HR leaders have a responsibility to be trauma-informed, McLean says

Dive Brief:

  • All organizations have a responsibility to foster psychologically safe workplaces, which includes the responsibility of HR and other leaders to be trauma-informed and promote employee access to trauma-specific care, according to a resource from global HR research and advisory firm McLean & Co. published June 22.
  • Leaders should keep in mind that exposure to trauma and the level of organizational responsibility varies across industries, McLean said. For example, in sectors where employees face repeated exposure to traumatic events, such as in victim services and public safety, they are more likely to experience trauma due to the nature of their work, the resource pointed out.
  • However, “regardless of industry, failing to be trauma-informed can have negative impacts on organizational outcomes, including decreased productivity and increased absenteeism and turnover,” McLean noted.

Dive Insight:

Research consistently backs the need for psychological safety in the workplace. For instance, in a survey of 28,000 professionals across 16 countries, released in January by Boston Consulting Group, psychological safety was associated with employees feeling 2.1 times more motivated, 2.7 times happier and 3.3 times more enabled to reach their full potential at work.

Additionally, among employees who experience psychological safety at work, retention increased by more than four times for women and for those who identified as Black, indigenous or people of color. Retention increased even more for people with disabilities and for LGBTQ+ employees.

For HR and other organization leaders, the responsibility of being trauma informed is an aspect of fostering psychological safety, which McLean described as “the feeling of being able to speak up, take risks and be yourself without the fear of negative consequences,” according to the resource.

Trauma, the resource explained, involves an individual’s response to events or experiences that overwhelm their ability to cope. Both in and out of the workplace, the risk of trauma is widespread, the resource emphasized.

The risk is even higher for some individuals, including refugees, military veterans and others who are more likely to experience traumatic events such as violence, the resource added.

“One of the most important takeaways from the resource is recognizing how becoming trauma-informed is a key part of being a safe workplace,” Elysca Fernandes, McLean’s director of HR research and advisory services, told HR Dive in an email.

Across research models for various industries and audiences, similar elements to being trauma-aware and trauma informed appear, “including fostering choice, building awareness, providing support (peers, supervisors, etc.) and importantly, prioritizing safety,” Fernandes said.

In particular, this occurs when an organization that is trauma-informed understands trauma and its negative effects on employees; acknowledges that trauma causes a perceived lack of control; works to mitigate the effects of trauma; and integrates trauma-informed practices, such as implementing holistic well-being programs, the resource said. DEI efforts are also connected with becoming more trauma-informed, it pointed out.

Because organizations are increasingly focused on psychological safety and well-being, “HR teams have a seamless opportunity to establish how trauma-informed practices are anchored in three pillars of psychological safety: preventing harm, promoting health, and resolving incidents and concerns,” Fernandes added.

Also, many organizations already deliver resources and training to managers on psychological safety practices, so educating stakeholders on trauma-awareness allows for a “continuation of learning to prevent harm (or further prevent harm) to survivors,” Fernandes pointed out.

However, leaders should be aware of two points. First, being trauma-informed does not mean asking survivors to share their trauma with colleagues, whether one-on-one or in a group, Fernandes cautioned.

Rather, trauma-informed practices “foster survivors’ choice to share what they need on their own terms,” and create an environment where they “can disclose their needs in open conversations with their leaders, peers or HR and know they will be met with empathy instead of judgment or blame,” Fernandes explained.

In a trauma-informed environment, survivors also know their “organization will respond by asking them what they need and facilitating access to the support,” Fernandes added.

Second, trauma-specific interventions require licensed professionals, the resource emphasized. “HR and leaders in the organization are not responsible — and can actually risk further harm — by being involved in diagnosing and delivering trauma intervention,” Fernandes said.