviours, consider asking “What has happened that might be leading to this behaviour?” The problematic question of “What is wrong with you?” reflects a reactive attitude that implies blame and a deficit in the person. In contrast, by withholding judgement and taking a moment to internally wonder what has happened that could explain this behaviour, we are acknowledging that trauma might be influencing this person. In this way, we are separating the person from the behaviour.

Foster Safety

One of the central aspects of trauma is the experience of a threat to physical or psychological safety. When an organization does not give attention to safety, it can make both staff and clients vulnerable and create barriers to engagement. Therefore, fostering safety helps reduce the impact of past damaging experiences.

In trauma-informed organizations, leaders and employees are aware of the pervasiveness of trauma and its significance in people’s lives.

Fostering a safe environment requires a wholistic approach and paying close attention to the varying needs of different people. These can range from the physical, such as the need for adequate lighting and safety rails, to the psychological, which could include how safe clients feel within your office or managing disrespectful behaviour.

Safety protocols cannot be enacted from the top down or created in isolation without considering how they impact everyone in the organization. Instead, safety is best fostered collectively in relationship with each other. In a sense, we co-create safe environments when each person within the organization takes on a responsibility to make safe decisions and people believe others have their best interests in mind.

Provide Choice

Another significant aspect of traumatic events is the lack of choice and control that people experience. The helplessness felt in an overwhelmingly threatening situation can leave lasting imprints on a person’s sense of power to take back control over their lives. It’s not uncommon for staff or clients to feel powerless and unable to influence the way they do their work or receive an organization’s services. Therefore, it’s important for trauma-informed workplaces to provide meaningful opportunities for choice.

Effectively creating opportunities for choice requires all leadership and staff to work collaboratively and strive toward what’s best for everyone, not just what’s best for a few. At times, it will require us to respect the choices and voices that run contrary to – or even challenge – the status quo. These challenging voices are to be expected, and it is through these conversations that we can begin to create healthier, more trauma-informed workplaces.

Highlight Strengths

Every person has inherent strengths that help them survive. For people who have come through traumatic experiences, highlighting strengths is especially relevant because it helps to emphasize and build up their inherent resilience. After all, they have survived because of their strengths and have found new and creative ways to live and overcome obstacles.

Unique individual and collective strengths can be found by getting to know each other and recognizing the inherent resources and resilience each person brings. When we learn about and engage with experiences and perspectives that differ from our own, our biases are corrected and we become more respectful of differences, breaking down barriers that can cause tension and conflict. This enables us to develop new and empowered ways of relating and being in community together.

 

We envision a world where everyone is trauma-informed, and our hope is that these five principles will help your organization join us on this path. We offer the principles as a starting place for evaluating your workplace and beginning your journey. While we have outlined the principles in distinct sections, applying them is anything but linear. The process of becoming trauma-informed is a unique path with a different timeline for each of us and every organization.


For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.

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

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