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Trauma support should be a non-negotiable in the workplace

By Kace O'Neill | |6 minute read

Dealing with the consequences of trauma can be a complex task for everyone involved. Navigating these complexities requires empathy and expertise, and sometimes, workplaces lack both.

Trauma, from a societal aspect, can often be disregarded and somewhat swept under the rug. There are many different ways in which people experience traumatic events. These can include personal grief, natural disasters, pandemics, wars and conflicts, as well as generational trauma.

HR Leader recently spoke to Dr Cathy Kezelman, president of the Blue Knot Foundation, who offered insight on the necessity of supporting trauma survivors, especially in a working environment.


“Trauma is an event or events that overwhelm our capacity to cope. Trauma is also the impacts of those event or events. Many people are familiar with PTSD, which is associated with the trauma of a single incident or one-off event. Trauma can affect people’s mental and physical health, their relationships, self-esteem and ability to hold down a job and perform their role to their best,” Kezelman said.

“Complex trauma occurs when people experience frequent and ongoing experiences of interpersonal trauma – abuse, neglect and different forms of violation, often as a child, although not always. Many people experience violations repeated at different times in their lives, and the effects of these events can accumulate.”

Workplaces can be a challenging space to approach the complexities of trauma, especially when it’s employees who need support from leaders. The culture and team environment of an organisation can be very important when approaching this topic.

“Approaching the complexities of their employees’ trauma can depend on the culture of the workplace and ways in which the workplace supports their workers. This can also depend on the industry and health literacy of those in management roles. The reality is that we all experience different stresses at different times in our [lives],” Kezelman said.

“Trauma, however, is more extreme than everyday stress and can affect every aspect of a person’s functioning. It can be foundation to a person’s development and connections – how they engage with the world, their co-workers and people in authority.”

Many people who have experienced trauma use various coping mechanisms and strategies to manage their distress. These mechanisms, however, can become detrimental very fast.

“These include the use of substances, self-harm, impulsivity and avoidance, but [these] are all ways people are trying to manage. These coping strategies can be compounded by challenges in resolving conflict, managing anger, and being present, including at work,” Kezelman said.

“Workplaces that are informed and sensitive to people’s trauma have systems and approaches that support people to enable them to turn up as their most engaged selves. It is a big problem and one which is common and pervasive and needs the attention [of] every workplace.”

Organisational leaders are in a position where they must care for their employees, and in 2024 they can no longer base their leadership on purely business outcomes and productivity. Instead showing empathy and being informed on subjects like trauma are of the upmost importance.

“Being trauma-informed means understanding that many people have experienced different traumas along life’s journey and that these traumas can bring particular sensitivities. It means looking beyond the immediate behaviours to understand what might have happened to a person rather than reacting to what appears to be wrong with them,” Kezelman said.

“This can be challenging in a workplace in which productivity is bottom the line, but it doesn’t mean it should be dismissed or punished. Humanity and productivity are not mutually exclusive. Being trauma-informed means recognising that we all have similar needs and desires – it’s just that people experiencing ongoing trauma impacts might be more reactive and display their needs more readily and in challenging ways.”

The workplace must be an open environment when it comes to dealing with the complexities of trauma. Empowering employees who are going through trauma should be high on the priority list of leaders across organisations.

If employees feel supported by their organisations and assisted on their trauma-recovery journey, then they will have a deeper connection to that organisation, and naturally, they will begin to thrive in terms of productivity.

“A workplace that is safe, empowering, open and transparent and which treats workers with respect can mean people are not so readily triggered and reduce the level of stress and additional trauma experienced. Honest communication and support go a long way, as does a sense of being understood and accepted,” Kezelman concluded.

Kace O'Neill

Kace O'Neill

Kace O'Neill is a Graduate Journalist for HR Leader. Kace studied Media Communications and Maori studies at the University of Otago, he has a passion for sports and storytelling.