Practising trauma-informed HR can go a long way towards fostering a mentally and psychologically safe work environment.
It’s estimated that between 57 and 75 per cent of Australians will experience a potentially traumatic experience in their lifetimes.
And while trauma often arises out of situations that occur outside of the workplace, such as instances of violence, neglect, loss or emotionally harmful experiences, work-related circumstances can also trigger residual or additional trauma.
Sometimes it’s the nature of the work that can lead to a trauma response. Commonly cited examples of at-risk workers include frontline responders, such as emergency services, paramedics or defence force personnel.
However, ‘second line’ responders can also be at risk. Professions such as social work case managers, psychotherapists/psychologists, insurance workers and even some HR professionals can experience vicarious trauma after being exposed to distressing situations.
The legal profession too can be rife with instances of vicarious trauma. In 2022, a High Court decision found that the Victorian Department of Public Prosecutions was liable for $435,000 in damages following the psychological injuries and trauma experienced by a solicitor who worked in its Specialist Sexual Offences Unit.
Speaking to HRM at the time of the case, Will Snow, Partner at Finlayson, said: “Physical risk factors have been quite well understood to date, like working in confined spaces, lifting techniques and working from heights. An increasing trend now, from jurisdictions and also from guidance from safety regulators, is to manage psychosocial risks with the same rigour and process.”
Expectations around managing psychological injury at work have since been laid out for employers as part of the Code of Practice on managing psychosocial hazards, released earlier this year. However, HR leaders can go a step further in creating psychosocially safe workplaces by practising trauma-informed HR.
What is trauma-informed HR
A trauma-informed HR practice isn’t about putting the onus on HR professionals to manage or resolve trauma identified in employees – that’s the job of professionally trained mental health experts.
It’s about knowing how to identify behaviours that could indicate someone is experiencing an emotionally distressing situation and understanding how to put preventative measures in place to prevent the work environment from exacerbating or sparking trauma.
“What HR may see in [employees experiencing trauma] is changes in behaviour such as memory, attention and difficulty regulating emotions, which can lead to lost productivity and decreased team cohesion,” says Dr Phoebe Lau, clinical psychologist and Director of The Inner Collective.
Dr Lau refers the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) three E’s model to explain how trauma eventuates:
Event: These could be one-off or continual events that cause significant emotional, psychological or physical harm.
“It’s important to note that emotional and psychological harm may be perceived as life-threatening,” says Dr Lau.
Experience: An individual’s experience of the event plays an important role in determining whether the event was traumatic. For example, SAMHSA uses the example of children removed from an abusive household and two siblings having completely different emotional and psychological responses.
“This is dependent on a number of factors including past trauma, automatic physiological responses, and how meaning is made post event,” says Dr Lau.
Effects: The effects of trauma can be varied. Some may experience it instantly and others can have a delayed onset. And people’s trauma could potentially resurface multiple times throughout their lifetime.
“SAMHSA’s trauma-informed approach recognises the obvious, but easily forgotten, impact that personal and professional events and experiences can have on both individuals and groups. It also recognises the cumulative impact of these, sometimes over decades, dependent on the context,” says Deb Travers-Wolf, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging Consultant at I LEAD Consulting.
Putting trauma-informed HR into practice
Katriina Tahka, CEO of A Human Agency, says a trauma-informed HR is particularly important when dealing with workplace grievances.
For example, your organisation’s sexual harassment procedures could potentially re-trigger those who’ve previously experienced sexual assault in the past, or you could inadvertently do more psychological damage to victims if your investigation processes require people to recount their experience to multiple people or make an official report before they’re ready, for example.
“I’ve been asked to investigate complaints of workplace sexual harassment where it is known that the complainant has a pre-existing trauma,” says Tahka.
“In order to be able to conduct an appropriate investigation, it was imperative to consider how a typical best-practice process would need to be modified to create a safe, neutral space for the [employee] to discuss their complaint while minimising the potential to re-traumatise them in the retelling of the new events or in any perception that [their] version of events was being questioned.”
Travers-Wolf says workplace safety incidents like bullying, harassment and discrimination often require “rigorous and protracted investigations and remediations” which have significant potential to delay recovery and may continue the cycle of trauma.”
In this instance, a trauma-informed approach could look like working in collaboration with the victim to design an investigation that helps them to feel protected, believed and safe, she says.
For example, they might prefer to provide evidence or information from the safety of their home via a phone or video call, instead of in-person. Or perhaps they’ll want to work remotely while the investigation is taking place, to avoid coming into contact with the alleged offender.
“If an individual does not find the workplace to be physically, psychologically or emotionally safe, a trauma-informed approach is not going to work.” – Dr Phoebe Lau, clinical psychologist and Director of The Inner Collective
When investigating a bullying or harassment claim, you need to consider both the practical and emotional preparation that’s needed, says Travers-Wolf.
“For example, explaining the process and, even more importantly, its intention will promote trust. Authentically offering some choice in where and when the discussion/s occur enhances both cooperation and engagement,” she says.
“Asking how you can support those involved and being aware of emotions, body language and tone of voice, can reduce the chance of moving from a conversation into an interrogation. It’s a good idea to acknowledge these can be uncomfortable conversations, so being comfortable with silence and [an expression of] emotion is important.
“We need to recognise the role of HR as a culture enabler and understand that organisations with a fundamentally human approach experience the highest wellbeing and belonging, and therefore higher performance.”
Other instances where a trauma-informed approach would be beneficial include:
Specific leave policies and processes: “For example, policies associated with applying for parental leave may be more complex in the event of prior early pregnancy loss or for those in the LGBTQIA+ community,” says Travers-Wolf.
What could HR do differently? She suggests expanding the language used in such policies (i.e. not referring to ‘primary and secondary’ carers). In the case of prior early-pregnancy loss, Travers-Wolf says you might offer additional EAP or wellbeing services for expecting parents, to help ease them into their leave and address any underlying anxiety.
Sudden performance issues: For example, a usually strong performer is consistently showing up late or not delivering their usual quality.
What could HR do differently? Instead of assuming the individual is lazy or incompetent, a trauma-informed leader or HR practitioner would be curious and ask sensitive questions that give the employee the opportunity to open up.
“Keeping safety, trust, choice, collaboration and empowerment at the forefront of the approach you take is the key to a respectful and inclusive process.”
Personal disclosures: If an employee tells you about a traumatic experience in their personal lives, what is your default way to respond?
What could HR do differently? Often a caring and supportive manager or HR professional might want to jump into fix-it mode in an effort to help.April Long, CEO of SMART Recovery Australia, says trauma-informed HR is about “meeting the person where they’re at”.
“It’s about making sure we’re not doing more harm,” says Long.
For example, assuming that people experiencing trauma will automatically need time off work could do further damage. As HRM has previously reported, work is often the safest and most stabilising space for people experiencing personally distressing situations.
In this instance, having a preventative measure in place, such as a ‘personal situation plan’, is a great way to better understand the individual needs of your employees ahead of a traumatic event and gives HR a clear blueprint to roll out.
Download AHRI’s personal situation plan template.
Long says it’s important for HR to remember that trauma can have a cumulative effect, especially for those in underrepresented groups who can face discriminatory behaviours on a regular basis that often reopen old trauma wounds.
“When we talk about trauma, we’re not really good at understanding that it can be collective and intergenerational,” says Long.
Having an entire nation weigh in and cast judgements upon whether or not you should be legally allowed to marry your partner, for example, is not only a deeply distressing circumstance in and of itself, but it could also dredge up prior experiences of homophobia or violence.
The same thing is occurring now for many Indigenous employees in the lead up to the Voice referendum.
“As a Queer Aboriginal person, this is the second time the nation has voted on whether or not I have the right to do basic things like marry the person I love or have a voice around policies and programs that impact me.
“And for an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Elder in the Queer community, this is the third time they’ve experienced this, [when you consider the] 1967 referendum.”
Trauma isn’t just about things that are happening in the here and now, Long adds.
“People can be triggered by things that happened years ago. It can rise up when you least expect it. So how do we ensure that managers and HR specialists know what their role is and what their role isn’t?”
Conducting an audit
As a short-term priority, Travers-Wolf suggests assessing your organisation’s current risk factors that might inadvertently spark or trigger trauma by auditing your policies and processes.
The SAMHSA trauma-informed guide offers helpful questions to consider as you do this, and suggests assessing various areas of your organisation, including:
How do leadership and governance structures demonstrate support for the voice and participation of people using their services who have trauma histories?
See page 14 of this guide for the full list of examples.
Collaborate and communicate with employees
Importantly, this doesn’t all sit on HR’s shoulders. Part of being a trauma-informed leader is knowing when to call on external qualified experts for training or investigation purposes.
“It can involve additional financial cost for the company, but it minimises the risk of further harm and reduces the human-emotional cost of the process,” says Tahka.
Travers-Wolf also suggests following the “platinum rule”: “Treat others not as you wish to be treated, but as they wish to be treated.”
Long agrees, emphasising the importance of consulting the community you’re aiming to support to ensure you’re not unintentionally doing more harm.
“You see this quite a lot in corporate Australia. An organisation wants to recognise Reconciliation week or Sorry Day, but they actually end up loading extra work on to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff who carry that extra responsibility on top of their workload. National Sorry Day in particular can be very triggering and emotional for mob impacted by Stolen Generations”
Read HRM’s article on managing cultural load in the workplace.
“Even things like a Welcome to Country [can be triggering]. Depending on where that person is at in their cultural journey, they may just not have that information, which can make them feel worse.”
Lay the foundations of trust
Dr Lau says it’s important not to jump into trying to manage a traumatic situation at work without first laying the groundwork of trust.
“Sometimes the individual doesn’t think HR or leaders [are] safe [to share] such personal information with,” she says. “If an individual does not find the workplace to be physically, psychologically or emotionally safe, a trauma-informed approach is not going to work.”
Post-referendum, Long says line managers and HR will need to think about how to support their people – no matter the outcome – rather than brushing this off as a political matter that doesn’t belong in the workplace.
“If there’s no place for these conversations [at work], that can reinforce a lack of inclusion and create more stigma and shame.”
Travers-Wolf says trauma-informed HR should be practised year round, but notes that the referendum period could be a particularly challenging time for some people.
“It’s vital HR understand how to support [those experiencing trauma] and bring the workforce together. That requires a delicate dance between respecting everyone’s views and not exacerbating the trauma this social debate has brought on for some.
“We are all human, equally worthy of respect, connection, care and compassion. We need to balance respecting the view of others, while also being able to express/voice a version of our views in a way that’s [appropriate] for the workplace.”
Learn how to develop a practical, evidence-based action plan to address mental health challenges in the workplace by booking your place at AHRI’s mental health first aid course.