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Creating Trauma-informed Workplaces: The Time to Act is Now

Lately, I have been feeling like it’s becoming harder to come up for air – we have been completely overwhelmed with legitimate reasons to feel saddened, angry, fearful, shocked, and helpless. In the US in the past few weeks alone, we’ve experienced devastating acts of gun violence, some racially motivated; an escalated campaign to repeal women’s health access; and inflation that is causing financial hardships for so many families. Globally, we are more than three months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and are still dealing with the disruption and fear related to the pandemic. The cumulative impact of all these events is devastating.  It is no surprise that trauma-related stress is one of America’s fastest growing mental health challenges – and it is time employers start paying attention.

Over the past two years, the number of events that potentially trigger trauma – and the range of people exposed to them through non-stop social media – seems to have jumped exponentially.  Chances are, most workplaces will be impacted by employees suffering from post-traumatic stress (PTS).  Employers need to be better prepared to help.

Research shows that an estimated 12 million Americans every year experience PTS.  Another study found that PTS is up 136% since the pandemic began, with a staggering one in four Americans screening positive during a four month period.  In short, a challenge once associated primarily with people in the military, first-responders, and other high-risk professions has become a full-blown crisis impacting nearly every demographic.

Many companies are stepping up to address workplace trauma – an enormously positive step.  But as we’ve seen, trauma can be triggered by any number of outside events unrelated to work itself.  That means business leaders need to provide a broader network of support to create a truly trauma-informed workplace.

Recently, One Mind at Work partners at the Health Action Alliance developed a set of guidelines for companies to help employees experiencing PTS after mass shootings. These principles, while shared in response to a specific event, are evergreen, and should be part of an organization’s comprehensive approach to fostering a culture of mental health.

First, companies should clearly communicate to employees that it’s normal for workers to experience challenges and let them know that support is available.  Business leaders should acknowledge the seriousness of trauma-inducing events and legitimize peoples’ reactions to them.

Second, employers should create an environment where employees feel comfortable discussing their reaction to traumatic, real-world issues.  Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) can also provide outlets for supportive conversations.

Third, companies can educate employees to help them identify signs of PTS in colleagues.  Sometimes symptoms can be subtle or easily attributed to other factors.  Educated employees can help guide their co-workers to support services.

Fourth, employers should support managers who are working to help their team members deal with PTS.  This includes creating space to be flexible with workloads, deadlines and work schedules.  Managers should be encouraged to listen with empathy and be prepared to offer access to company mental health resources.

Finally, acknowledging the recent acts of mass gun violence, if your company chooses to hold an active shooter drill, collaborate with a mental health professional to minimize emotional distress. The Kentucky Department of Education offers the model of plan, prepare, practice, and process to help employees reduce the risk of stress during these mock drills.

Nearly every employer is now on the front line of the PTS crisis.  Business leaders must step up by getting trauma-informed, ensuring effective resources and tools are available, and supporting employees with compassion and empathy.