We need trauma-informed leadership in the workplace. Here’s how


By Katharine Manning

This month, millions of Americans watched a workplace injury unfold in real time as Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collided with Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins, then collapsed in a cardiac arrest. While Hamlin’s injury was unique in how public it was, more than 2 million workplace injuries affect individuals and organizations every year in the United States. There are also approximately 2 million victims of workplace violence annually. The healthcare and social assistance industries have an 8.2% workplace violence incident rate. Violence at grocery and retail businesses is on the rise; from 2018 to 2020, assaults in grocery stores rose by 63% and in convenience stores by 75%.

These are some of the most extreme examples of how trauma can affect the workplace. Workers may also experience trauma due to other kinds of issues at work, such as bias, harassment, and bullying. And challenges that employees face outside of work, like intimate partner violence, mental and physical illness, and addiction can affect the workplace as well. Trauma isn’t a jacket we can take off when it’s time to go to work; we carry it with us. It affects productivity, engagement, absenteeism, turnover, and more.

In my work advising organizations on empathetic leadership and leading through times of trauma, I’ve seen the incredible shifts that can happen when organizations prioritize supporting their employees when it matters most. In this era of hybrid models, worker burnout, and quiet quitting (as well as loud quitting), organizations are struggling to meet the changing expectations of their employees while also providing adequate support that acknowledges the turbulence of the current moment. Efforts to demonstrate to employees that they are cared for and supported through challenges will be reciprocated in lasting trust, engagement, and loyalty.

Here’s what organizations and leaders can do to practice supportive, trauma-informed leadership and build cultures of resilience to see them through today’s challenges and the ones to come.

1. Listen and acknowledge

A critical element of trauma-informed leadership is being willing to listen to and acknowledge the pain of those experiencing trauma. It is essential to allow people to share their experiences, but we need to make sure they feel genuinely heard as well. That means that we must employ our best active listening skills and acknowledge what we’re hearing. A simple “Thanks for sharing that,” or “I’m sorry for everything you’re going through” can suffice.

Unfortunately, listening and acknowledgment seem to get more rare the more senior leaders get. We often have succeeded in our fields by identifying and solving problems. In times of trauma, though, we should resist the urge to “fix” things or offer advice intended to reframe the situation at hand. Sometimes, the most powerful support we can provide is merely to let someone know they’ve been seen and heard.

2. Offer support broadly

In times of trauma and distress, employees may need access to support like mental health benefits, security assistance, flexible work options, child care, and other resources. It’s important to offer these forms of support widely. 

Just as Hamlin’s injury had a ripple effect of trauma among the players on the field, spectators, journalists, and viewers, incidents of trauma at work may have a broader impact than those who experienced the primary injury. If an employee dies by suicide, for instance, their loved ones will be affected, as well as immediate coworkers and friends—but so may others who’ve lost loved ones previously, or nearly have. The group of individuals whose lives are touched may be difficult to predict. Therefore, instead of attempting to identify specific individuals experiencing trauma and offering support to those individuals, make support broadly available and allow people to choose for themselves what supports to access.

3. Manage your own energy and practice self-care

Part of being a leader is knowing how to manage your own energy. This is necessary to avoid burnout but also to ensure you are setting the right tone for your organization. A leader’s energy has an outsized impact on the team. Leaders set the tone. A leader who is frustrated, frazzled, angry, or on autopilot can infect the entire team and its work. 

One practice I recommend for managing energy is committing to a daily reset. This can be anything from a morning walk to a lunchtime mindful meditation to tracking what you’re grateful for every evening. The daily reset can be short (my own is five minutes of yoga and meditation in the morning), but consistency is key. Focusing on your own wellbeing with the same intentionality you use to support others can help you continue to lead well and thrive while doing so.

We need trauma-informed leadership in the workplace. Here’s how

Trauma will continue to shift norms and reshape work as we know it, and organizations that want to see sustained success into the future will need to implement trauma-informed leadership. Organizations that fail to adapt the changing needs of their workforce will be left behind. Today’s leaders must be willing to evolve to meet the current moment and prepare their organizations—and their people—for the challenges of tomorrow.

Katharine Manning is the author of The Empathetic Workplace: Five Steps to a Compassionate, Calm, and Confident Response to Trauma on the Job. She has worked on issues of trauma and victimization for more than 25 years and currently supports Ketchum’s Trauma-Informed Consultancy, where she uses her expertise to help clients prepare for and respond to today’s challenges.

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