Leadership

The trauma-informed workplace: a better approach to deal with issues

on


Dr. Carolyn Coker Ross, MD, MPH outlines what is causing mental trauma in today’s workplaces, and what can be done to solve the problem.

We have an epidemic in our workplaces:

One in five American adults has a mental illness. That’s over 50 million people, and this number only includes those who have been professionally diagnosed. In actuality, five in five Americans have struggled with one or multiple issues in life that may have been caused by traumatic or adverse experiences in childhood. The effect of these experiences can lead to medical and psychiatric problems in adulthood.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences study has also shown that 63% of Americans have a history of at least one childhood adversity and one in five have four or more childhood adversities. There is a link between childhood adversity and substance use disorders, depression, anxiety, suicide, work performance, absenteeism and over forty medical conditions (including cancer, diabetes, and heart disease) that also impact insurance costs and job performance.

As the above statistics indicate, the emotional stress and trauma we carry has two serious ramifications when it comes to our jobs and careers: It affects our performance at work, and it is affected by and triggered by things that go on at work. Wherever someone is — be it at work or at home — they take their trauma with them. For these reasons, it is important that employers develop trauma informed workplaces, where employees can feel safe and valued and where the effects of trauma — whether it be workplace-related or not — are understood.

My name is Dr. Carolyn Coker Ross, MD, MPH. I’m an internationally known author, speaker, expert, and pioneer in trauma’s effect on one’s body, brain, and beliefs, and I provide coaching for people with food and body image issues with The Anchor Program™. A Trauma-Informed Workplace is not a place one goes to cry on their co-worker’s or boss’s shoulder; it is simply a new workplace model/culture that understands that all employees — and all humans — struggle with one or more issues that cause emotional distress and trauma, and that all employees bring that trauma to work with them.

Background to trauma

How Our Brains Develop

Our brains develop in three stages:

  1. Before we are born our reptilian brain develops, which is the survival part of our brain. Our reptilian brain guarantees that we can breathe, digest our food, sleep — everything we need to sustain our lives.
  2. From ages 0 to 5 our emotional brain develops, which is where memory, response to stress, nurturing, caring, separation anxiety, fear, rage, social bonding, and hormone control occurs.
  3. The most highly developed part of the brain — the prefrontal cortex — develops between ages 5 and 6, 11 and 15, and is not really fully developed until your mid-20s. This is the part of the brain that handles logic, empathy, compassion, creativity, the ability to regulate your emotions, self-awareness, planning, problem solving, and attention.

The reason these three stages are important is that if you or your employees have had an adverse childhood experience during any of these developing stages, it can lead to social, emotional, and cognitive impairments. For example, if you have a traumatic experience before the age of five during the development of the emotional brain, it can have an effect on your memory, your response to stress, and may cause hypervigilance and rage. Many of the patients that I work with in my practice who have had a history of trauma and now are diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) may have had traumatic experiences during the growth period of the prefrontal cortex.

Adverse Childhood Experiences

The CDC-Kaiser ACE Study is a monumental research examination being run by the Centers for Disease Control which looks at the role adverse childhood experiences have on the developing brain, as well as the role societal conditions (poverty, poor housing, lack of opportunity, discrimination) have in creating those adverse childhood experiences.

An adverse childhood experience can be an experience such as physical and emotional neglect, physical and emotional abuse, sexual abuse, substance abuse in the family, mental illness, having a family member incarcerated, homelessness, domestic violence, and maternal depression. These all cause disruption in brain development, and can lead to social, emotional, and cognitive impairments such as ADHD, depression, and anxiety, as well as people adopting risky behaviors such as early promiscuity, early pregnancy, and substance use disorders.

There is also evidence that the effects of trauma can be transmitted from one generation to another. Research on intergenerational trauma has shown that while trauma does not change our DNA, it can change the expression of our genes. For example, the gene for substance use disorder, depression, or diabetes can be turned on by trauma. They can also be turned off by supportive environments, good nutrition, and other positive influences. Perhaps, most importantly, trauma can hijack a person’s potential in life, altering the trajectory of their lives in ways that may be harmful.

The Trauma-Informed Workplace

Let’s review:

  • 5 in 5 Americans have struggled with one or multiple issues in our lives that may have been caused by traumatic or adverse experiences in childhood. The effect of these experiences can lead to medical and psychiatric problems in adulthood.
  • Wherever we go we take our trauma with us.

Knowing this, is it therefore any wonder that stress, anxiety, substance use disorders, and even suicide are so prevalent in the workplace — a place where deadlines, performance, and productivity are placed first and personal health second — and cause billions of dollars in lost productivity? That’s why it is important that employers develop trauma informed workplaces, where employees can feel safe and valued and where the effects of trauma — whether it be workplace-related or not — are understood.

The Trauma-Informed Workplace is one where, on an organizational level, employees are understood and seen with compassion when experiencing distress, mental health issues, or simply everyday stress. A Trauma-Informed Workplace recognizes trauma at both the individual and organizational levels, looking for signs of significant stress in employees and providing access to adequate care to alleviate it. It’s a place where trust is built and transparency is key.

A Trauma-Informed Workplace:

  • Allows for vulnerability.
  • Learns and practices empathy and compassion.
  • Allows employees to hold their organization — and themselves — to a standard of integrity.
  • Listens to others’ lived experiences, and has curiosity rather than judgment about those lived experiences.
  • Addresses race-based trauma, ensuring that employee who are Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) have access to culturally appropriate mental healthcare.
  • Has professional growth activities that promote psychological safety at work.

It will take time to take stock, reimagine, and rebuild under these new conditions, but with costs in both human health and lost productivity now skyrocketing, the Trauma-Informed Workplace becomes a necessary, crucial, and important part of our future corporate and workplace culture — one that will undoubtedly bring benefits for both employee as well as employer.

About Dr. Ross:

carolyn-ross-headshot-light-udcbr

Dr. Carolyn Coker Ross, MD, MPH is an internationally known author, speaker, expert, and pioneer in intergenerational trauma’s effect on one’s body, brain, and beliefs. Ross teaches millions of people about eating disorder treatment and substance use disorder at Psychology Today. Her previous speaking engagements include prestigious leadership bodies such as TEDxPleasantGrove, the US Air Force Academy, International Association for Eating Disorder Professionals (IAEDP), Integrative Medicine for Mental Health (IMMH) Conference, US Journal Conference, American Medical Women’s Association Conference, National Association of Treatment Providers, American Society of Addiction Medicine and more. She is the author of three books, the most recent of which is “The Food Addiction Recovery Workbook.” Dr. Ross is the CEO of The Anchor Program – an online non-diet program for women with food and body image issues.

 

 

About Business Woman Media

Our women don’t want to settle for anything but the best. They understand that success is a journey involving personal growth, savvy optimism and the tenacity to be the best. We believe in pragmatism, having fun, hard-work and sharing inspiration. LinkedIn

Recommended for you