Most of us who work with victims of trauma are very aware of the behavioral cues that may come with their experiences. There is no shortage of training on the topic. Sexual assault victim advocates want law enforcement to know that the shock of the attack may look like hyperarousal...or, hypoarousal. We educate the legal system on how memory may be impacted after a traumatic event. And as the discussion of childhood trauma moves to the mainstream--like, Oprah did a special about it kind of mainstream--teachers are receiving trauma-informed care trainings to recognize trauma in their students. We share memes that say "The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways," and we try and help educators understand that the behaviors that feel like indifference or disrespect may indeed be cries for help, and that when schools punish this behavior, we may very well be punishing a kid for having abusive parents. A history of sex abuse. The death of a loved one.
Behavior is communication.
Why then, do we understand this for our clients, urging their teachers to consider alternatives to suspension, creating endless PowerPoints for police officers, only to see the same signs of trauma in our colleagues.--and dismiss it right away as bad behavior?
In my trauma-informed self-care training, we delve into the overlap of trauma survivors taking on roles in trauma work. To give back and to make meaning of our experiences, we may seek to work on the very issue around which we have experienced trauma. My theory in this workshop is that we have a lot of people working with trauma survivors who are not only subject to vicarious trauma via the client, but who are also being consistently re-triggered in their own trauma history. And if enough folks at the same organization have that experience, you can guess that the work culture may not be the healthiest one in the office park. Things may begin to break down.
Think back to the last time you were in a job that you really, really didn't want to do anymore. How did you behave? Some of the common things I am told when working with clients around employee morale include:
-coming to work late, or leaving early, or both
-taking long lunches, or disappearing to run "errands," but everyone is suspicious of where the employee really is
-makes any excuse to be out of the office, generally
-someone who used to be diligent in their work now misses deadlines, makes excuses
-an employee who was usually very friendly and team-focused withdraws, and maybe even shows hostility toward colleagues
If we work in social services, and we have a client who begins to exhibit behavior like this, what do we do? Do we come out swinging? Do we write them up? If we're practicing in a trauma-informed way, we sure don't. We have a conversation. We ask probing questions. We go into that conversation assuming that these are likely symptoms of the bigger picture and that the client requires more support, not less. So why is it different with our colleagues? If we would ask a client, "What's been the barrier to you missing your sessions with me? Is there something making you uncomfortable about our time together?" why can't we start with "I've noticed a change in your work performance and behavior. Is there a reason you don't seem to want to be in the office? Is there something or someone here making you feel unsafe or uncomfortable?"
Productivity is important. Employers invest salary and benefits compensation into a person, and the demands of the job don't allow for many folks to dip out during the week. But the more I have sat with my own history of trauma, how it has been poked in my time as a social worker, and working in an incredibly toxic environment that I've worked hard to understand and grow from, I have come to this: we cannot call ourselves trauma-informed, if we only attend to the trauma of our clients. We cannot call ourselves trauma-informed if we create office cultures where gossip and bad boundaries are the norm. We cannot call ourselves trauma-informed if there is an unaddressed history of turnover, hostile relationships with former or current employees or community partners, and a practice of meeting these facts with defensiveness rather than honesty. We do not let our clients ignore their most problematic behaviors and relationships, and we should not let ourselves do it either.
Did anything in this post sound familiar? Mary-Margaret would love to work with you to investigate your workplace culture, either via her trauma-informed self-care training and/or her consulting and team-building services. Shoot her an email here!