A clearer view: Mt. Hood, 5 years after the Tilly Jane Fire

From Felicia Eckstein, Consultant, Cornerstone Analytics, LLC

“And loss of control is always the source of fear. It is also however, always the source of change.” –James Frey

Out with the Old: Workplace Safety as a Cultural Construct

Change, it is inevitable. It is the thing I hate most but do best to understand—holding space for the transparency and vulnerability that allow us to UNlearn old information and be open to new. I would challenge each of us to consider workplace safety in a very fluid, iterative, and culturally responsive context. In sharing a few personal experiences attempting to “fit in” typical workplaces, I hope to emphasize that “safety” is neither a universal, nor an objective concept. To begin with, we must be willing to divorce from (or UNlearn) beliefs that “safety” lies solely in the physical realm; or, even in real and present danger for that matter. Further, no one individual can be entirely responsible to make someone feel safe in the places we all work, learn, and play . . . it [also] truly takes a village . . . A caring culture perhaps?!

Where we have engrained historical views of safety through more objective techniques such as fire drills, emergency preparedness, and prevention strategies; safety truly is of subjective context and therefore best defined “in the eye of the beholder.” For me, and my monkey mind, I feel safe wherever there is trust and transparency. When I can drive my own car, sleep in my own bed at night, and be part of the conversation. When there are no locked doors, both figuratively and literally, how might we collectively prepare for, or even practice those drills every month?

[Caution: Vicarious Content] In a household that bore padlocks on the refrigerator, cupboards, and every door, one of my most reoccurring experiences that continues to impact me as an adult to this day was being locked in a room. On one occasion at work, I had gotten myself locked inside a wing of an office building. Little did I know, the doors were remotely monitored and set to lock at a specific time every day. Just as I was about to exit the area of the building, the doors automatically locked and my keys were on the other side. I totally lost my shit. There was no one else in the building and, in a completely irrational and emotional state of panic, I had to call a number of staff before reaching someone to come and unlock the doors—20 minutes later nonetheless! By the time they got there, I had taken off every piece of clothing that was socially acceptable to remove and was lying on the floor, ugly-crying, with my dog in a down-stay on my chest (practicing a grounding technique used following a panic attack). My coworkers were astonished, neither of them knew what to do. It was humiliating.

You see, this is why holding space is imperative to fostering resiliency. Speaking for myself, it’s not just fears of triggers or flashbacks, it is also the embarrassment of losing control; how one may be judged or how others may react as well. I am less scared to be scared when I am among people I trust. Ironically, some of my dearest and lifelong friends are people I have worked with or for. Specifically, people who have held space and took the time to get to know me, to talk about and understand why we (not just me) do the things we do.

At any rate, what we can say most assuredly, for every individual—irrespective of circumstance—safety IS a perceived condition. Further, for one to feel safe IS the direct opposite of feeling UNsafe. This may be where we want to begin laying a new foundation for truly understanding what it means to feel safe in the places we work, learn, and play. Taking a step back (for a broader view), using theory of change models and inclusive participation, we can take that knowledge (of what makes us feel Unsafe) and map it backwards to identify the processes necessary to achieve workplace safety for all.

Reframing is a therapeutic approach to distressing reminders that evoke memories of a traumatic event or send negative and adverse messages beyond the rational parts of our brain. Thanks to the superpowers of neuroplasticity, reframing trains the brain in ways that allow us to challenge our core beliefs and perceptions surrounding undesirable associations. It is my belief that we can practice this both individually and collectively. To do so, as trauma-informed communities, we must afford one another space and time for this reframing, to provoke and antagonize our own beliefs and establish shared values around workplace safety.

In with the New: Understanding Neurodiversity and Concepts of Safety

Neuroscience has taught us that, when triggered by familiarities (or negative associations), it takes a matter of seconds for the brain’s amygdala to signal a fear response and just like that, your brain has been hijacked. Before you know it, you are right in the strides of another place and time. Traumatic experiences, particularly those of prolonging or repetitive exposure, can impact that uttermost foundational level among Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs (physiological or personal resource) and disrupt one’s executive functioning. Quite literally, the very core of who we are intellectually. Neurodiversity is a concept where neurological differences are to be recognized and respected as any other human variation—no label, no diagnosis, no social group assignment. In less technical terms, neurodiversity is the shared understanding (and a celebration of) the fact that our brains are just not all wired the same. As trauma-informed communities, we need to rise to a level of understanding where our views on safety align with those around the impact of trauma and build capacity for neurodiversity in the spaces we work, live, and play.

If we were to consider workplace safety from the constructivism perspective, then we would have to look also, to the systems and processes by which this subculture of the workplace functions. In trauma-informed communities, we know that loss of control can be a common true trigger among individuals affected and it is circumstances such as these that require getting messy, having the tough conversations, unpacking the power and governance of workplace cultures, and moving toward equitable communities of shared learning. For me personally, autonomy is paramount; I can see power dynamics like Cole Sear sees dead people! Feeling bullied or harassed is something no adult should ever have to experience—period. A sense of dishonesty, being manipulated or dominating personality traits have been the source of (some of) my greatest and most frequent triggers in the workplace (next to smells, of course!).

[Caution: Vicarious Content] As a kid, for punishment, my power-craved narcissist mom used to make me get in the car as she recklessly drove through parking lots and off roads because it was one thing she knew would incite fear and break me. As an adult, under particular circumstances, it is preferable to me that I drive my own vehicle (e.g., when on business trips) for this and, a number of other reasons (but I will share that). On one occasion, while team traveling, I had fallen asleep in the car during a return trip. When I woke up, we were in a location where I had not anticipated us going, panic incited immediately. I was with three other colleagues in the third-row seat of a suburban with my seatbelt on and wearing a coat. The supervisor/driver had merely decided to drive themselves home instead of the office and did not ask nor inform the other passengers. Nonetheless, it didn’t matter, I felt smothered, dominated, and unwilfully vulnerable; nobody could tell my brain otherwise in that moment. I was trapped. Just stuck there. To hold all that. In rush-hour traffic. In downtown Portland.

In Closing: Workplace Safety and Social Innovation

It is not always bad things. I am often triggered by good things too. Happy moments, they scare the shit out of me! I am constantly on high alert and always waiting for the other shoe to drop. The day my accommodations were approved, panic incited immediately then too. A long, hard fought battle that drug out over 16 months and included the organizations HR team, the Executive Director, Board of Directors/Chair, community disability/civil rights advocates, and legal teams on both sides. One day, it was just over; I thought for sure I was being tricked. Again, nobody could tell my brain otherwise. Which is, in part, why I can share these experiences with you here. Because, I have already been humbled by my experiences. Forced, through a rigorous interactive process to demonstrate why some days I could and other days I just could not . . . to describe lived experiences to unprepared staff—experiences that I myself have yet to process or even make sense of in my own brain . . . to split hairs on why I needed certain reasonable accommodations in the workplace when I looked normal or was skilled at my job . . . to share that I frequently had night terrors when waking up in unfamiliar places while traveling and describe what that was to human resource officers . . . to explain why I might just need a nap after an EMDR session and may not be able to return to work directly after . . . and so on.

Perhaps more importantly, I can share these experiences with you because storytelling is the greatest resource among shared learning communities. And, to emphasize that, defining and achieving safety in the workplace has got to be an iterative and collective process. A process grounded in workforce wellness and requiring constant adaptation, flexibility, and the inclusion of all stakeholders. For the resilient, it is really about being safe to fall down and having space to get back up.

Edgar Schein, a god (little g) of organizational development, asserts that it is the very culture of an organization that makes every difference, while an organizations culture is often also what keeps it from evolving/developing. Social innovations are new social practices that aim to meet social needs in a better way than the existing solutions. Social innovation is passion’s response to wicked problems. Where we divorced old ways of thinking earlier, we can now marry notions of systems change and design thinking strategies with trauma-informed care practices, with the protocol for culturally responsive organizations, with values-based leadership. with mental health first aid, with . . . and the list goes on to describe whatever the identified needs of your place until you have woven together a framework for responsive strategies to both define and address a subculture of safety.

For additional resources or technical assistance in building capacity around concepts shared here, please contact Trauma Informed Oregon’s Training and Education Coordinator, Ana Hristić, ahristic@pdx.edu.

Be well, together!