Trauma and Safety: How Stored Experiences Show Up in the Workplace

May 15, 2024 • Previsor

Trauma is a term we hear used more often today than ever before. A 2016 study done by the National Institute of Health found that 70% of adults who responded across 24 countries reporting experiencing a traumatic event in their lifetime. Trauma can lead to a ripple effect, impacting everything from a person’s ability to make decisions to how they handle stress. What qualifies as trauma? How to employers prevent it from leading to distraction and an uptick in injuries on the job?

On this episode of the WorkSAFE Podcast, we’re joined by Kelly Campbell, a certified trauma-informed leadership coach, author, and keynote speaker. Campbell is on a mission to help others transform past trauma and tap into their innate leadership power.

First, we’ll cover the basics of trauma. Then, we’ll discuss how it impacts employees and leaders alike. Finally, we’ll share how employers can become both trauma-informed leaders and conscious communicators.

Listen to this episode on the WorkSAFE Podcast, or read the show notes below.

The basics of trauma

Most people associate the idea of trauma with life-changing injuries. However, the scars left by adverse life situations aren’t always physical. “Trauma is not an event or events that have happened to you,” Campbell explained. “It’s the body storing those events, if the nervous system and other systems in the body were unable to cope with that experience.”

Our nervous systems deal with things in very different ways. Campbell points out that trauma is very individual and situational. For example, siblings who grew up in the same home, with the same parents, could have entirely different childhood experiences. A straightforward situation for one sibling could be confusing, difficult, or stressful for the other. “It’s really about the nervous system being overwhelmed and not having the capacity to deal with and release whatever is happening in that moment.”

The mind can’t always heal itself

Our bodies are amazing, frequently healing everything from the simplest cut to complex fractures. But trauma comes with emotional and physiological impacts that can be difficult to heal from without help.

Trauma can show up in a number of different ways. From how we handle stress and our self-confidence, to how we interact with others and make decisions in a pinch, no part of life goes untouched. Campbell highlights that trauma often shows up as:

  • Chronic illness. Stored trauma, unable to be release, results in feeling uncomfortable and ill all the time.
  • Addiction. To escape the uncomfortable feeling of trauma, some may turn to substances to numb the pain.
  • Workaholism. Distractions serve as welcome escape from trauma; this may result in overworking.

For instance, an employee on the job may have been berated a lot when they were younger, even over the smallest mistake. This unresolved trauma is then stored in their body. As a result, when given constructive feedback by a supervisor, they could react poorly. They may shut down, sob uncontrollably, or become angry and defensive.

Leaders and trauma

Leaders are also subject to trauma responses. “There could also be situations where, especially as leaders, there could be the idea that we always have to be ‘right’,” Campbell added. “Like we always have to have the answer. We might also be very controlling even if we don’t mean to be.”

Other behaviors that show up include micromanagement and perfectionism. To Campbell, failure is healthy. People make mistakes. It’s how we learn and grow. But employers who expect perfection of employees, and berate them when they fail, create an unhealthy environment. “It can show up in so many different ways that really erode the culture and create toxicity, and just unsafe work environments.”

Avoiding conflict is a trauma response

For employees and leaders alike, getting into a disagreement with someone is something they don’t want to do. Consequently, they might avoid saying hard things or speaking up for themselves when they should. “People will avoid conflict only second to the sort of same level at which they fear death and dying. It’s that meaningful,” Campbell explained.

Sometimes, people would rather lose a relationship with someone that address a sticky situation with them. In other situations, they fear demotion, being passed over for promotions, or even for their job security. “We avoid conflict at all costs, and what that does is it really is a huge disservice to ourselves,” Campbell said. Over time, we become resentful, with emotions and unsaid things building up inside.

How to be a trauma-informed leader

In many cases, fear is directly connected with injuries. Employees who are afraid to speak up, or challenge their boss, choose to stay silent about safety risks they’ve seen. Production risks turn into safety risks. Safety risks turn into traumatic injuries.

Trauma-informed leadership is one way to create a healthy  and safe workplace environment. This means that from the top down, leaders hold space for their employees’ diverse experiences. They know that some people may avoid conflict or react in a defensive way to feedback. Rather than taking this personally, they actively seek ways to counter this behavior.

Don’t avoid conflict, connect

Healthy conflict resolution is essential for a safe and health workplace. “In avoiding conflict, we’re essentially avoiding connection,” Campbell shared. We worry about potential abandonment, losing relationships, rejection. Many of us don’t have the tools to address a hard situation with someone, share its impact, and move forward together.

“It is absolutely a myth that trauma-informed leadership means that you are needing to be a therapist or a counselor, or even engage at all with people’s childhood trauma or past workplace trauma,” Campbell said. Connecting with people simply means taking ownership of communicating issues, even it that means being the first one to bring an issue up.

Be a conscious communicator

Many employees are afraid of being overlooked. They want to be heard, seen, and know that they are valued. One way to do this is through having intentional conversations. What is an employee struggling with? How could they be better supported? What concerns do they have?

“I won’t call them psychologically safe, because I think safety is is pretty subjective,” Campbell shared. While there are certainly standards around physical safety, but emotional safety isn’t the same for everyone. “But we can create psychologically supportive environments in which people can begin to start to trust leadership.” These conversations also serve as a way to mitigate risk.

Trauma-informed leadership: Putting people first

Trauma doesn’t have boundaries. Whether we’re at the grocery store, the gym, or the workplace, a trauma response could happen at any time. Trauma-informed leadership is about putting people first. It considers their background, their experiences, and their perspectives. And although it isn’t required, formal training can help leaders with consistency. The return on investment comes in many forms: better mental wellness in the workplace, fewer sick days, and even fewer injuries. Above all, it contributes to safety and success.

May 15, 2024
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