Policy alone won’t eliminate Workplace Trauma

by Jun 25, 2024

Eliminate Workplace Trauma

Policy and awareness are only a part of the required solution to eliminate workplace trauma. Organisations need a real understanding of the impact on individuals

 

Types of Workplace Trauma

A trauma refers to any distressing experience encountered in a professional setting that can have long-lasting emotional, psychological, and even physical impact. The chance of trauma increases when the target is vulnerable, alone, isolated or predisposed to trauma.

As I do more work in the area, I understand better the whole concept of workplace trauma and its effect on individuals. I see more clearly now the strength of resistance to change within organisations to address these damaging cultural issues. Organisations increasingly want to create awareness around these negative behaviours so create policies and codes of conduct to deal with them. But the impact of these behaviours on the individual (the trauma) is still seen as something separate from the issue the organisation needs to deal with.

Organisations frequently consider healing from trauma as the responsibility of the individual and a personal issue, except in the case of an external event or catastrophe. First responders or teachers and nurses in shooting incidents frequently receive trauma or mental health support.  Trauma caused by workplace behaviours is often overlooked  (or denied) even though it impacts employees’ mental health and productivity. They provide wellness activities but the behaviour which causes the trauma is allowed to continue.

But awareness workshops and policies alone will not eliminate workplace trauma.

 

eliminate workplace trauma

Types of workplace trauma

1. Acute Trauma

Acute trauma results from a single, distressing event or experience. This might include witnessing an accident at work, experiencing or witnessing violence, or the sudden loss of a colleague. The shock of such events can lead to immediate and intense emotional reactions, potentially affecting an employee’s ability to function normally at work.

2. Chronic Trauma

Chronic trauma develops from repeated and prolonged exposure to stressful situations. This can occur in environments where high levels of stress are persistent, such as in healthcare settings, law enforcement, or high-stakes corporate environments. Chronic trauma often leads to burnout, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues and even physical health problems over time.

Individuals can also create stressful situations themselves in the way they treat their reports and colleagues or via toxic business practices which eventually cause workplace trauma.

3. Vicarious Trauma

Vicarious trauma, also known as secondary trauma, happens when individuals are indirectly exposed to trauma through their work. This is common among professionals such as therapists, social workers, and emergency responders who regularly engage with individuals who have experienced severe trauma. Over time, the emotional toll of empathising with others’ traumatic experiences can accumulate, affecting the caregiver’s mental health.

4. Bullying and Harassment

Workplace bullying and harassment constitute a significant source of trauma. This includes verbal abuse, intimidation, and other hostile behaviors that create a toxic work environment. Prolonged exposure to bullying and harassment can lead to severe psychological distress, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

A culture of overwork can also lead to workplace trauma –  employees being expected to be available 24/7 and feel terrorised by late-night emails and messages. They might be expected to work nights and weekends, without pay for fear of losing their jobs if they complain. A work environment that allows gaslighting, bullying, or workplace coercion can also be traumatising for some team members.

5. Discrimination

Experiencing discrimination based on race, gender, age, sexual orientation, or other personal characteristics can be deeply traumatizing. Discrimination can manifest in various forms, including unfair treatment, exclusion, and biased decision-making, leading to feelings of worthlessness, frustration, and helplessness among affected employees. These are systemic traumas.

 6. Organisational Trauma

Organisational trauma occurs when there are significant negative changes within a workplace. This can include mass layoffs, company restructures, or dramatic shifts in company culture or leadership. Such changes can destabilise employees’ sense of security and belonging, causing widespread stress and anxiety.

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7. Moral Injury

Moral injury happens when employees are forced to act in ways that contradict their moral or ethical beliefs. This is common in professions where workers might be compelled to engage in activities that go against their values, such as in military or corporate settings where decisions might negatively impact others. The resulting cognitive dissonance can lead to deep emotional scars and long-term psychological issues.

 8. Trauma from Natural Disasters or Catastrophic Events

Workplaces affected by natural disasters or catastrophic events, such as earthquakes, floods, or terrorist attacks, can leave employees traumatised. The suddenness and severity of such events disrupt the normal functioning of both individuals and organizations, leading to a heightened state of stress and vulnerability.

 Addressing Workplace Trauma

Creating a supportive work environment that acknowledges and addresses workplace trauma is crucial. However, it is insufficient to talk about policy and company Codes of Conduct without understanding the impact on the individual. Companies should:

  • Provide access to mental health resources
  • Foster a culture of open communication where employees feel safe discussing their experiences and concerns.
  • Create and implement serious training programs to manage behaviours that cause trauma with public accountability and serious consequences for perpetrators.
  • Promote a workplace culture that values respect, inclusivity, and mutual support.

Policies alone will not eliminate workplace trauma. Organisations need a real understanding of the impact on individuals and if they focus on protocols alone they fall short of what is required. This action and knowledge gap can make whole sections of the workforce fragile and vulnerable.  In male-dominated environments where women are constantly demeaned and humiliated the numbers are significant. The same is true of racial discrimination in white-dominated cultures. Those with disabilities or the neurodiverse can also feel isolated and the victims of trauma by everyday behaviours.

Leadership Commitment

Some organisations continue to defend the indefensible. Resistance to any change management is rooted in fear because it means that organisations need to do things differently which they find frightening. Maybe their leaders worry they will be exposed as complicit in poor workplace practices.  Or perhaps they (the dominant group)  will lose out if other demographics are treated fairly. Either way, their futures seem less predictable and more uncertain and they will do what it takes to protect themselves.

Policy and awareness are only a part of the required solution to eliminate workplace trauma.

 

3Plus offers a portfolio of solutions, including working with you to understand the unwritten corporate culture.

 

 

Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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