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How Understanding the Cause of Conflict Can Help Mitigate Future Instances

Our mental health is always on the line when it comes to navigating the ever-changing workplace and social landscape we live in today. Whether we’re tackling burnout, addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion, or struggling to keep up with the hybrid, agile work environment, our capacity for change and stress is becoming limited. This is particularly true for those who have a baseline of previous trauma, mental health needs, or challenging personal circumstances.

In this article, we’ll look at the trauma-informed approach specifically in a workplace setting, the pillars of the trauma-informed process, and how to implement these skills in the modern office.

Trauma, explained

A traumatic experience is an inescapably stressful event that overwhelms an individual’s existing coping mechanisms.” – Forbes article: Trauma-Informed Management – Four Essential Skills For A Longer Term Crisis, October 30, 2020

Trauma derives from pain or injury felt from a particular experience. These injuries can be mental, emotional, relational, spiritual, physical, or developmental – and all can result in specific dysfunction depending on the situation and individual.

Some people are able to heal completely and functional “normally,” while others experience a semi-permanently or permanently altered functionality. These factors are dependent on the severity of the experience, age, characteristics of the individual, their environment, support systems, previous trauma, chronic trauma, and resiliency levels.

Trauma can be further categorized into the following groups: primary, secondary, generational, vicarious.

In adults, trauma has the potential to negatively alter their understanding of safety and limit their ability to trust and open up. Alternatively, in children, untreated trauma may result in a traumatized brain, meaning the traumatic experiences end up shaping or limiting neural brain development.

Causes of trauma:

  • Emotional, verbal, or physical abuse
  • Traumatic events
  • War, genocide, terrorism
  • Natural disasters
  • Systemic barriers, oppression, and exploitation
  • Historical and intergenerational traumatic experiences

How trauma affects the workplace

Though it may not be a general topic of conversation around the water cooler, trauma is not uncommon. In fact, according to the Canadian Psychological Association, at least eight out of 100 Canadians will experience PTSD at some point in their lives and almost 50% of those suffering from PTSD will also suffer from depression.

Additionally, PTSD affects twice as many women as men.

The most recent study found that Canada has the highest prevalence of PTSD among 24 countries surveyed – a shocking 9.2 percent of Canadians will suffer from PTSD in their lifetime.

Read More: The Importance of Promoting Mental Health in the Workplace

While trauma (and subsequently, PTSD) is more prevalent among military personnel, paramedics, firefighters, police, dispatch receivers, corrections officers, doctors, nurses, and other emergency personnel, it still takes a significant toll on employees among other industries as well – particularly since the onslaught of the global pandemic.

Trauma can directly impact the workforce in several ways, including:

  • Low productivity
  • Increased risk-taking
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Increased presenteeism
  • Decreased problem-solving
  • Decreased accountability and ownership
  • Decreased sense of purpose and belonging
  • Violence and aggression
  • Negative impact on performance
  • Negative relationships with clients, peers, employer

Read More: Signs of a Hostile Work Environment

Organizations that work with employees or clients who have experienced trauma may experience a higher chance of experiencing secondary traumatic stress. This can include stress caused by being exposed to the traumatic experience of others (i.e., hearing firsthand accounts of events). Secondary trauma, though not directly related to the events of the individual, can lead to burnout, fatigue, and emotional detachment. It can even result in employees feeling triggered by their own past traumatic experiences.

Read More: How to Manage Toxic Employees

If your organization is suffering from the effects of traumatic stress caused by an employee or supervisor, and requires mediation or investigation services, working with a skilled, third-party specialist will ensure you get an appropriate intervention to facilitate a healthy, productive work environment free of conflict.

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Five pillars of the trauma-informed process:

  • Safety – ensuring physical and emotional safety in the workplace
  • Trust – task clarity, consistency, and interpersonal boundaries
  • Choice – individual possesses choice and control
  • Collaboration – making decisions with individual and sharing power
  • Empowerment – prioritizing empowerment and skill development

Read More: Promoting Psychological Safety in the Workplace

How to lead a trauma-informed workplace

Physically and Psychologically Safe Environments

When organizations are transparent in how they manage and resolve conflict, employees are more prone to feeling a sense of psychological safety than if the organization dismissed the conflict outright or ignored it completely.

Employees who have experienced trauma will especially feel supported, empowered and will have a sense of purpose in their work leading to higher productivity and retention.

Workplace Training

Whether your organization has an HR department that does training on-site (or remote) or you’re looking to outsource training, managers and leaders who are equipped with the skills and understanding of how to support employees who have experienced trauma will have more confidence in themselves and their ability to manage their team.

Highlight Employee Strengths

Employee feedback means to deliver both strengths and weaknesses in their work and ability to fulfill their duties. However, focusing on the negative can spark anxiety, stress, or another adverse physical or emotional reaction from the employee. By combining constructive critique, genuine appreciation, and support for their professional development, employees will know they have the ability to improve, perform, and grow – all positive traits that lead to resilience both professionally and personally.

Balancing Needs in the Workplace

The pandemic makes it easy to bounce from one meeting to another with little to no downtime. Employees who feel overloaded – regardless of their traumatic experiences – are prone to adverse behaviour and emotions surrounding their work and employment. When staff are encouraged to take some time for themselves either through daily or weekly reminders or through role modelling that behaviour, they are more likely to find balance in their day-to-day.

Prevention requires a strategy founded on self-awareness and catching the warning signs. Being able to address these issues in a team setting or open-door policy with leadership encourages problem-solving development, self-perseverance management, and psychological safety.

Be Consistent

When managing people in the workplace who have gone through trauma, consistency in the workplace fosters a sense of stability and structure. This kind of environment means that employees have clear boundaries, responsibilities, and expectations that govern how they operate in the workplace. In the face of conflict, consistency should carry through to ensure ambiguity and surprises are kept at a minimum.

Consistency can be found in policies, protocols, training, skills development, communication techniques, and more. Leaders who lay the groundwork for a work environment that doesn’t fluctuate in terms of core values and operations will have a workforce that has a sense of reliability and trust in their management, which goes a long way in the event of a conflict.

Clear Communication with Employees

The best way to avoid miscommunication is to deliver a clear, concise message that leaves no room for interpretation. Allow room for employees and leaders to ask questions to get clarification, so the whole team is on the same page.

Communicating using examples, concrete descriptions, and FAQ-based explanations ensure there is no ambiguity or inference occurring among the group.

For example, there’s a big difference between a statement like “Can you have the report from last week’s meeting on my desk?” and “I’d like a two-page summary of the action points from the meeting on Tuesday. Please include completion dates and included staff.” Can you identify how each statement makes you feel? One leaves you confused and can lead to misinterpretation, while the other leaves you with a sense of clear understanding and expectations of duties.

Employees who have experienced trauma are likely to get defensive or even come across as defensive in situations that challenge them negatively. For example, saying “you severely overreacted in that meeting” is not going to go far. The employee will feel attacked and as though their feelings are invalid. A productive, supportive way to get to the bottom of a situation is to avoid judgement or overwhelming the employee. An alternative to the statement above is: “I noticed in today’s meeting you sounded frustrated, and you left without saying goodbye to anybody, which is unlike you. Do you have time to chat about how you think it went and the impact that it might have had on others?”

Saying something along these lines is a far better way to understand the situation at hand and resolve, or even prevent, conflict.

If your organization is experiencing conflict that may be caused by underlying trauma experienced by an employee, consulting with a neutral investigator will resolve distracting, challenging situations and empower all participants involved to settle on an agreeable solution and continue being productive within the organization.

At Global Mindful Solutions, we have established a process that aims to provide insightful, comprehensive solutions with a compassionate and unbiased approach. This allows all participants to focus on getting back to work and continue making a positive contribution to their organization while leading a fulfilling role in their careers.

Contact Global Mindful Solutions to get started with neutral, knowledgeable, and effective investigation, mediation, and facilitation services.


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