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How can you, as an employer, create the proverbial “win-win” situation?
How can you make your workplace safe for employees dealing with trauma -- and make them reliable, productive assets for your business?
And how can you do this in a realistic way, without having to make impractical accommodations?
“Accommodations don't need to be dramatic or drastic,” says Dimitri Topitzes, PhD, LCSW, of UW-Milwaukee. “They can be somewhat subtle, but they can make a huge difference in terms of the employee doing well in the job and staying in the job.”
It starts with how you view trauma and those affected by it.
Nobody chooses to be traumatized.
“It’s not something the individual has done. It’s something that has happened to that individual,” says Michael Adams, president of JobsWork MKE.
“We help our members understand, ‘Nothing’s wrong with me. Something happened to me.’”
Experts say it’s key to adopt that mindset: your employees are not to blame. Rather, they need your support.
“It’s not just this relationship between, ‘I want to hire you and you do this work.’ There’s some in-between stuff, you know," says Adams. “I kind of akin it to an Oreo cookie. You’ve got this great cookie on the outside and you’ve got the stuff on the inside and what we have to do is make sure that whole thing is full and true, right?
"We have to make sure that that employer understands it’s not just this relationship of just the work. It’s people.”
But it's not only about helping the employee. You'll be helping your company or organization, as Tim Grove of Wellpoint Care Network explains.
"... the gains in productivity alone are pretty staggering ..."
Wellpoint Care Network
How can you provide this support? By becoming a “trauma-informed” organization.
That means “a way of seeing and responding to people who have likely been impacted by trauma by providing safety, compassion, and mindfully avoiding re-traumatization,” according to the International Employee Assistance Professionals Association.
THE FOUR Rs
What does it take to become trauma-informed?
The federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) breaks the path into four parts:
Everyone at your organization should realize how prevalent trauma is.
“Trauma is everywhere,” says Adams. “That might be a paradigm shift for employers, to recognize that trauma is in their environment. You might have a current workforce where you don’t see it as much, but you have a new workforce that’s coming in, and it’s there.”
Some of your employees might have experienced trauma as children -- such as abuse, neglect, or family dysfunction. Others might be experiencing trauma as adults, living in communities with high rates of crime, poverty, and unemployment. (See Part 1 for more on the sources of trauma.)
“A really great first step is just simply awareness,” says Grove. “I'm constantly amazed when people say that just having somebody understand what might be going on with me, and view me in a way where I'm better seen and understood, is so powerful.”
People trying to cope with trauma might behave in ways that appear unusual – such as arguing with a supervisor; appearing to not listen to, or understand, directions; isolating themselves; or, exploding over a seemingly insignificant issue. (See Part 4 for more on how trauma can affect behavior at work.)
It’s important to recognize these behaviors as signs of trauma.
"... it might purely be them attempting to restore a sense of control ..."
Terri deRoon-Cassini, MS, PhD Medical College of Wisconsin
Screening and assessment tools, such as the ACEs (see Part 1) and this PTSD checklist, also can help you identify trauma.
Experts say it’s important to respond with empathy.
“Empathy is the ability to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes – both in an emotional sense, to feel a bit of what they may feel, but also in a cognitive sense, to see the situation from their perspective,” says trauma expert Bruce Perry, MD, PhD, in the book "What Happened to You?" which he co-authored with Oprah Winfrey. “If you approach an interaction from an empathetic stance, you’re much less likely to have a negative perspective on whatever is going on.”
Kenneth Barron agrees. We met Kenneth in Part 2, where he shared his traumatic childhood experience – witnessing his stepfather beating his mother. Decades later, that still haunts him. He says at work it’s key to know someone who cares about you.
“Some employers just got to be willing to get to know a person, and to understand a person, and to not judge," he says. "They have to step out of that position they're in and step in another position to help another person. Because we don't know the next person's flight through life, what they went through. "But realize that if you see another person's hurting, or they're self-destructing, can you step out of that position and say, ‘Look man, I'm coming to you as a friend. If you need help anytime, let me know. I can try to get you some help or guide you somewhere.’"
Without empathy, a tendency might be to assume the employee can, and should, “just get over it.” That’s not a realistic expectation, according to Topitzes.
“So it's not as if someone can just overcome it easily through an overture from someone else to say, ‘Don't worry about it.’ Or a little bit of self-talk that says, ‘I'm in the workplace. Nothing's going to happen,’" Topitzes says.
"The tendency to respond and overreact to that environmental cue is deeply neurophysiologically, neurobiologically rooted. And so in order to overcome it, it might require some ongoing supports from the environment that are not one time, but ongoing.”
Such support can take many forms with a common goal: to help the employee feel safe.
"If I can be reassured at work that threat is not going to be as probable here," says Grove, "I can start to relax. When I start to relax, everything that I'm capable of gets exponentially better."
Help foster relationships
Employees who have been traumatized, especially by someone they knew, often have trouble trusting others. As a result, they might have a hard time creating relationships at work. Helping them connect with a mentor -- a person they can learn to trust and confide in -- can be extremely helpful in making them feel safe.
The importance of relationships – of human connection -- cannot be overstated, Grove says.
“The ability to genuinely reciprocate with somebody: If I smile and you smile back. If we share a memory or a story together and we both look away like, ‘Oh, that was remarkable.’ That process elicits a comparable and more powerful neurobiological event in the brain and body that people want even more than drugs of abuse.”
What could that look like on the job?
"... you can help calm me down ... I've got one person to go to."
Dimitri Toptizes, PhD, LCSW University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee
He says such a relationship would not reduce workplace productivity. Rather, by lowering the employee’s level of stress, it could improve job performance and retention.
In addition to enabling relationships, you can create opportunities for employees to calm their minds. By focusing on rhythm.
You can probably think of something rhythmic that makes you feel better: walking, swimming, dancing, listening to music or to waves breaking on a beach.
That’s because rhythm is soothing, according to trauma expert Perry. It’s why we rock babies when they cry, he says. The infant feels more in balance and calms down.
As an adult, rhythmic movement activates the memory of safety.
“... some of those activities ... can have powerful effect ...”
-- Tim Grove Wellpoint Care Network
Grove uses rhythm to help healthcare providers, who often walk from one part of a hospital to another.
“Walking is quite rhythmic and quite repetitive. So we'll encourage them to put on headphones or ear buds, pull up their favorite song, then synchronize the cadence of their steps to the beat of the song.
“We believe if people can do that just for a few minutes a few times a day, they can tone down or tame some of that survival instinct and reclaim some of the better parts of themselves.”
Another tactic: placing rocking chairs in your break room. That mimics the motion, and feeling, of being comforted.
“Many of us believe for the five minutes they're on break in the rocking chair, they will get a dose, if you will, of feeling safe and relaxed,” Grove says.
Companies can inadvertently create stressful or toxic environments that may trigger painful memories and re-traumatize employees.
“For someone who is struggling with unresolved trauma, the workplace can be a minefield of trauma triggers,” says Topitzes.
Under a trauma-informed approach, employers are taught how to recognize and avoid this.
In Part 4, we used the example of a woman who had been sexually assaulted, who is now working on an assembly line. She’s vigilant about detecting potential physical threats. When her supervisor approaches her from behind, she reacts as if someone is sneaking up on her, and her survival instinct is triggered.
As an employer who is aware of the prevalence of trauma and committed to not triggering your employees, you would change your approach. Rather than coming from behind, you would make sure she could see you walking toward her.
"That is a really powerful thing that can come from awareness," says Grove. "What that employee feels is, 'Wow, that was different. Maybe it was accidental. Maybe somebody actually took the time to know a little bit about this stuff. I feel safer. I feel better seen and understood.'
"And when that happens, it's a step towards feeling connected to the employer, to being a part of that employment process. And that, we believe, has a strong link to retention. If we can engage in some of these activities or be in safe relationship with other people, where it starts to tone down that sort of overreaction or that survival response, we can open up, pour fertilizer on that sort of more complicated part of our brains.
"I would love it if people would just sort of think about that every time they're thinking about employee policy.”
Find more information about best practices in “SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach,” including six principles that trauma-informed organizations follow:
Trustworthiness and transparency
Collaboration and mutuality
Empowerment, voice, and choice
Cultural, historical, and gender inclusion
To learn about JobsWork MKE’s comprehensive approach to working with employees dealing with unresolved trauma, contact: Contact: