Principles for Addressing Implicit Organizational Trauma

By Bryan McNutt, PhD, LMFT, CEAP

Research has revealed that organizations, like individuals, are susceptible to developing chronic stress and becoming affected by traumatic experiences at the institutional level (Bloom, 2010; Carr, 2001). Many EAPs are challenged in addressing experiences of workplace trauma, which may be diffuse and subtle, existing on a systemic level beyond the individual employee. Collective traumatic reactions may be implicit and unspoken throughout the organization. 

Examples of implicit organizational trauma include workplace cultures that tolerate misogynistic comments, show indifference to bullying and intimidation, excuse biases against sexual and gender identity, and minimize the adverse emotional impact caused by corporate mergers, downsizing, or environmental changes in the workplace.

Implicit traumatic reactions among employees may manifest and include: increased absenteeism, attrition, decreased productivity, and excuses to avoid the workplace (e.g., requests for telecommuting); expressions of cynicism, low morale, interpersonal callousness and irritability; and common signs of burnout that include anxiety, apathy, emotional fatigue, and the desire to quit a job (Akgun, Al-Assaf, & Bakar, 2008; Kaçmaz, 2005; Lewis, 1994).

In order to effectively mitigate these implicit forms of organizational trauma, it is critical to promote a workplace culture that is trauma-sensitive.  

Six Principles of a Trauma-Sensitive Workplace
Trauma-informed care is based on the recognition that the experience of traumatic distress is widespread, that it may manifest in a variety of ways among individuals, families, and systems, and that interventions must be sensitive to refrain from creating the experience of re-traumatization (SAMSHA, 2014; Steele & Kuban, 2011).

Researchers have identified six primary principles that assist in guiding the application of trauma-informed approaches within organizational settings (Elliot, Bjelajac, Fallot, Markoff, & Reed, 2005; Harris & Fallot, 2001; SAMSHA, 2014). While EA professionals are well-acquainted with the application of such principles on an individual level of providing clinical care, we can also provide an essential role for incorporating these approaches on an organizational level. 

1. Safety
This first principle emphasizes the organizational goal of promoting an environment that prioritizes the experience of feeling safe – physically, interpersonally, and environmentally. Safety is not only defined by the removal of a threat. Feeling safe often occurs when one feels genuinely acknowledged, and responded to with consistency, reassurance, and respect. When safety is present, conditions thrive for human connection, social bonding, and emotional expression.

The following are questions for EA professionals to explore with the managers, supervisors, and organizational leadership of their corporate clients:  
* Do staff feel safe in the work organization? Why or why not? How do you know? 
* How are employee concerns or complaints addressed? Do these responses feel relevant and meaningful to those who have disclosed concerns? 
* When work environment changes are anticipated, how proactively are these matters being discussed with staff? 
* How does management respond to incidents of harmful workplace behavior (e.g., verbal aggression, threats, and intimidation)? How well is it communicated that such behaviors are not tolerated? How clear are the consequences of such behavior? 
*What changes could be made to address safety concerns? 

Through the use of management consultations, EA professionals can encourage supervisors to ensure that their staff are well-informed and well-rehearsed in the safety protocols and emergency plans established for the workplace, in the event that a physically threatening incident occurs. Offering emergency response training may help employees feel empowered in their sense of safety and security.

EA professionals also have an opportunity to promote sensitivity to feelings of safety by being proactive in their communications, discussing safety concerns with management and staff, modeling openness in encouraging such conversations, and periodically checking in with employees to clarify their general sense of feeling emotionally and physically secure at work.     

2. Trustworthiness and Transparency 
Openness and transparency are essential to developing a sense of trust in any relationship. These qualities are critical to mitigating the adverse effects of implicit trauma. Organizational leadership that is viewed as distrustful by employees may be interpreted as being relationally disengaged, out of touch, and secretive in its decision-making. This sense of separateness can promote a distinct feeling of an inequitable power differential, which can contribute to feelings of unfairness, suspicion, and cynicism.
Critical questions for the EA professional to explore with management in relation to this principle include:

* How is trust promoted throughout the organization?
* How well do staff trust leadership and management? How do you know? 
* How does the organization communicate genuine support for employees? 
* What changes could be made to address trust concerns? 

EA professionals can encourage managers and supervisors to consider how their communication with employees may foster or inhibit feelings of trustworthiness. For example, EA professionals can provide guidance in communication approaches that help employees remain fully informed of rules, procedures, and schedules, in order to maintain clear expectations and mitigate chances that employees will feel isolated or marginalized.

 EA professionals also can coach leadership through implementing organizational changes effectively, such as being mindful that some employees may feel easily overwhelmed when they don’t have enough time or information to process and emotionally integrate the consequences of significant systemic change. 

3. Peer Support
The principle of peer support is focused on enhancing a sense of mutual self-help, collaboration, and relational bonding. Within an organizational setting, common outcomes of successful peer support are increased feelings of trustworthy relationships among co-workers, reassurance of the ability to cope and adapt to workplace challenges, and the promotion of resilience.
The following are further questions that may help explore the current presence and use of peer support within an organization:   

* Does the organization offer opportunities for peer-led support among co-workers? 
* What opportunities can be provided that encourage peer co-workers to share their experiences of workplace stressors and challenges? 
* What kinds of opportunities do staff have to explore peer-led problem solving and ideas about self-care strategies in managing work-related challenges?
* What barriers exist to offering peer support in the organization?

EA professionals can use their unique position within an organization to educate management and leadership about the value of peer-led support activities, while also helping facilitate the initial steps for establishing peer support opportunities for themselves. Voluntary peer support groups have proven to be particularly helpful for workers in the helping professions, such as nurses, caregivers, and caseworkers. This is a vital point as individuals like these are especially vulnerable to experiencing emotional burnout and compassion fatigue. 
Such support groups provide non-judgmental outlets for co-worker engagement that focus on shared recognition of their common experience, mutual acknowledgement and validation of work-related stressors, opportunities to explore problem-solving, and the sharing of ideas about self-care strategies. 

4. Collaboration and Mutuality 
This principle recognizes that everyone within an organization has a part to play in promoting collective emotional health and well-being. Implicit organizational trauma is exacerbated when individuals feel excluded and kept from participating in various aspects of an institution’s decision-making process, particularly surrounding decisions that may influence their own emotional well-being. 

Promoting collaboration and mutuality demonstrates an acknowledgement of the importance of fostering a sense of shared partnering and a leveling of power indifferences within an organization. This can help create a work environment where there is a shared sense of responsibility and ownership for co-creating a workplace where trust and reciprocity are valued.
EA professionals can explore the following questions with organizational decision-makers: 

* What kinds of power differentials exist within the organization? 
* How does the organization promote partnership opportunities between top-level administrators and line staff? 
* What types of changes could be made to help decrease the power differential in the organization? 
* How well is each level of the organization involved in decision-making? How does management know?

Through the use of executive coaching and management consultations, EA professionals can help organizational leaders explore opportunities to level the power differentials between themselves and staff employees.

The creation of task forces and committees, for example, provide opportunities for equal representation of interests in an organization can be a meaningful process that demonstrates the valued input of everyone. Also, making changes to rigid boundaries within the workplace can also help promote a sense of mutuality, such as removing “management only” break lounges or privileged parking spaces.  
5. Empowerment, Voice, and Choice 
One of the primary challenges in addressing implicit organizational trauma involves recognizing that individuals who already feel powerless will rarely make assertive requests for more collaborative engagement and acknowledgement. That is, unless this is modeled and encouraged by those in positions of leadership. Implicit trauma can manifest through individuals becoming gradually more disengaged, avoidant, and peripherally involved with the life of the organization. 

The more influence individuals genuinely experience at every level of an organization, the more likely they will feel empowered, share in the collective investment of the organization, and develop trust in the possibility of self-advocating for their needs.

Essential questions for EA professionals to ask in relation to this principle include: 
* How well does the organization foster opportunities for everyone to feel a sense of empowerment, voice, and choice? 
* What might be some policies or practices that do the opposite — that take voice, choice, and decision-making away? What might be some steps to adjust or change these policies and practices? 

EA professionals can assist organizational leaders in evaluating the adverse impact of policies and workplace procedures that may inhibit the feeling of empowerment among organizational staff, while also exploring opportunities for encouraging influence.

For example, maintaining a regular staff satisfaction survey that is facilitated by a contracted third party can be a critical first step to demonstrating an objective interest in the needs of employees. EA professionals can also help by facilitating a collaborative discussion between leadership and staff about the survey results, in order to help promote a sense of empowerment and shared interest in the collective well-being of the organization.  

6. Cultural, Historical, and Gender Issues 
Implicit organizational trauma can often be reinforced by overlooking the cultural biases that exist within an organization’s institutional history. In addition, individuals within an organization who belong to social minority groups may feel particularly vulnerable to experiencing traumatic distress. 

Critical questions that EA professionals can explore with organizational leadership regarding this principle include:

* How well is diversity and inclusion of differences supported by the organization? 
* What types of policies and practices may overlook the diverse needs and identities of employees? How might these policies and practices be adjusted to demonstrate more sensitivity to diversity? 
* How well does the organization demonstrate sensitivity to gender-related physical and emotional safety concerns that include gender-specific spaces and activities?

EA professionals have an ethical responsibility to consistently maintain sensitivity to the diverse experiences, identities, and needs of individuals within the workplace. Through the influence of management consultations, EA professionals can also encourage the promotion of sensitivity to diversity through leadership decisions.

For instance, the creation of an equity, diversity, and inclusion committee can be incredibly important to demonstrate that the diverse needs of employees are being considered. Changes in the work environment can also assist, such as the installation of gender-neutral restrooms, private nursing and lactation spaces, and the assurance of ADA accommodations.    

The recognition of an institution’s vulnerability to developing implicit organizational trauma is critical for fostering and sustaining an emotionally healthy work environment. EA professionals can play a critical role in promoting and encouraging trauma-sensitive approaches within an organization through consultation with management and executive leadership, engagement with labor representatives, coaching of work supervisors, and trainings for teams on the departmental level.

Such approaches may help support an organization’s sensitivity to recognizing and responding to implicit trauma by nurturing a work culture that is more emotionally safe and secure, relationally responsive and consistent, and psychologically efficacious and resilient.  

Dr. Bryan McNutt, PhD, LMFT, CEAP, is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist who currently works as an internal employee assistance counselor with the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program at the University of California, San Diego. Dr. McNutt also serves as the president of the EAPA San Diego Chapter. 


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Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014). SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 14-4884. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.