Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event. A trauma response is basically a fight-flight-freeze response that remains active even after the stressor and shock is no longer there. Someone who is traumatized might be hypersensitive, aggressive or even under-reactive in situations. So this might be a person who appears anxious all the time. Or someone who has a short temper, or seems to zone out a lot. A trauma informed leader must understand what trauma response looks like.
Every person reacts differently to stress depending on their window of tolerance. A good trauma informed leader understands this and responds appropriately.
Becoming a trauma informed workplace means that leaders and employees have their minds and eyes wide open to a wide range of human experiences when it comes to terrible events in people’s lives.
What are terrible events? That depends on the person. So it is completely subjective. For some, a terrible event may be a bombing, for others seeing a family member pass away and for someone else seeing their pet suffer.
A trauma informed workplace has a culture of empathy and understanding in an environment of calmness and safety, where everyone can work and function at their best.
Here are some basic steps any company should take in order to become trauma informed.
1. Environment of safety and belonging
Creating a sense of safety (both physical and psychological) in the workplace is a must. At a bare minimum the workplace should be free from any form of aggression, abuse, and harassment. When there is a foundation of safety and trust, the workplace creates feelings of belonging and connection.
People should feel safe to raise concerns. They should have assurance that their concerns will be attended to. Conflicts should be discussed calmly and in respectful ways.
A trauma informed leader will not only model these healthy behaviors but also have empathy and understanding when an employee is behaving in challenging ways.
There will always be situations in which a distressed employee will act irrationally and inappropriately. A trauma informed leader will not take this lightly. Equally, she will not judge or dismiss the employee who is having an “extreme” emotional reaction. Instead, a trauma informed leader responds with empathic curiosity and calmness. She considers that the employee may be reacting based on something that has happened to them recently or in the past.
2. Emotion and trauma education
If all leaders of the world were emotionally intelligent and trauma informed the world would be a much better place. A company who makes it their mission to educate and lead with a trauma lens, can expect outcomes such as having employees who want to be there!
Raising awareness is not a one time event. Rather, it’s a lifetime of education and conditioning. It takes patient leaders, psychological support, coaches and trainers who all share the wisdom and knowing that all human beings are vulnerable to stress. We are also incredibly agile and resilient with the right support and leadership.
Becoming trauma informed helps organizations deal with crisis correctly. More importantly, it helps deal with employees in a sound and sensitive manner so that every person is handled and responded to appropriately given their unique circumstances.
3. Power and choice
Trauma can lead to powerlessness and helplessness. A person who is acting based on fight-flight-freeze and survival instinct, is not always able to think clearly. They wouldn’t think to take time off even if it was imperative that they did so. They wouldn’t think to ask for psychological help even if it was absolutely necessary. Therefore, explicitly offering choices and asking the employee to make use of options available to them can help alleviate the impact of trauma.
Employees then feel that there is a shared sense of power rather than feeling that others have power over them. When the workplace offers choices, it also fosters respect and appreciation for diversity in the way people live. So having a nonjudgmental attitude toward people’s choices is as important as giving people choices.
Leaders should really do an organizational psychological health check and to create training opportunities and updating of emotion education as frequently as they update their IT systems. Troubleshooting, rebooting, and clearing the system applies to human resources as much as it applies to software. That means consulting psychologists and making emotional health support as readily available as IT support.
An outdated workplace with old school styles of leadership is as inappropriate as having a computer from the 90s!
Dr. Ava Ghasemi (Holdich) is a licensed Psychologist with 11 years experience in the U.S., Canada and the Middle East. She has a practice of individual and couples therapy at the MapleTree Center in Dubai.