February 5, 2019

From Ellyn Bell, Executive Director, SAFE of Columbia County

A colleague of mine recently told a story about preparing for a community training with another social service organization. My colleague was setting up the chairs in the room when a person from the other group came rushing into the room, immediately shifting the chair setup, and scolding my colleague saying, “These chairs are not set up in a trauma-informed way!”

My colleague felt completely chagrined, shamed, embarrassed, and caught off guard. She apologized meekly and helped change the chairs. Later she felt angry at her response and thought of all the things she could’ve said instead.

Last year, a therapist I know started working in a different organization where it was understood that everyone was trained and up to date in the latest trauma-informed principles. For several months after her arrival, she was the target of backstabbing and unkind behaviors.  What she experienced was an absence of anything resembling a trauma-informed approach. A gifted counselor, she left the organization before she had a chance to shine.

These two situations are examples of using the language of trauma-informed practices without the embodiment of how those practices function in the real world. The words are hollow without actions to support them. When principles aren’t lived, they are merely words. Like a strategic plan no one looks at, principles of trauma-informed care and workplace wellness are only as useful as they are utilized.

So how do we take our principles deeper into our awareness? How do we create a structure where our workplaces are supportive, encourage growth, and help workers succeed?

In order for trauma-informed workplace wellness to be effective, we need to create a glue that holds teams together while allowing for individuality, authenticity, and community-building. Each workplace is unique in its make-up and so it is important to find ways that address your own respective needs.

In my experiences as a leader, teacher, and consultant, these 7 practices are the bedrock of a positive, healthy work environment. They create a foundation upon which to build an organization that nurtures health and productivity in its employees.

When practiced regularly, they can help you build a rock solid, supported team.

1. Allow Vulnerability

“Vulnerability is about showing up and being seen. It’s tough to do that when we’re terrified about what people might see or think.” — Brené Brown

When we allow ourselves and others to show vulnerability, it’s a risk, but it’s also an act of courage. We create a climate where tolerance is present when we engage vulnerability and refuse to hide from the difficult. When co-workers are allowed to work through challenges with grace, and aren’t judged harshly for mistakes, real or perceived, then a greater sense of safety and self-reflection are allowed to prevail. With that greater sense of personal safety comes an ability to turn challenge into creative opportunity.

2. Engage in Honest Interactions

Trauma-informed practices often use the word “transparency,” but that word has been a bit overused these days, and in some ways tossed around as justification for critique rather than encouragement for honest engagement.

When we engage honestly, we state the facts and work through the details. Honest interactions need the participation of all parties present. It doesn’t work if someone is holding back or deciding not to participate or to engage behind the back of another.

3. Interact with Integrity

Just like honest interactions, integrity requires that we hold ourselves to a standard of self-honesty. Having integrity requires that we put our judgments aside and work from a place of presence and compassion.

When we interact in this manner, we allow others to trust that their interaction with us is sincere and authentic. It minimizes hidden agendas, power plays, and meanness in general. If there is a conflict, acting with integrity allows for resolution with respect. It also takes into account that we all have roles in an organization and we need to act from integrity regardless of that role. If you are the leader, then you have the responsibility to set the stage.

4. Practice Empathy

Empathy, like other trauma-informed practices, is not a static event. It requires practice, and sometimes it is more difficult than other times. Being willing to try, however, is necessary.

It’s not always easy to step into another’s shoes, or see from their point of view, but in doing so we open new doors to our hearts and minds. Practicing empathy in the workplace requires that we challenge our own fiercely held beliefs and our sense of fragility. We approach both with a sense of curiosity that allows us to be more present in the moment.

Empathy changes us, if we let it. It makes us freer, kinder, better people.

5. Listen Attentively

Although this one seems simple, it is sometimes the most difficult one. Put everything else aside when someone from your team is speaking with you. Give them your full attention and watch if your own personal narrative starts getting in the way of hearing what they’re saying.

If so, return back to listening, ask questions, stay present. Listening is like meditation, we have to return to the focus again and again. A practice of listening will help your team understand one another better.

6. Find Opportunities for Shared Professional Growth

I strongly suggest opportunities to learn about one another as a means of workplace wellness. It only works though if the work environment practices all the tenets above. If not, then the event or personal growth workshop will feel contrived, or worse yet, unsafe to participants.

At several places I’ve worked, we’ve used the Enneagram as a tool for understanding each other’s habits of mind, styles of self-preservation, and ways we interact. The Enneagram is not superficial in the way of many personality-based tools but goes deeper into the way we function and think. Used in the workplace, it can assist in resolving conflict, and appreciating the ways others work.

Opportunities to grow together as a team in a safe, supportive environment are fantastic ways to increase workplace happiness.

7. Laugh Together

Hugely important, we cannot forget the healing power of laughter. If you are able to laugh with your team, have fun and be a little silly from time to time, then you go miles into creating an environment where people can blossom.

Obviously, I’m not talking about laughter at another’s expense or from a sense of false humility, but the kind of laughter that comes from honestly experiencing and expressing joy.

We don’t always think of joy and work as synonymous, but why not? We spend an inordinate amount of time working during our lifetimes, and if there is no joy present then we are missing out on something vital to our being.

Carving out time to shake off the stress is a good way to open up to joy. Any movement practice, like taking walks, yoga, stretch breaks, and the like are great ways to allow more positive energy to flow.

Currently, one thing we are doing in our workplace is called “dance party.” It was coined by our prevention educator, and it’s a lively 5-minute break where we put on some music and dance! It’s not mandatory, but available for everyone who wants to participate. Folks can participate from their chairs as well. It’s just a way to increase fun, and usually laughter too.

Shaking it off is good trauma-informed work too.

Patience, My Friends

We are humans. We make mistakes all the time. Our strength and resilience lie in the ability to learn from those mistakes, mishaps, and bad choices. It’s an ongoing process that we never complete as long as we live, but the important point is that we are aware.

Being aware doesn’t mean walking on eggshells worried about what we might say and who we might offend. It’s not the bad rap of political correctness imposed upon others. It means doing our best to treat others with respect at all times, practicing walking in another’s shoes and not making judgments or assumptions. It means looking at ourselves, and others, with a lighter and more forgiving heart. It means lightening up.

How you embrace these practices will be unique to your workplace, but the value remains. How we do one thing is how we do all things, so let your work be something that energizes and challenges you to become a better human all the way around.


Ellyn Bell is the Executive Director of SAFE of Columbia County in St. Helens, Oregon. She is co-author of Singing with the Sirens, (She Writes Press, 2015),  and writes regularly on Medium.com.