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The Wounded Workforce: How Trauma Impacts Organizations and How To Overcome It

Trauma impacts most of us in some way, at some point in our lives. Organizations that seek to build a strong, successful, and inclusive culture must focus on becoming trauma-informed to ensure everyone has the opportunity to be successful.

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Jan 17, 2024
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Last updated on May 29, 2023

In early 2020, most of us were carrying on with our lives as normal, with no idea what the next few weeks, months and years held for us and our communities. Mere months into the year, the global community experienced a life-changing event- the Covid-19 Pandemic.

During this time, many of us worked from home. Children couldn't attend school in person. Some were faced with exposure to continue working and providing for their families. Some lost their jobs. Some witnessed horrors of the peaks of the virus everyday at work. Many got sick. Many died. Many lost someone they loved. The innumerable experiences nestled into our shared experience of the pandemic is both profound and confusing.  How can something we all experienced be experienced so differently?

When we reflect on experiences of trauma, the pandemic is a helpful reference - out of one event came so many different experiences - many of them traumatic, in many different ways.

Much like our experiences of the  pandemic, our life experiences are all different.  Our experiences and corresponding responses are woven into the very fabric of our identity and neurology. And for most of us, one or more of those experiences will be traumatic. According to the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, 70% of U.S. Adults have experienced some type of trauma or traumatic event in their lives.  

Today’s workforce holds decades of experience. Both in terms of skills and knowhow, but also in the accumulation of decades of traumatic events and experiences.  

From  generational impacts like wars, terrorist attacks, natural disasters,  to individual experiences with lasting impacts; these events shape the people who make up our teams and organizations.  And, unfortunately, trauma does not appear to be waning for future generations.  

The impacts of trauma can be pervasive and integrate into every facet of a person's life, including their work.  Unaddressed or unacknowledged trauma can lead to a host of issues. There are physical manifestations of trauma that can impair work and  life enjoyment.  Some manifestations can also have negative effects on those around them. 

With a significant portion of the workforce facing the impacts of trauma- their own, a loved one, or even secondary or vicarious trauma; the impacts are bound to spill over into the work environment. 

As a career HR professional, I've seen firsthand how these impacts bleed into the work environments.  Whether that trauma is caused by the work itself or if it is from experiences from decades ago.

These impacts may look like:

  • Feelings of detachment and disengagement
  • High levels of emotions- including mood swings or outburst
  • Physical illness and time away from work
  • Lack of interest in work
  • Relationship issues
  • Unexpected or extreme responses/reactions
  • Feeling ‘retraumatized’ by triggering behavior or events

These may or may not appear in the workplace, but as they are exacerbated, they most likely will impact who is showing up to work and how it affects your team and organization. 

As a leader, knowing that as many as 70% of your team members may have experienced trauma in their lifetime and the effects of that trauma may be impacting their work or others,  don’t workplaces have an imperative to address trauma for the good of the entire organization?

What is Trauma?

Trauma is a term often used in various ways, so we need to start the conversation with a shared definition. For our purposes we will use the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) definition.

“Trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting effects on functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well being.”

Even with the definition of trauma grounded in the three “E’s”- trauma is inherently individual and personal. How can we possibly seek to address it in the workplace?

While trauma and its impacts are highly personal, building a culture that is trauma informed is key to supporting anyone who may have been impacted by trauma.

What is a Trauma Informed Workplace Culture?

Trauma informed cultures center supportive, informed environments where everyone has the opportunity to be successful. It prioritizes eliminating workplace trauma and actively avoids re-traumatizing survivors. 

It is important to note that Trauma Informed Cultures DO NOT seek to diagnose or treat trauma. Nor should there be an expectation that individuals are under any obligation to share their traumatic experiences.

Organizations that seek to be trauma informed should provide information and training to enhance understanding and awareness of trauma and its prevalence in our society. Additionally, organizational processes, procedures, and culture should grow from a trauma informed lens to ensure an environment where everyone can be successful - regardless of their life experiences. 

To aid in creating a trauma informed approach to organizational culture, I’ve interpreted the Trauma Informed Care Principles developed by SAMHSA in 2014 to focus on application to all organizations and a focus on internal culture versus a client focused approach.

At the core of Trauma Informed Culture are seven principles that help ensure supportive environments for all members of the team, regardless of their experience with Trauma.

At a high level, these principles are as follows:


  • Addresses Physical, Psychological, and Financial Safety of your team.

Trust & Transparency

  • Build trust throughout all levels of the organization using thoughtful transparency.


  • Centers the importance of fostering a sense of belonging and mutual support throughout the organization, at all levels, and at all points of the employee journey.


  • Recognizes positional power and organizational power dynamics and how to thoughtfully remove power barriers through structure and other avenues.


  • At the core of trauma is a feeling of ‘powerlessness’ — empowerment is central to combatting the effects of trauma. At work this looks at how to increase individual choice, leverage strengths, recognize and grow talent.

Humility & Responsiveness

  • Perfection is not attainable- inherently things will go wrong. The key is thoughtful, timely response and humility in addressing how to get better for the whole organization.

Cultural, Historical, & Gender Issues

  • Trauma is intertwined with cultural, historical, and gender issues. Trauma informed organizations that cultural, historical and gender issues shape our experiences, including trauma and trauma responses.  

I am hopeful and excited for a future of work that supports the lived experiences of individuals- including trauma and provides an avenue for support and meaning. Thank you for reading and I hope you join me on the journey to create trauma informed workplaces! You can follow along with my work on LinkedIn and my articles on Trauma Informed workplaces on Medium.  If you'd like to connect one on one to discuss, please send me an email at stephanie@stephanielemek.com.

Additional Trauma Informed Workplace Culture Recommended Resources

We Need Trauma-Informed Workplaces (hbr.org)

A Little Book About Trauma-Informed Workplaces - Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute (ctrinstitute.com)

Trauma-Informed Workplaces with Sandra L. Bloom, M.D. | #TransformTrauma Podcast (simplecast.com)

Toolkit: Trauma-Informed Workplaces (ctipp.org)

The Empathetic Workplace: 5 Steps to a Compassionate, Calm, and Confident Response to Trauma On the Job eBook : Manning , Katharine: Books

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