loading gif icon


How and Why Trauma-Informed Leadership Works

Staff well-being, just like with any other aspect of an organization, begins with effective, trauma-informed leadership. Without this type of approach, organizational leaders will not be able to provide supportive supervision, foster teamwork, or improve culture. And, if these key ingredients are not in place, it’s more difficult to care for clients, retain staff, and maintain profitability.

With this in mind, let’s review why and how you should look to implement trauma-informed leadership in your organization.

What is trauma?

Before we discuss trauma-informed leadership, we need to understand trauma itself. Simply put, trauma is the brain’s reaction to a terrible event. This could be a car accident, the death of a loved one, an illness or injury, or more.

While this might sound straightforward, trauma is tricky. It affects everyone differently, so that two people who live through the same traumatic event will have different psychological reactions to it. While some will be able to come to terms with the event, others might experience headaches, nightmares, instructive thoughts, or other symptoms of trauma.

To be a trauma-informed leader, it’s important to understand that trauma looks different in everyone and that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to healing from trauma.

How trauma shows up in the workplace

Now that we have a handle on what trauma is, we need to explore how it occurs and shows up in the workplace.

If you work in healthcare, you will most likely be called upon to help others through a traumatic time. This can result in secondary trauma, also known as vicarious trauma. This type of trauma occurs when someone is exposed to the repercussions of and stories of trauma from another person and subsequently develops trauma symptoms of their own.

While clinicians have undergone training to manage their own emotional responses when interacting with clients, the volume and intensity of the experiences shared with them may surpass their coping capacities. Additionally, many other professionals in supportive roles may lack adequate preparation to navigate the grief, stress, and isolation faced by their clients, exacerbating their own challenges.

Even in typical circumstances, professionals in helping roles are susceptible to secondary trauma, sometimes referred to as an inherent risk in their field by social workers. Shockingly, studies reveal that one-third of child protective services workers exhibit symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Given the prevalence of vicarious trauma among social services professionals, effective leaders and supervisors within organizations prioritize its recognition and management among their staff. Recognizable signs of vicarious trauma include:

  • Emotional numbness
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Social withdrawal
  • Avoidance behaviors during client interactions.

Researchers have noted that vicarious trauma can lead to fundamental shifts in beliefs, perceptions, and interpersonal connections. This can ultimately affect both these professionals and the agency as a whole. Staff experiencing vicarious trauma may develop negative attitudes towards clients, jeopardize client relationships, exhibit frequent absenteeism, and significantly contribute to high turnover rates.

Why trauma-informed leadership is important

When the leaders in your organization practice trauma-informed leadership, they not only recognize what staff need to cope with and heal from trauma, they actively work with staff to make sure these needs are being met.

Trauma-informed leadership is, thus, a critical piece of creating an organizational culture of inclusion and psychological safety. If staff members do not feel safe coming to their managers or leaders with concerns, these concerns will compound over time leading to burnout, compassion fatigue, and other symptoms of work trauma. If this happens across your organization’s staff base, you can expect higher rates of turnover, lower levels of client care, and less revenue.

While a trauma-responsive approach can help heal these cultural wounds over time, a truly trauma-informed, compassionate leadership approach will make sure they never occur in the first place.

5 steps to create trauma-informed leadership

Trauma-informed leadership does not just happen. It’s the result of intentional effort on the part of your organization and its leaders at every level. But, if you don’t know where to start, the journey to implementing trauma-informed leadership can be a difficult one. Fortunately, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has identified guiding principles for implementing a trauma-informed approach. Based on these guidelines, we’ll outline five steps you can take to build trauma-informed, compassionate leadership.

1. Instill trust and transparency

The only real way for leaders to build trust among their team is to show that they are trustworthy. To do this, your leaders need to walk-the-walk when it comes to organizational culture. This includes respecting staff experiences and traumas, always following through on commitments in a timely manner, and providing a safe space for staff members to discuss their concerns without fear of retribution.

Management experts stress, however, that this does not mean that leaders can avoid confrontation. Knowing how to proactively address issues as they arise is a key part of trauma-informed leadership. By tactfully managing disagreements that arise within your team or recognizing the signs of trauma in a staff member — and getting them the help they need — leaders can create a safer, more trauma-informed work environment.

2. Institute staff support programs

While having supports in place for staff might seem like a nice-to-have, this is a crucial part of trauma-informed leadership. Research has shown that annual medical costs are $1,393 higher for employees who do not have access to some type of employee assistance program.

A myriad of ways exist to create effective staff support programs, but experts have pinpointed a few best practices worth highlighting. For one, offer flexible benefits that work with the health needs of your staff. Programs like paid time off for mental health days and access to counseling through work can go a long way to mitigating burnout, compassion fatigue, and other signs of extreme stress or trauma.

3. Promote collaboration and team cohesion

Cultivating a space where both formal and informal connections can grow is key to creating a collaborative environment. Research has shown that formal connections promote planned collaboration (e.g., team meetings), while information connections (e.g., sending an ad hoc message to a team member) encourage staff-led collaboration.

As a leader, you should work to actively create the types of environments where both types of collaboration can occur. For formal collaborations, consider putting short team meetings on the calendar where individuals can discuss their work or solutions to problems. For more informal connections, make sure the staff members you onboard will fit in well with your organizational culture. This means hiring people who are curious, hardworking, empathetic, and align with your mission.

4. Incorporate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)

Establishing a nurturing environment where every individual feels valued and secure not only fosters personal and professional growth but also mitigates turnover rates, nurturing the overall well-being of your organization. However, navigating this transformative journey can be daunting without a clear starting point.

The foundational step lies in securing a commitment from both leaders and staff members. Effectively implementing DEI practices hinges upon active engagement from every employee, supported by robust organizational backing. To help, consider adopting the following strategic initiatives:

  • Prioritize inclusivity: Foster a culture of inclusion where every voice is heard and valued, ensuring a sense of belonging for all staff members.
  • Facilitate continuous growth and learning: Create opportunities for professional development and ongoing education on DEI principles, empowering individuals to expand their understanding and skills.
  • Emphasize open communication: Cultivate transparent and respectful communication channels, encouraging dialogue to nurture trust and understanding.
  • Advocate for personal development: Support initiatives aimed at individual growth and self-awareness, promoting a culture of continuous improvement and accountability.

5. Build a culture of psychological safety

If you’ve accomplished the steps listed above, you’re well on your way to creating a psychologically safe work environment. But, given how critical this component is to effective trauma-informed leadership, let’s review how to create this type of culture in a bit more depth.

While establishing a culture of psychological safety may seem daunting, there are concrete strategies to begin your journey toward supporting staff well-being. Here are some actionable steps:

  • Recognize and honor the individuality of each team member, valuing their unique experiences and expertise.
  • Foster a shared understanding of the organization’s goals and how each staff member contributes to achieving them within a trauma-informed framework.
  • Actively solicit and incorporate feedback from staff on improving service delivery, enhancing internal communication channels, and other relevant aspects of work life.

Responsibly consider and implement staff feedback, ensuring transparent and empathetic communication about decisions made and reasons behind them, even if certain suggestions cannot be immediately adopted.


Creating a Trauma-Informed System of Care

The impact of trauma-informed care (TIC) on individuals and organizations is powerful, and this approach has shown to be effective in reducing trauma-related symptoms. Learn how to create a TIC system of care at your organization!

Download e-book →

Connect with Us

to find out more about our training and resources

Request Demo