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Why Trauma-Informed Workplaces are Necessary to Support Non-Profit Staff and Volunteers

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I usually feel the tension in my shoulders first, weighing me down, then the pain makes its way down my back, running down my legs, and the nausea sets in. I start to feel paralyzed – frozen – unable to process more information or take in anything else. This is my trauma response – and it’s a regular part of my work life.  Trauma is a normal part of life, a response to a moral or emotional injury that impacts well-being. Trauma can result from a one-time incident or something that repeats or is chronic. This also goes for the aftermath, or how trauma manifests itself in one’s life. Sometimes the impacts are short-term and targeted, other times they stretch out for years or even a lifetime. There are any number of things that can trigger a trauma response because they are completely dependent on the person and the initial incident(s).   According to Katharine Manning, in her Harvard Business Review article We need trauma-informed workplaces,  six in ten men and five in ten women will experience a significant trauma experience and its after-effects. In Canada, we know from the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) that one in five Canadians in any given year will experience a mental health problem or illness. By age 40, 50% of the Canadian population will have or have had a mental illness.   Given the prevalence of both trauma and mental illness in the population, it is no surprise that many workplaces are starting to roll out trauma-informed practices and policies. Work is, after all, where we spend a significant amount of time. The diverse and wide-ranging impacts of trauma can manifest both inside and outside of the workplace and can impact job performance.  The Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the United States identifies six guiding principles of a trauma-informed workplace:  
  • Safety 
  • Trustworthiness and transparency 
  • Peer support 
  • Collaboration and mutuality  
  • Empowerment, voice, and choice 
  • Cultural, historical, and gender issues  
What it comes down to in these guidelines, Manning argues, is Acknowledgment (“I will be heard”), Support (“I can get the help I need”), and Trust (“I will be treated fairly”).   Of course, there are costs to committing to trauma-informed policies and practices, including time, training leadership and team members, and implementing new policies and practices. But the possible benefits are pretty numerous too, including building a culture of trust and greater retention, improving worker satisfaction and job performance, and fostering a culture of empathy and a wider understanding of how trauma impacts our lives.  However, what about when the workplace itself, and the kind of work that you are doing within it, is the source of these trauma responses, beyond just the stresses and experiences of life in general?  I would like to make the case for trauma-informed principles and policies in our nonprofit workplaces specifically. My main argument is the prevalence of trauma and mental illness in society in general, and the fact that many nonprofits can be classified as trauma-exposed workplaces. Information and stories gleaned from my own experience and contacts over the years informs my analysis. 

What do I mean by trauma-exposed and why does this arguably apply to so many workplaces in the nonprofit sector? 

Simply put, trauma-exposed workplaces are those in which the workers are regularly exposed to trauma, directly and/or indirectly. Many nonprofits are working, either on the frontlines or behind the scenes, to support the most vulnerable in our society. These include community kitchens, homeless and women’s shelters, and organizations that accompany and support refugees and asylum seekers or Indigenous communities. I’ve spent most of my career with organizations working in the international development sector, supporting people living in poverty and accompanying those who have been forcefully displaced or impacted by armed conflict. People in these organizations are activists and lobbyists seeking to shift systems of injustice, often against other well-funded organizations focused on increasing profit margins and business.  In my experience, all levels within organizations working in these sectors are vulnerable to the impacts of trauma. From responding directly on the front lines to working behind the scenes, workers are exposed to either direct trauma or vicarious or secondary trauma through exposure to people’s stories and experiences.   Don’t get me wrong, the vast majority of people I’ve worked with and met while doing this work feel a deep vocational calling and passion. This is similar to those working in other helping sectors, such as health care, social work, and other frontline services. But this calling and passion do not negate the very real difficulties they encounter day to day. 

Why should nonprofits care and what can they do to support their workers and implement trauma-informed principles and policies? 

The why, I hope, is obvious. As to the what and the how, starting with the CDC guideline, I have several suggestions: 


When we think of workplace safety, our default is almost always physical safety. This is incredibly important, of course, but so is psychological safety. In fact, Canada is the first country in the world to develop a voluntary National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the workplace, based on 13 factors. Organizations like the CMHA and the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) offer trainings and inexpensive resources to help measure, promote and implement psychological safety for all. 

Trust and Support 

Building trust and support, empowerment, collaboration and mutual support, and peer support, are vital, and there are many ways in which organizations can offer programs and direct support for those experiencing the impacts of trauma.  
  • Offering flexible and confidential support, through outside experts and health professionals. This includes an EAP – Employee Assistance Program – but goes far beyond, as many may experience trauma chronically, myself included, requiring more intense support than most EAPs offer. 
  • Let’s talk about trauma and psychological health in the workplace! Invest in training and implement programs to build cultures of acceptance and support. Empower champions in various departments who can carry the message forward. 
  • Use those champions to provide peer support to others on the team. Before I began talking about these issues openly, I thought I was alone in my experiences of and responses to trauma in my workplace. 

Addressing diversity, inclusion and systemic power imbalances 

Finally, nonprofits, like many other organizations, are grappling with histories of colonialism, racism, toxic masculinity, patriarchy, and other exclusionary practices. A trauma-informed lens and practice not only takes these into account but actively seeks to address them and root them out. 

Where is the hope? 

In speaking out about these issues both within my own organization and more publicly, and seeing many others speak out as well, I do have hope for change for the nonprofit sector. These kinds of changes, within organizations and within sectors, can come slowly, but they do arise as a result of those from the inside who are increasingly speaking out. In that, I see hope and so much potential for a healthier, more supported nonprofit workforce. 
  • Date

    Dec 26, 2022

  • By

    Amaan Fazal


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