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Know the trauma, build control

By Paul Wilson

Understanding that trauma may be at the centre of a staff member’s behaviour can be the first step to improving workplace productivity.

Rob Wilton knows a thing or two about trauma in the workplace. He’s been ‘stabbed, shot at and blown up’ during his 30-year military career, which saw service in hotspots such as Iraq, Kuwait, Kosovo and Bosnia.

Now Chief Operations Officer at St Bartholomew’s House – which assists homeless people and those in crisis – Wilton is a proponent of trauma-informed practice to manage staff who have been unable to mentally manage a negative impact, emotional shock or physical injury.

He says trauma is more widespread than people may think: “Seventy-six per cent of adults report some form of trauma in their lives while more than 9 per cent meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Trauma-informed practice requires understanding traumas people may have had in their past to help them rebuild a sense of control and empowerment.

Wilton said the trauma-informed approach had shown to have a positive impact on productivity, retention, absenteeism and stress leave throughout an organisation.

Trauma and its impacts

He said trauma impacted the nervous system by focusing on the fight, flight or freeze response. It affected people psychologically in different ways and could trigger neurosis.

Continued, systemic trauma had significant impacts on physical health, mental health, behaviour, relationships, community and spirituality.

Trauma could have mental health symptoms, such as addiction, reliving events, suicidal ideation and hyperarousal or hypersensitivity.

It could lead to behavioural changes, including self-harm, acting out traumatic events, difficulty maintaining employment, violence and crime.

Conflicts with friends, family and colleagues as well as attachment difficulties could also follow trauma, leading to isolation and difficulty seeking help. This could lead to despair and a lack of hope, purpose or meaning.

What the workplace can do

Wilton said that when a person experienced stress and a traumatic experience, it could have an increased negative impact in the workplace and on the wellbeing of the employee.

“In order to address this, it is important that organisations are aware of how the combination of stress and trauma can impact in the workplace, on the workforce and consequently service users or consumers,” he said.

“Human resource managers and leaders can alleviate the impact on the organisation by being trauma-informed and implement a trauma-informed practice framework at a policy, procedure, practice and cultural level.”

To adopt trauma-informed practice, organisations needed to consider a culture shift in which policies, practices and environments are viewed through the lens of trauma.

“Through a trauma-informed practice lens, an organisation should examine or revise HR policies and practices.”

When looking at policies, certain questions needed to be answered:

  • Do they provide for safety?
  • Do they allow an employee to trust the employer?
  • Do they provide choice so that an employee can find the right experience for them?
  • Is decision-making collaborative where it can be?
  • Are employees empowered to speak up against risks or against poor practice?

Wilton said there was not a one-size-fits-all approach to becoming a trauma-informed workplace.

“HR plays a significant role in support of the employees of the organisation as well as in shaping policies and practices,” he said.

“There is not one list of appropriate ‘trauma-informed’ HR policies that can apply for all organisations.

“Rather, it is important that each organisation within the full context of its specific demands and requirements review policies and practices through a trauma-informed lens.”

Understanding that trauma may be at the centre of a staff member’s behaviour can be the first step to improving workplace productivity.

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