Let’s talk about a tough topic – the impact of trauma on people and what actions all of us can take to be caring and trauma informed

Being trauma informed will help all workplaces.

Key points:

  • Trauma is more prevalent than most of us realise
  • Trauma has an impact on all facets of life including work-life
  • There are ways to work with our colleagues and team members that is supportive for people who have been affected by trauma
  • Taking care taken when working with others in ways that create a safe environment supports everyone – but especially those who have been affected by trauma
  • Asking some-one: how are you feeling? is a very important and supportive question
  • Let’s make these principles for interaction a standard part of how we work together.

What is stress and trauma?[1]


Stress is something that challenges your capacity to cope. Many of us will have heard about the stress bell curve, and the knowledge that some stress can be good for us, too much can be bad.

Your ‘capacity to cope’ is interesting too… each individual will have a differing capacity to cope. Your own capacity might be influenced by your family of origin, genetics and epigenetics, training, experience, support networks and much more.


Trauma is the fear-based emotional, psychological and physiological residue left over from heightened stress that accompanies experiences of threat, violence, and life-challenging events.

Traumatic experiences overwhelm your capacity to cope. That same capacity is influenced by hundreds of personal variables. This helps us to understand some of the differences in the way individuals respond to similar levels of trauma or similar traumatising events in different ways.

Nothing to do with resilience

This is not the same as resilience. Since trauma is overwhelming by its nature, we cannot be resilient to it. If our brain and our body are overwhelmed, a host of subconscious responses are enacted as a direct consequence of that overwhelm. It is more accurate to describe how individuals adapt in a protective way to the impact of trauma in their lives.

Prevalence of trauma?

Significant trauma is more widespread in our community than most of us realise.  Whether it’s from assault, sexual assault or violence, or as the result of a flood, fire or accident, in childhood or as an adult, trauma is very common.

By building a trauma informed community, which is a community that understands the nature of trauma, its impacts and possibilities for recovery, we not only support and empower survivors, but we also look after ourselves.

While there is limited data on the prevalence of trauma in Australia, 2 studies suggest that 57–75% of Australians will experience a potentially traumatic event at some point in their lives.  International studies estimate that 62–68% of young people will have been exposed to at least 1 traumatic event by the age of 17.

According to the 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing, 12% of Australians experience PTSD in their life (lifetime prevalence), with women being at almost twice the risk of men (15.8% and 8.6% respectively) [2]

What does it mean for workplaces?

People who have been trauma affected will have some difficulties at work for a number of reasons to do with the impact of the trauma.

The Blue Knot Foundation[3] recommends these trauma-informed principles when working with others that you know or suspect have had trauma in their life.

  1. Safety
  2. Trustworthiness
  3. Choice
  4. Collaboration
  5. Empowerment

Here is their advice about how to support conversations with people who have been affected by trauma.

  1. Manage physical safety
  • Is the physical/geographical space in which you are having the conversation safe?
  • Is it away from busy roads if outside or in a room in which you are unlikely to be interrupted if you are inside?
  • Have you asked the person if there is anything you can do to make the space more comfortable? Many factors, some which we can’t predict, can lead to stress reactions e.g., some people might be triggered by a particular visual cue.
  • Will the person be physically safe after, as well as during, the conversation?
  • This applies to the situation to which they are returning as well as their general levels of arousal. You may need to help them with a basic Grounding Exercise.
  1. Mange psychological safety
  • ‘Choose your time’: if you are initiating the conversation, have you chosen a time when the person is likely to be receptive?
  • Does your non-verbal communication show that you are supportive, focused and listening in a way which is tuned into the person?
  • Maintaining consistent but not fixed eye contract is important. Take care not to look distracted.
  • Are you alert to possible signs of stress in the person’s body? This can include dilated pupils or changes in skin colour. The person may be twisting a tissue or take long pauses.
  • Do you encourage the person to take their time and take short breaks if they need to? If the conversation is long you could return to it after a short break.
  • Will the person be emotionally safe after, as well as during the conversation? Are you able to help them to lower their level of arousal if necessary?
  1. Build trust
  • Are always attentive to physical and emotional safety?
  • Always tune in to the person’s level of comfort and ask them whether/how you might improve it
  • Pay ongoing attention to your and their non-verbal communication Is the person showing signs of stress? Are you being sufficiently supportive?
  • Take a gentle approach which does not convey `an agenda’
  • Listen in the right way; do not interrupt the person unless there is an issue with their level of arousal; i.e., if ‘window of tolerance’ for the conversation is exceeded
  • Ask the person how they are feeling after (as well as during) the conversation. Be ready to help them with ‘grounding’ if/as necessary
  1. Support choice
  • When you are starting a conversation with a person you know or suspect may be experiencing interpersonal trauma, provide them with choice/s around the conversation
  • Has the person chosen the logistical details, including the date, time and venue? Or have you discussed your decisions with them?
  • How can you give the person greater choice about the way the conversation is held and develops?
  • In what other way/s can you give the person other choices, even if they are small?
  • How can responding to, rather than starting, the conversation affects the extent to which you can foster choices for the person
  1. Work in collaboration
  • Do something with’ a person rather than do something ‘for’ or ‘to’ them
  • Don’t assume that the person can’t act on their behalf or engage in decisions and actions which affect them
  • Recognise when additional assistance may be necessary
  • Recognise that we engage more effectively with people when we cooperate with them
  • Act in a spirit of cooperation whenever and as much as you can
  1. Support empowerment
  • Understand that interpersonal trauma often stems from and fosters disempowerment, and that taking steps to feeling more empowered is essential to healing
  • Recognise that the way in which a conversation is arranged and conducted can contribute to a sense of empowerment
  • Recognise that trauma which occurs in relationships erodes self-esteem and a person’s sense of their own abilities. Try to identify ways to make your interactions respectful, democratic and inclusive
  • As far as possible, seek the person’s preferences around the logistics of your conversation and try to meet them in a collaborative way

What we have seen in our work

Too often work and team relationships become fractured because of poor quality, low caring communication and interactions with others and that is not even allowing for the impact trauma may have had on people’s lives.  We also see many great managers who successfully deal with tricky and complex situations every day.  Here are a couple of examples of successful support:

Situation 1 – an unhappy and complaining team member

A new supervisor started to dread her morning interactions with a team member team member who comes across as very prickly and moody.  She recognised that in her approach she was starting to avoid her team member, shut down at the sound of her voice and not listen.  Her question to me in our coaching session was ‘how do I get her to stop talking so much?’  She explained that the team member was full of complaints and at the beginning of every day wanted to start by venting those complaints.

My suggestion was for the supervisor to get the team member to talk (although this was counterintuitive for her) and for her to listen.  So the supervisor sat down with the team member and talked to her.  She started by apologised for not taking more time with her before and said as an opening, I feel concerned for you and I want to know what is doing on for you and how I can support you?  The team member was relieved and discussed a number of issues and concerns.

At the next coaching session, the supervisor reported back to me that their relationship had changed for the better.  The time to listen had been well spent and the team member was calmer, more focused on work and less demanding of attention to complain about work issues than she had been.

Situation 2

The small specialist team had unfortunately been significantly impacted by the difficult and challenging behaviour of a now former colleague.  This was a situation that adversely affected the team and a colleague from a closely related team.  The behaviour of the former colleague was very damaging and he had a range of complex issues including health issues.  The situation was complex and the team member’s damaging behaviour (which included abusing others and extreme erratic behaviour) had gone on for close to 20 years without being appropriately managed.  He had recently left the organisation and the new managers recognised that the team needed support to rebuild after this long period of emotional turbulence.  This was highlighted by the recruitment of a young apprentice who was shocked by how the team was fractured and uncommunicative.  To address the traumatic legacy of the difficult and abusive team member the work undertaken by us in conjunction with the managers was to:

  • Recognise the challenging past and confirm the end of the difficult time faced by the team and acknowledge the impact both personal and professional of that time
  • Rebuild the team in a constructive way to establish a positive workplace culture that supports all team members, gives respect to their experience and professionalism and enables new members to thrive and to learn
  • Develop agreed behaviours using the recently updated organisation values as the basis for agreed team behaviours
  • Show in a practical way that the managers value their work and are providing support to them.

After two short workshops, team members felt and looked relieved and calmer and were prepared for the work ahead.

Implications on managers and colleagues

Advanced communications skills are needed for situations like these that navigate some tricky emotional ground.  In both these case studies the managers showed respect and the emotions of the person were looked after by using safe and careful communication.

In working with teams and coaching leaders we notice that many times, more thought, care and time spent supporting and fostering quality communication and safe work relationships would have saved pain, formal processes, staff turnover, loss of productivity and emotional harm.

Managers are increasingly under pressure to have sophisticated interpersonal and communication skills to deal with the complexities of working with others.  These are all skills that can be learned and developed over time.  Please contact us if you need support to build advanced communication and leadership skills.  Robyn 0408 703 344 or Tulsi 0423 300 590

Photo by DANNY G on Unsplash


[1] What is trauma? – ACF Professionals (childhood.org.au)

[2] Australian Bureau of Statistics 2007

[3] To read the full paper: TalkingAboutTrauma-GuidetoEverydayConversationsfortheGeneralPublic https://www.blueknot.org.au/ABOUT-US/Our-Documents/Publications/Talking-Trauma-Public

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