Episode #43: Making a Case for Trauma Informed Workplaces

Artistic drawing of multi-colored hands resting on each other

I recorded this episode when we were already living with the impact of a global pandemic, but before the death of George Floyd. Before the effects of trauma--the impact of centuries of both overt and covert violence against people of color in this country--rose to a boiling point. More than ever before perhaps, employers and leaders are challenged to know what to do, how to respond, and how to care for their employees--the people who bring their very human lives and human scars to the workplace with them every day. Are you ready? 



Welcome to the Freedom from Empty Podcast: Building Strong, Effective, Resilient Leaders and Humans. My name is Booth Andrews, and I am your host. Thank you so much for joining me for this episode.  


Why is trauma becoming a buzz word? And you may be like, in what world is trauma a buzz word? And I’m like, in my world, but perhaps it is because I seem to have a knack for talking about things that people are afraid to talk about . . . or maybe it’s because my brain has always seen patterns where others didn’t, yet . . . or maybe it’s just because like that car you test drove, you suddenly see it everywhere. 

I am paying attention to the word trauma. And I continue to learn more about the experience of trauma and how it can completely re-wire the brain in response to very real or perceived threats based on our position of influence and power, and the availability of supportive, healing relationships at the point in time in our lives when the trauma(s) occurred. 

I remember when one of my care providers said to me . . . “because this happened at this particular developmental period in your life, your brain isn’t wired the same as other people.” That was 8 years ago. And I am still learning what it means to live with a brain that isn’t wired like other people. 

But the more I have learned, the more I have done the work (with support) to heal my own trauma, the more painfully aware I am of the traumatic experience(s) so many of us have had and continue to have in our daily lives. 

I have actually chosen to filter certain traumas. I don’t watch the news, although I have other ways of staying informed. I don’t watch crime dramas. And I don’t watch most movies. It’s not because I cannot differentiate between fiction and reality  . . . but I think in part because of my trauma history, in part because I spent years swimming in a cortisol bath, and in part because I am now aware of the toll that physiological stimulation, hyper-awareness, hyper-vigilance and adrenaline take on my body and mind, I JUST DON’T NEED TO SEE PEOPLE SUFFER ON TV even if they are on a hero’s journey. I DON’T NEED SCREAMS OF TERROR OR EXPLOSIONS IN MY EARS. 

I am not ignoring that traumatic things happen in real life. Indeed, I feel gutted on a regular basis because I am paying attention: to sexual assault survivors, to the fact that our children are doing active shooter drills in their schools, to the lives lost to a global pandemic that no one yet fully understands and even more so to the family members who are losing loved ones and cannot even honor our traditional rituals that allow us to say goodbye and find some measure of closure, to children being taken from their parents at the border, to the fact that a entire populations are being subjected to hate crimes because of the color of their skin or their ethnicity or their gender orientation. BECAUSE I KNOW THAT EVEN IF THEY SURVIVE THE ASSAULT (WHICH IS A REAL “IF”) THESE LIVES WILL NEVER BE THE SAME. I KNOW THAT RIGHT NOW, THEIR BRAINS ARE CHANGING IN RESPONSE TO WHAT THEY HAVE EXPERIENCED. 

That is because our brains are wired to recall the things that frighten or alarm us, the painful experiences we endure.  This is an inborn survival strategy meant to keep us safe, but unfortunately it makes us hypervigilant, and we can misperceive certain experiences to be life-threatening.

To a child, even small rejections can feel like a life or death threat, as we depend on our parents for survival.” Lisa Firestone, PhD ~ https://www.psychalive.org/resolving-trauma/

So our brains are wired to be hyper-responsive and hyper-vigilant to things that are actually happening in the world and are actually life-threatening, and then on top of that many of us are walking around with brains that were developed in childhood or early adulthood in response to threats that are no longer life threatening, but feel like life or death just the same. We may also be experiencing or even re-experiencing vicarious trauma in response to the things that are happening all around us, in the world, in our communities, in our families and in our workplaces.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, “Going through trauma is not rare. About 6 of every 10 men (or 60%) and 5 of every 10 women (or 50%) experience at least one trauma in their lives. Women are more likely to experience sexual assault and child sexual abuse. Men are more likely to experience accidents, physical assault, combat, disaster, or to witness death or injury.” https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/common/common_adults.asp

And sometimes, the trauma affects us so profoundly that our brain cannot find the off switch, cannot tell the difference between safe and unsafe situations and relationships, cannot return to a state of rest and restoration, loses its capacity to access critical information and functions, and ultimately becomes diseased along with our entire body; sometimes leading to disability or death.

According to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 90% of patients in public behavioral health settings have experienced trauma. https://www.integration.samhsa.gov/clinical-practice/trauma and according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, about 10 of every 100 women (or 10%) develop PTSD sometime in their lives compared with about 4 of every 100 men (or 4%).

So, once a upon a time, I managed a workforce of 70, over 98% female, plus an adult membership of about 4,000, plus a girl membership of about 12,000.  Based solely on the statistics, I could extrapolate that 8-9 THOUSAND of the people I served had experienced at least one trauma in their lives. 

Some of these individuals (again, primarily women and girls) might experience one trauma and for any one of a number of reasons, might recover without incident so to speak. But some of these individuals might experience more than one trauma or a series of traumas or a trauma of such a nature and impact for their personal development and physiology that an average of 10% of these individuals would go on to experience PTSD. That would mean that I had 800-900 people in my direct sphere of influence and care who might be living with PTSD. 

Okay, fine . . . you might say. Or, that’s bummer. Or that’s awful for them . . . what is the point? 

Imagine you are an employer and you have 100 employees. 50-60 of those employees have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lives. 4-10 of them may be living with PTSD, and the others may be struggling but not to the point of a PTSD diagnosis;assuming they got help in the first place. 

Imagine that you need those employees to be able to discern the difference between different types of risk. 

Imagine that you need those employees to be able to regulate their emotions. 

Imagine that you need those employees to be able to avoid mistakes. 

Imagine that you need those employees to recall information. 

Imagine that you need those employees to be able to regulate their impulses. 

Imagine that you need those employees to stay healthy and avoid chronic or fatal conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, immune diseases and cancer. 

Imagine that you need those employees to make healthy coping choices as opposed to becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol, etc. (by the way the correlation between addiction and trauma is SIGNIFICANT).

Imagine that you need those employees to make judgment calls. 

Imagine that you need them to be able to show up to work on time every day. 

Imagine that you need them to be able to interact with each other and members of the public. 

Oh, but it’s just my low performers, you might say. Every organization has them. And it’s really none of my business what they may have suffered or be struggling with every day. 

Not so. It isn’t your low(est) performers. In many cases, it is your best performers (see Episode 42 of the podcast for socially acceptable responses to trauma such as hyper performance and perfectionism). They fight a battle with their brain and body every day. They may be unflappable, constant in a crisis, they may almost seem bulletproof. But they aren’t. 

We all have a tipping point--in response to chronic stress, burnout, and trauma. A point at which the assaults on our body and mind outpace our recovery, resilience, coping and healing capacities. Not because we are weak. But because we are human. 

Organizational and employee wellness programs are expanding into well-being as efforts are made to incorporate mental and emotional health into programs and support for employees. I am hearing from employers that the mental health of their employees is not something they can ignore. And many of them are unsure where to begin even as insurance companies and even scientists are starting to understand more about the interplay between mental health and physical health; comorbidities, increased risk and rising health care costs. 

Efforts have been made to integrate trauma-informed practices into some behavioral health structures, health-care organizations, educational systems and across communities, but there is more work to be done.

Just a couple of weeks ago, Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce in an interview reported ⅓ of Salesforce’s employees were struggling with their mental health during the COVID 19 pandemic. Salesforce has 50,000 employees. The increased trauma risk associated with this pandemic is already being reported. 

I believe employers have a unique opportunity to integrate trauma informed practices into the workplace for the health and well-being of their teams and ultimately the well-being of their organizational purpose, mission and even profits. I believe there may be a time in the not too distant future when it will be a non-negotiable for employers to create trauma-informed workplaces. 

The programs and services I provide to companies will be evolving to directly respond to this challenge. Are you ready? 

More to come . . . 


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