What does employee trauma have to do with HR?

trauma Jan 09, 2023

70% of people have experienced trauma: the majority of those more than three times. If you employ people, you employ people with trauma. 

Here are some statistics. 


If you work in a large company in Canada or the US. you will know folks who are traumatized on the job. About half of these cases go unreported and even fewer are reported to HR as people thing that it won't make a difference or they may face retaliation. HR is also widely seen as working on behalf of the company. not the people in the company. Most people report finding it easier to quit than to report harm. 

The impact of trauma has an impact on results at work that extend beyond turnover. Hours are lost. If employees are in fight, flight, freeze or fawn mode, they will not be making good work decisions or have the ability to innovate. Is used to work as a divorce coach and saw first-hand the impact that stress had on very smart, high net worth, capable individuals. Clear thinking requires a regulated nervous system which is hard to achieve if your boss is a bully or the threat of layoff is always handing over you. 

As a human-centric HR person, what are some of the things you can do to 

Trauma-awareness training

It's imporatant to learn about trauma-informed and harm-reducing practices. A Little book of Trauma Informed Workplaces and The Empathetic Workplace are excellent resources. What are some of the things that cause trauma at work: 

  • bullying
  • conflict
  • threat of layoffs/firing
  • racism/sexism/ableism/homophobia
  • overwork
  • lack of clarity around work
  • lack of autonomy

It's important to understand trauma triggers so that when you look at your people systems, management training, and communications, you can make sure they are not creating harm. 

Worklife flexibility

Trauma removes one's sense of control and trauma survivors emphasize the importance of feeling they have some control over their own lives and work lives. Traumatized employee value flexibility in workplace and work hours, which is why we are seeing such an emphasis on workplace flexibility post-COVID. 

Bearing witness

It's also important to bear witness to employees in pain. If someone trust you enough to report a trauma to you, whether it's workplace related or not, it's important to listen and acknowledge their pain. You can say that you are sorry they have experienced something without admitting culpability. The Journal of American Medicine 1997 study showed that primary care physicians who spent time with their patients, getting to know them and building rapport reduced the risk of being sued in the event of a bad medical outcome. As humans, we are hardwired to build connection. You are less likely to be sued if you are caring while following protocol than if you seem like you really don't care. 

Monitor who gets to be a manager

There are a lot of dysfunctional personality types who are great performers. The reality is, narcissists and sociopaths can make great workers and often perform well since they folks without a strong moral compass will do things others would not. There is a risk that these people will lead you into a lawsuit or scandal s it's important to pay atention to red flags such as reports of bullying or unethical behaviour. If you want to keep them on due to the money they generate,  minimum, they should be in individual contributors roles, not managers or in the C-Suite. When you see senior people who have gone from having a large staff to working on their own, that's a sign that they may have been red-flagged by another organization. 

Work for the mission, not a manager

HR should be set up to be the moral compass of an organization and call out bullies and harm-causers even if they have a C-suite role. Companies get sued for knowing about problems and ignoring them. Employees don't trust HR in general so if someone is bringing something to you, it's important that you follow up even if the complain is about the CEO. 


Know how to triage trauma.

As an HR professional, you are not resourced to heal an employee's trauma. You can show empathy adn make sure that your systems are not created more harm. Then it's your job to help the employee get help. Let them know their benefits. Walk then through leave policies. Let the know the policies and procedures and what steps you will take to make them safe. Connect them to an EAP program and see if and how they want to you handle things with their manager. If you are trauma-informed, you can use some somatic practices like taking a breath and encourage the employee to do the same. Listen, reduce harm, and connect the employee to help in the short term. In the longer term, you'll want to audit your systems for trauma causing people and processes so this does not happen to someone else. 

To listen to the podcast episode on this subject, listen here



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