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Creating a Trauma Informed Workplace

In previous articles, I’ve talked about how Higher Ed doesn’t exactly have a culture that emphasizes employee wellness or wellbeing. We often dismiss this as just putting students first. I mean, we’re supposed to be supporting them, right? We’re all about exceeding expectations, making things perfect, and pushing ourselves beyond our limits for the good of our institution and our students, but at what cost? Well, today I’ve invited a guest to talk about how some of the very behaviors and attitudes we LOVE in Higher Ed stem from trauma.

My guest is Laura Brackett, a licensed clinical professional counselor, founder of Finding Normal, and yes, my sister. Finding Normal is a St. Louis-based mental health practice that offers individual therapy, therapy groups, and community events through a trauma-informed lens. Their services are designed to help adults dealing with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other impacts of trauma. Laura is going to help us understand how trauma might be showing up in the behaviors and attitudes of your team and even yourself. She’ll also talk about how you can create a trauma informed workspace that will increase your team’s well-being, engagement, and productivity.

Anne: Welcome, Laura. Thank you for joining me,


Laura: Thanks! Glad to be here.


Anne: Excellent! And, Laura, what is your profession?


Laura: I'm a licensed professional counselor, and my specialty is working with adults who have been through different types of trauma.


Anne: So you're a trauma informed therapist, if you will?


Laura: Yes, but you can be a trauma, informed therapist, and not necessarily do exact trauma work. I do both.


Anne: Okay, cool and you opened your own business specializing in this work a couple of years ago, and it's called Finding Normal.


Laura: Yes, we're located in South St. Louis.


Anne: Excellence. If you're listening and you're in St. Louis, then I would encourage you to check Finding Normal out if that resonates with you.


But the reason I asked Laura to be here is the other day I was thinking about some of the stuff that I'm working on with my own coach, which is perfectionism, and over-performing. And as I have done therapy and worked with coaches, I've come to realize that those are actually manifestations of the trauma that I experienced as a child.


So me trying to make things perfect me spending a lot of time on things, over-performing at work in relationships, stems from that trauma that I experienced. And I was walking the dogs I was kind of thinking about this and it occurred to me that these behaviors are the exact ones we encourage and want in Higher Ed. We encourage people to be team players and go above and beyond to exceed expectations to over perform, and we'll dig into this a little bit.


Some of the pushback I get from supervisors about this new generation is because they're not doing that. They have clear boundaries between work and their personal life. And they're not going above and beyond. So we're like, “Why aren't they being team players?!?” I've done previous episodes on being a team player, and I actually think that that is a weaponized phrase to get more out of people without paying them appropriately or expecting them to have an outside life.


But I wanted to bring Laura on, because I have my own experience with this, but I wanted an expert to dig into these concepts. What I should call them? I want to say trauma responses or trauma based behaviors. But you can tell us clinically what they are.


I just kind of wanted you, Laura, to talk us through what this really means when we perpetuate a

culture based on these very behaviors. What are they really doing to us and what is it modeling for students? I do have some specific questions, but I just said a lot. Laura, what thoughts come to mind? Where do you want to jump in?


Laura: Sure, so I think the first thing I talk about is, what is trauma? Because it's a word that has gotten much more popular with the event of social media. People are much more able to talk about it. But as with a lot of clinical terms that become popular in social media, it gets watered down and a little bit twisted in its definition.


If you look at our diagnostic and statistical manual, which is the thing we use to diagnose people with mental health disorders, it's pretty limited. It's basically looking at. Were you injured? Was somebody else injured or killed? Was there a sexual assault? Was there a specific threat to someone's physical well-being, and it kind of narrows it there.


In my experience and working with people, a trauma can be frankly kind of anything where we feel out of control and unable to impact the situation. We feel helpless and we feel like our nervous system has taken over and sent us into what we kind of call our trauma responses of. I have to fight. I have to run away. I have to hold very still until this ends, or I have to people-please lease to try to get this to stop.


That's sort of just what trauma is from the work that I do, so that could certainly be those more traditional things that we think of like a sexual assault, child abuse, military service. All of those things are definitely trauma, but so can a divorce or having financial problems, or even losing your job or getting demoted. There are all these other things that we may not typically think of, that can still impact us in a way that sends us into this almost frenzy of how do I survive?


Anne: Sure? And I guess I do think a lot of us, you know, if we think about traumatized students, we really do think about those really hard-hitting cases of physical abuse, emotional abuse, like all those types of things. But in your experience, what would you say is the percentage of folks who have been through trauma, even though they may not feel like they necessarily remember these traumatic events and how it’s impacting them?



Laura: Yeah. And it's hard to put a percentage on that. I kind of operate under the assumption that by middle age pretty much everyone has been through a traumatic experience.


But there is a difference between going through a traumatic experience and being traumatized by it.

So, you and I could both be in a car accident, and you could walk away from it and go, “Man that sucked my cars bummed up. I got hurt. But okay, I'll get a new car and I'll keep driving.”


While I might have a reaction of, “Oh, my gosh, I can't drive anymore. The roads aren't safe. I don't know what I'm gonna do for transportation. This is awful. And I can't work anymore.”


So, even though we went through the same experience, for a million different reasons my reaction to it would have been a traumatizing experience.


Anne: That makes sense because we all have different abilities and coping mechanisms that we build up over time. And so, some people are going to be able to, “Oh, wow! That was that was an unfortunate situation!” Versus other people who don't have the coping mechanisms and for whatever reason, are unable to easily overcome that situation and that sort of thing.


Laura: Sometimes it's not even a matter of lack of coping skills necessarily. It is this particular situation just happens to hit on my deepest fear that I didn't know I had, or that I hardly ever have to interact with.


Anne: Alright, that's fair. And I do want to clarify for everyone that my intention here, because I think you know, we're in a helping field, and a lot of us have empathy in general. Many of us have it as a Talent Theme, you know, going back to CliftonStrengths. What I don't want is for supervisors to feel like they need to compensate for your folks who have been traumatized or giving them outs because of it. That's not what this is about. This is about how we can recognize some of these behaviors that are stemming from trauma and turn our workplaces into more healthy environments for everyone instead of unintentionally capitalizing on people's trauma responses.


We're not training you to be therapists here. We're trying to break down this topic to help us better understand it. And so, we can be mindful, but in a way that helps us create a better environment and a better culture for the people working in Higher Ed.


Laura: It might be helpful if I take a second and talk about like with the trauma responses that I mentioned and how those typically show up in a workplace.


Okay, so we have fight, flee freeze, and fawn responses. A fight response is exactly what you think it is. Hopefully, no one is getting into physical altercations at your work, although that surely can happen. But these will be people who are combative and argumentative and defensive. Often it can show up as that person in the meeting that if you don't phrase it right, they have a big emotional explosion for seemingly very little reason. They may also push back constantly when asked to do things. And they have a really hard time adapting to new things, “Well, that's not how we do it. That's not how we've ever done it before. I'm not doing that.” So that can be how a fight response shows up.


And, by the way, this is not an exhaustive example list. This is just like what I think maybe you'll see most often.


The flee response is probably gonna look like somebody who avoids things. They avoid tasks that they don't know how to do. They avoid asking for help. Or they avoid confronting someone. If there is a problem or question it may also look like somebody who takes a lot of time up work. There are other reasons people do that, obviously, but it may be that they are trying to just get away from the situation and meetings really quickly. They always say they don't need anything from you. Whatever it is to get away.


The freeze response probably is gonna look like somebody who just sort of you give them a task. And they're just like, “Okay.” And there's not necessarily pushback. There's not necessarily questions. There's not necessarily, “Oh, my gosh! I'm so excited to be part of this.” It is much more like, “Okay, well, I'm just gonna hold still, and maybe you'll assign this to somebody else. But if you exactly point me out, then I guess I'm going to do it.” That can also look like a lot of avoidance in that freeze response.


And then the fawn response is actually the one that I think you are referring to more when you're talking about perfectionism and trying to people-please. This is a response that comes out of the idea that if I can please the person who is the threat or the perpetrator; if I can cajole them enough, they're going to stop doing this.


Anne: And when you say, “If I can fawn enough, if I can impress upon them enough, they'll go away.” For the subconscious brain, it's really about the person who originally traumatized them. It’s not necessarily a supervisor asking them to do something now. I mean, yes, of course, like I worked with a toxic supervisor. So yes, that can happen. But I think more often than not, the behaviors are showing up with the supervisor because of an initial trauma where you were trying to please the actual abusing person or the traumatizing person. Is that correct?


Laura: Yeah, it kind of gets spread across the board under this idea. And this you know, belief, structure, that if I am really kind to everyone and I never push back, and I never have problems, people will like me and be okay with me. And I won't have conflict and nobody will ever be upset with me. So, if I can do everything you ask and do it slightly better than you wanted, deliver it early, and maybe even do it before you even thought you needed it, that's like ultimate fawn response right there.


Anne: From an, “Oh, my, gosh, let's be a team player” perspective that all seems amazing. Right?

Laura: I always used to joke that highly anxious people were some of the best employees that you could hire, because they were never going to let anything fall through the cracks. But while that may be true for a moment, they are going to burn out at a certain point, and either that means they will have sort of a meltdown like they will be unable to perform their work. Or they're going to leave. They're going to go somewhere that they think is less stressful, not recognizing that they're probably going to do the same behaviors in the next job.


Anne: That's super interesting and not a point that I originally didn’t think we were going to talk about, because employee retention in higher head these days terrible. I mean lots of folks are leaving the field. Part of that is budget cuts and budgetary enrollment issues. But there’s all these things that trickle down into policies. And again, cultures where you need to be constantly overperforming. You need to be constantly people-pleasing and whatever you need is not nearly as important as what everybody else needs. Lots of people are burning out and leaving the field. That’s a good connection that I didn't see previously.


Anne: We’ve talked a lot of about a lot of stuff theoretically. But what thoughts do you have on how supervisors can navigate this both for themselves and their teams. I was a supervisor on campus, and when I was there. I certainly didn't realize my over performance was – and I don't wanna say it's a negative thing – but I didn't realize where it was really coming from. I didn't realize that it wasn't necessarily a healthy, adaptive behavior. I just thought it was, “Hey, I'm look at me. I'm just one of those people who's naturally awesome so I do all these extra things. Oh, which again, I think makes us reflect poorly on people who have healthy boundaries. What are your thoughts on that? How can supervisors address it both with themselves and with their team? Again, I’m not talking about a therapy role, but to create a healthier environment for everyone.


Laura: If you think of it like, “I want to create a trauma informed workplace,” it doesn't mean you're doing therapy. It just means you have an awareness that trauma exists in people, and in fact, it likely exists in people, especially in certain fields. If you are in a helping field or a social mission driven field, you’ve got traumatized people on your hands. Often people enter those fields from the perspective of, “I want to help in a way I was not helped.” Or, “I think the world can be pretty awful, so I want to try to make the world better.”


And they are already willing to kind of go above and beyond in order to do that to protect others in sort of in a roundabout way. I think one thing to consider when it comes to a trauma informed workplace is, you cannot inherently expect people to bring their problems up.You need to create a culture in which there is space where you are soliciting feedback from them, and you are receptive to it in a kind and compassionate way.


And you do something with it. I'm sure many people have worked in an environment where the company was like, we want your feedback. Then when you give it, they're like, “Well, that's dumb. We can't do anything about that. What's wrong with you? That will cost money.” Or they're just like, “Thank you,” and then nothing happens. They never even circle back as to why they didn't do anything. So, even though you're saying, “I'm giving them the opportunity.” You're not actually doing anything with it, so you haven't made it a safe place for them to bring their issues forward.


Anne: Interesting. Gallup, in addition to CliftonStrengths, has an engagement survey called the Q12. And one of those elements is in fact, and I'm not saying exactly as written, but it’s basically, “I feel heard at work.” So that's trauma informed, but also very related to engagement.


Laura: Absolutely. Another element of being trauma-informed is empowering people. So, if this is a place where they cannot make any decisions about their own work, or even rearrange their office or move their chair without checking with you, that is in no way an empowering space. And if someone is coming out of trauma, whether that is a childhood trauma or perhaps a medical condition that took a long time to get diagnosed where they had to fight with doctors, they know what it is to feel disempowered. And they will fall right back into it quickly and recognize there is no point in me trying to push here because it doesn't matter. “I have to just wait for someone to tell me what to do.” Then often, they'll get the feedback of well, “You're not a self-starter.” Why would I self-start if you tell me I shouldn't have done that? And you've indicated to me through these other avenues that I don't have any autonomy here.


Anne: And so, would you say learned helplessness is really a play in those situations? Not that I love that term.


Laura: Honestly, I don’t love that term either. I don't think of it as a learned helplessness. I think of it as Survival. And this is the other thing to think of when you're thinking of a trauma informed workplace. Most people need their job. This is not a thing where it's like, “Oh, if I push back and I get fired, so what? I have a year's worth of savings to fall back on.” Absolutely not. There are people who are going through literal trauma responses because they are so desperate to hang on to a terrible job to keep their health insurance to keep their paycheck. And so we don't always get the opportunity to do these things that are healthy, adaptive, restorative experiences, because we have to pay our mortgage, and the bank doesn't care that, “This was a really good therapeutic reaction for me to have it work. It just so happened my boss fired me for it.”


Anne: Hmm! Interesting. You're bringing up a lot of points that I hadn't even realized we were going to cover, which is awesome. I feel like so many people in higher Ed supervisors and non-supervisors do not feel empowered because they feel like all these decisions are being made at the higher levels.


And you know, I guess in defense of those higher levels, they're caught in fight or flight, too. They're freaking out about like, Oh, my God, I'm gonna look like a bleep, or you know, people aren't gonna respect me, whatever it is, we gotta do something about these numbers because the boards up my BLEEP. But it just trickles down. And then people like they are worried about their job. So, they're worried about leaving their students. And you can correct me if I'm wrong, it's just very re triggering to those trauma responses, and the behaviors that stem from it.


Laura:  Absolutely. And sometimes people will get caught in so much. Whether is a trauma response or it's fear, they start to perform worse. And usually that means they get more scrutiny from a boss which makes it harder for them to perform. And so it's the system is reinforcing the behaviors and the behaviors are reinforcing what the system thinks it needs to do.


Anne: Well, that sound terrible.


Laura: It kinda is. It's not great. And this is like talking about like trauma where it shows up, and how to be trauma informed as much as I want it to be like a cute little snippet that we can put on a coffee mug and like make it easy. It's not because you're looking at this from individual family perspectives, individual experiences, larger systemic experiences. What does it mean to have someone employed who is a cis, straight white male versus a trans, black woman. Those are going to be inherently different levels of trauma that they are going to experience on a day-to-day basis that you are not necessarily going to have insight into.


Anne: So you talked already about a few ways to be more trauma informed. Any other thoughts on being creating a trauma informed workplace? And if not, you know just this idea, because I think so many of us, because we want to connect with our people and we want to support them. We feel like we need to like, “Oh, well, I do have a cis, white male here. Tell me about your trauma, Buddy.” But we can't possibly take that on. That's not our responsibility. So how does one support our team and again ourselves in these situations?


Laura: I think creating a place where people, you know, you're soliciting feedback in a safe way, and that you are actually doing something with it. Even if you can't do the thing they want, tell them why, explain it to them, thank them for their insight.


Making sure that people do have impact some autonomy, even if it's minor like, hey, where do you all want to go to lunch today? You know, it can be small things if it can't be large things. And there are some things in Higher Ed or in student affairs you're not going to be able to impact. Your budget. is your budget. So how can people have some autonomy and choice within that? If it is like, “Hey work from home if you're not feeling good.” Like you feel fine enough to work, but also you kind of don't want to get everybody sick. If you want to work wrong, go ahead. I don't care. So giving people a little bit of autonomy like that.


Another thing to consider is being able to give people space to be full humans. A lot of work environments have this idea like, well, you're here to work. You're here from 9 to 5, so I expect you to be working this full amount of time. Yes, you get 30 min for lunch, but that’ it. Oh and I want you to perform the same every day. O every review period, should be the same.


In fact, you should be continually improving. I think that if there is one thing that I could eliminate from the workforce. That would be the most trauma informed. It is this delusional idea of continual improvement and continual growth. That literally isn't humanly possible. At some point we run out of resources. We run out of internal space and resources. Even with humans. At a certain point and age, we do develop some sort of cognitive decline just naturally. So, to look at an employee and say you should be doing 5% better every single year is nonsense. It's setting people up for failure. And it's setting businesses up for failure.


Anne: That's crazy. Because, oh, what is higher, Ed, all about? It's about improvement, self-improvement, student improvements. We're towards the end of this semester's Supervisor Strengths Institute and we were talking about those annual reviews, and how so many folks feel like they’re stuck. You know, there's not meeting expectations, there's needs improvements, there's meets expectations, and there's exceeds expectations. But all the HR people are like, “If they're doing their job, they're meeting expectations.”


But we can't handle that. We can't handle that. If we don’t get a 4, an exceeds expectations, we think we failed. And supervisors feel like, “If I don't give them a 4, they feel like they've failed.” You know, let's have clear expectations, and let's meet them, and let's get rid of this “exceeding expectations” business. That I think would be so beneficial because we're being asked to do more and more with less and less. And we've got these behaviors stemming from people's independent trauma. And now, potentially are being traumatized in the workplace because of these conditions that are evolving and it's just, it's just getting a little much.


Laura: Yeah. And a lot of places will do what they call the spread, which is you cannot have a bunch of people on your team who are exceeding expectations. You have to have 10% who are not meeting them and 10% who are exceeding, but most should fall in the middle. That should be your spread, which means we now have companies and universities and places that are artificially inflating and deflating results. And then you have employees that are like, “I don't understand how to do this.”


Or my personal favorite is companies that are like, we have “exceeds expectations,” but nobody should get that. Then why do you have it? They're what I lovingly refer to as “crazy making behaviors.” And then people are confused. Why do employees struggle with that stuff? Or if you're changing metrics constantly, or you are expecting people to always meet a metric.


We are humans. The amount of work that I did yesterday is different from the amount of work that I could do today for a variety of reasons. How did I sleep last night? Did I remember to eat before I left the house? Did I get into an argument with somebody at home before I left? Did traffic suck. And now I'm just distracted. Did the pharmacy not refill my medication, and so I haven't gotten it in 2 days? There are all of these things, and we have a tendency as employers to look at people and go. Why can't you do this like you did before? And it's like, I'm literally not that person anymore. I am Friday Laura. Thursday Laura is gone.


Anne: Sure!


Laura: And recognizing that there are going to be times where our employees are going through things in their personal life that they aren't going to tell us about but do they feel safe enough to come and say, “Listen. I'm kind of going through some stuff. I know I'm not going to be performing very well and I might need some extra time off, or just like some grace with these deadlines, because I don't think I'm going to be able to make it. And realizing that's okay. And in fact, it speaks pretty highly of that employee and your workplace if they can come to you and say that.


Anne: Yeah, definitely. That would be ideal.


Anne: And I think I wish more people felt comfortable enough doing that. Both supervisors and the folks that you are supervising. Because we are people. And in all of this behavior, if we were to see it in our students, we would probably tell them to like, “Hey, that's not okay. You shouldn't have to over perform in this class. You shouldn't have to do XYZ. It's okay to take time for yourself.”


But we're just really terrible at making that same call for ourselves, and even sometimes our team, because we just feel that stress.


So this was really great. Do you have any like just last thoughts, or anything to kind of wrap this up, Or anything you think that maybe we missed?


Laura: Oh, gosh! Well, I'm pretty sure I didn't cover everything about the trauma, informed workplace in, you know 40 min or however long this was but I there's a lot that can go into being trauma informed. And when I think about it and sum it up, I usually say you have to just treat people like people. That's it. They're people. You're people. Just recognize that. And if somebody is having an unusual bad day, maybe give them a little space.


If it becomes a pattern, maybe it is time to say, “Hey, it seems like something is going on. Is there something that you need from us here at work that we can support you.


I also really encourage supervisors not to push people as to why they're doing the thing that they're doing exactly like when it comes to their mood. “Hey, you're in a really bad mood. What's going on?” “Oh, well, I just found out that my child was raped.”


First of all, there's stuff you legally can't ask, so don't touch it. But secondly, it's none of your business. The thing that's your business is, “Hey, it seems like you're really struggling this week. That's unusual for you. Is there something you want to talk to me about? If you do, I'm happy to listen, but you don't have to. What kind of support can I give you right now? That will help?”


Anne: Excellent. I didn't expect us to conquer this whole topic in one episode. But I just really wanted someone with this expertise to come and kind of connect it for people. Because it is something that we are sensitive about in others but may not recognize in ourselves.


But also, what do you do other than, “Oh, I should just have them come and talk to me about everything.” And again, that’s too heavy for you to do and is definitely not your job.


So, I think that this trauma informed idea is really the best way to support your folks and advocate  that for yourself, and everyone on campus is fantastic.


Thank you for joining us. Perhaps we'll have you come on and talk about something else in the future. But thank you so much, and I don't know whatever it. Oh, it's Friday, because this is Friday Laura. So, Friday Laura, have a lovely rest of your Friday. Thank you.


Laura: Thank you for having me and everybody go to therapy.

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