The Mental Health Landscape
Mental health is largely not discussed in the workplace , despite the fact that many adults face mental health struggles. In 2020, 6% of US adults (14.8 million) “had at least one major depressive episode with severe impairment in the past year.” Depression does not always, but can, stem from a response to trauma with up to 51% of sexual assault victims meeting the criteria for depression.” Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can also develop as a result of trauma, with 75% of sexual assault survivors developing it one month after their assault. It is important for employers to recognize the importance of mental health and the impact of trauma in the workplace.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) states individual trauma, “results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” Many adults will experience a traumatic event, but they will not process trauma in the same way. People who experience trauma, and those who regularly interact with someone dealing with trauma, must take the time to assess what is needed to maintain their mental well-being.
Similar to trauma, toxic stress occurs when someone is subjected to the repeated exposure of a trauma trigger. A trigger can be in the form of a person who has physically or emotionally harmed them, a violent or otherwise unstable environment, substantial and repeated burdens of financial hardship, and much more. This type of stress can have both mental and physical effects, which is why it is important to eliminate this person’s exposure to those triggers wherever possible.
Why Is It Important for Workplaces to Become Trauma-Informed?
Second only to home, workplaces are the spaces that employees will spend most of their time. The environments they work in, and the people they work with, are major factors in their overall happiness. Employees who feel safe and comfortable enough to disclose when they aren’t well, and whose workplaces provide them with the resources they need to get help, feel greater workplace satisfaction and become more productive employees.
Types of Trauma Employees May Face
There are many types of trauma including but are not limited to:
An employee may still be dealing with the trauma they experienced as a child. Traumas under this category can include homelessness, a family member attempting or committing suicide, domestic violence, neglect, or parental incarceration.
Some employees may react to triggers from secondary traumas they did not personally experience. Intergenerational trauma occurs when emotional and behavioral reactions to a trauma experienced by a family member are passed on to future generations. The American Psychological Association notes that reactions to this type of trauma can include shame, low self-esteem, hypervigilance, and a difficulty attaching to others. People who may deal with intergenerational trauma include descendants of Holocaust survivors, African Americans, Native American tribes, and war veterans.
Race-related trauma can be inspired by personal experience (being a victim of racist harassment, treatment, or violence), external events (such as news stories of members of one’s race being a victim of a racially motivated crime), or chronic exposure to stereotypes and societal barriers that prevent one from advancing. This trauma, experienced by people across Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) community, can manifest in both emotional responses like anxiety and depression as well as physical responses like hypertension or heart problems, which affect Black people at a disproportionate rate to White people.
Sexual violence can impact any employee of any gender, age, or background. Trauma from sexual violence is unique and its effects can come in a variety of forms including flashbacks, panic attacks, depression, sleep disorders, or suicidality. If an employee is experiencing this type of trauma, they should have the ability to connect with an organization that will best fit their needs.
How to Create a Trauma-Informed Workplace
Every workplace’s culture, environment, and workforce is unique. Blanket solutions will not fit every organization’s needs. When brainstorming what policies, protocols, and resources are needed to ensure your employees dealing with trauma have the best possible path towards workplace success and emotional well-being, there are some basic tenants that should be followed. Workplaces Respond has laid out six key trauma responsive elements for employers to consider in the interest of becoming trauma-informed.
Ensure that workspaces are safe for peoples’ mental and physical health through the adherence of basic protocols and safety standards.
Transparency and Trust
Open a line of honest communication with employees to ensure that no one is caught off guard by any sudden or drastic company-wide decisions.
Maintain an environment of mutual respect and dignity of all colleagues, regardless of position in the company, through recognizing that everyone’s stresses and experiences matter.
Collaboration and Mutuality
Allow people in and out of positions of power within the company to participate in creating trauma-informed approaches befitting the organization at large.
Empowerment, Voice, and Choice
Give opportunity to everyone to lead or guide discussion about issues or challenges that impede productivity.
Cultural, Gender, and Historic Issues
Make a concerted effort to recognize historical trauma, counter hidden biases, and transform ways of thinking to allow people to share their truth particular to their identity without feeling degraded, isolated, or shamed.