Understanding trauma

Traumatic experiences are events that threaten or violate one’s safety, health, and integrity. Traumatic experiences may be directly experienced or witnessed. They may be primarily physical experiences, as with physical assaults and sexual abuse, or primarily emotional experiences, as with verbal abuse. Workplace trauma can result from experiencing or witnessing violence, bullying, harassment, discrimination, sexual misconduct, victimisation, or workplace accidents. Traumatic experiences result in adverse effects on functioning and mental, physical, emotional, or spiritual wellbeing.

How trauma affects the grievance process

Citing Dr Bob Acton, PhD*, there are three main ways that trauma can affect a workplace investigation:

1. Behavioural response

First, trauma may affect a person’s behaviour or how they react to and deal with all the issues surrounding a complaint and an investigation. A person experiencing trauma may experience a myriad of reactions including emotional reactions of fear, anxiety, and anger, physical reactions such as stomach upsets, headaches, and sleeping problems, psychological reactions such as being vigilant to danger or focusing on seemingly incidental details of events, and behavioural reactions such as withdrawing both mentally and physically. They may be quite emotional and react to situations in ways that may surprise an HR professional, as the response may be different than what the HR professional or workplace investigator expects.

2. Cognitive response

Second, trauma affects memory and can affect the accuracy of investigative data, which typically comes from a person’s memory. As a traumatised person may only have fragmented memories, or may have memory gaps and inconsistencies in what they do remember, their recall of events may be affected. During the investigative process, HR professionals are often focused on gathering the facts, but they need to consider that trauma may impact both the behaviours surrounding the incident and the individual recall of events.

3. Re-traumatisation

Third, grievance management can cause significant harm to involved parties if it not implemented with careful practice. If parties experience harm as a result of the process, the feeling of betrayal and powerlessness can be especially acute, resulting in re-traumatisation. Re-traumatisation is any situation or environment that resembles an individual’s trauma literally or symbolically, which then triggers feelings and reactions associated with the original trauma. The potential for re-traumatisation exists in all steps of the grievance process from disclosure, investigation, reporting, support, determination, and steps taken as a result of the investigation.

Re-traumatisation is often unintentional. There are some obvious practices that could be re-traumatising such as victimisation, however, less obvious practices or situations that involve specific types of interactions or similarities to the original trauma may cause individuals to feel re-traumatised. For example, questions that imply the individual was responsible for the traumatic experience or could have done something to prevent it. Also, denying the individual control over disclosures or having them continually repeat their story.

The risk of re-traumatisation is heightened when interfacing with individuals who have a history of historical, inter-generational and/or cultural trauma experiences. For example, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, members of other cultural and ethnic minority groups, people who identify as LBTIQ, people with a disability, and women previously subjected to gender-based violence. The intersection of those identities further increases the likelihood of the experience of regular and sustained trauma.

Re-traumatisation is a significant concern, as individuals who are traumatised multiple times frequently have exacerbated trauma-related symptoms compared to those who have experienced a single trauma. Also, when trauma occurs, it affects an individual’s sense of self, their sense of others and their beliefs about the world. These beliefs can directly impact an individual’s ability or motivation to connect with and utilise support services. Individuals with multiple trauma experiences often exhibit a decreased willingness to engage in the complaints process.

It is important to note that trauma and re-traumatisation may be experienced by any party involved in the grievance process (including support staff).

What is trauma-informed care and practice?

Trauma-informed care and practice recognise that traumatic experiences terrify, overwhelm, and violate the individual. Trauma-informed care is a commitment not to repeat these experiences and, in whatever way possible, to restore a sense of safety, power, and self-worth. Trauma-informed care and practice also recognise the direct impact that trauma can have on one’s willingness to access grievance channels, and how trauma affects one’s memory of the experience and ability to recall details. Conducting effective trauma-informed workplace investigations involves recognising the potential for and signs of trauma and responding effectively so the investigation can proceed successfully and efficiently.

Effectively integrating trauma awareness into an investigation means not only recognising it but anticipating it and building a trauma-informed best practice policy and procedures. A trauma-informed grievance process responds to the risks of trauma by changing policies, procedures and practices to promote engagement with the process, encourage the use of support services, support recall of events, reduce the potential for re-traumatisation, and support individual trauma for all parties including those directly or indirectly affected.

An organisation, policy, and process that is trauma-informed:

  • realises the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery;
  • recognises the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system;
  • responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices,
  • seeks to actively resist re-traumatisation

Benefits of trauma-informed grievance management

A trauma-based approach views the individual as having been harmed by something or someone. It is a strengths-based framework that is responsive to the impact of trauma, emphasising physical, psychological, and emotional safety for service providers and the parties to the grievance and creates opportunities for individuals to rebuild a sense of control and empowerment.  Studies show that a trauma-informed approach decreases symptoms, improves daily functioning, and decreases the need for crisis intervention.

The intention of trauma-informed care is not to treat symptoms or issues related to sexual, physical or emotional abuse or any other form of trauma but rather to provide support services in a way that is accessible and appropriate to those who may have experienced trauma and that does no further harm. Doing so encourages those subjected to gender-based violence and other workplace incivility and misconduct to come forward and make a complaint, with the confidence that they will be safe and supported.

A trauma-informed approach also increases the quality of information collected in an investigation. Presuming the presence of trauma is not at odds with neutrality or procedural fairness; it does not assume everything the reporter says is true and disadvantages the respondent. Instead, it gathers information from potentially traumatised parties in a way that is more effective than traditional investigative techniques, manages bias, and considers all evidence from both parties fairly.

When grievance procedures do not use a trauma-informed approach, the possibility of triggering or exacerbating trauma symptoms and re-traumatising individuals increases. Non-trauma-informed services often mirror the power and control experienced in the abusive relationships that caused the past trauma making recovery difficult and the risk of re-traumatisation real. A trauma-informed framework recognises the impact of power differentials, maximises self-determination, supports autonomy and empowers individuals to take responsibility for their management of the response to the event.

The six principles of trauma-informed care and practice

A trauma-informed approach reflects adherence to six fundamental principles rather than a prescribed set of practices or procedures in the context of a complaint and an investigation:

1. Safety

All parties involved in the process feel physically and psychologically (emotionally) safe; the physical setting is safe and interpersonal interactions promote a sense of safety

2. Trustworthiness and transparency

Maximising trustworthiness through relationships, transparency, clarity, consistency and interpersonal boundaries

3. Peer support and mutual self-help

Providing opportunities for mutual support among people with shared experiences of trauma

4. Collaboration and mutuality

Recognising healing happens in relationships, and everyone has a role to play. Also, power differences are levelled to support shared decision-making in the process and outcomes.

5. Empowerment, voice, and choice

Self-advocacy, self-empowerment, self-determination, and individual resilience are recognised, prioritised, promoted, and validated

6. Cultural, historical, and gender issues

The organisation actively moves past cultural stereotypes and biases, offers culturally responsive services, leverages the healing value of traditional cultural connections, and recognises and addresses historical trauma

When to consider trauma-informed principles

Infusing trauma-informed care and harm reduction strategies is critical when employers implement new policies, update their old ones, and launch educational and support campaigns regarding respect at work.

How we can help

How an organisation views and responds to individual trauma of all parties involved sets the stage for the degree of severity of the impact of trauma as well as the facilitation of the healing and recovery process and the effectiveness of workplace investigations.

Staff involved in grievance management need to know how trauma can affect complainants, respondents, and witnesses. We provide customised learning programs for HR business partners, employee relations, investigations teams, legal and compliance, peer support, and executives and leaders. Our learning programs:

  • develop an understanding of trauma and how it affects the grievance process
  • develop an understanding of trauma-informed care principles
  • transfer knowledge and skills for trauma-informed responding, investigation and grievance management
  • raise awareness of cultural and other biases that undermine trauma-informed care
  • engage participants in cultural and behavioural change

Email us at info@cultureplusconsulting.com for further details.