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Trauma-Informed Supervision: Building Strong Relationships and Organizations

Think about a job you loved or a job you hated. How much were your feelings about the job related to your relationship with your supervisor? The supervisory relationship can make or break a professional experience.

In the human services field, supervision can also determine whether your organization is effective. Increasingly, research shows that good supervision in the field is trauma-informed supervision, which leverages the power of relationships to support both supervisees and clients.

Why do human services organizations need trauma-informed supervision?

Traumatic stress, or “stress that induces intense and long-lasting physical and emotional responses,” is extremely common. In fact, almost 70% of adults in the U.S. have experienced some kind of traumatic event in their lifetime.

Traumatic stress is also ubiquitous among human services workers:

  • 50% of mental health professionals report moderate to high burnout.
  • 34% of child protective workers have symptoms of traumatic stress because they were exposed to traumatic events at work.
  • Master’s level licensed social workers are twice as likely to have PTSD as the general population.

There are a few reasons for these unsettling statistics. Those in the human services field may be more likely to have trauma in their background, perhaps because they are motivated by empathy to pursue this work.

Human services work can also be very stressful. It can lead directly to secondary trauma, which produces the symptoms of PTSD in those who hear or witness others’ traumatic experiences. The work can also cause burnout (exhaustion from work-related stress) and compassion fatigue (the cumulative effect of traumatic stress and burnout, combined.)

According to our free e-book, Creating a Trauma-Informed System of Care, staff members’ traumatic stress affects the quality of services they deliver:

“Burnout has been associated with carrying negative feelings toward persons served. These negative staff attitudes, in turn, have been linked to poorer health outcomes among individuals with severe mental illness and has also been shown to correlate with poor client satisfaction.”

However, not every human services worker experiences the work’s detrimental impacts. And there’s a lot you can do to prevent them.

Trauma-informed supervision is one critical tool that reduces burnout, secondary trauma, and compassion fatigue among your supervisees. Trauma-informed supervision buffers the impacts of employees’ painful experiences with clients by offering workers empathy, support, and care.

What is trauma-informed supervision?

Trauma-informed supervision is just one component of trauma-informed care, a system-wide approach to human services that recognizes that trauma is pervasive and seeks to mitigate its impact. According to Dr. L. Elizabeth Lincoln, trauma-informed care “promote[s] a culture of safety, empowerment, and healing.”

Trauma-informed care is composed of six principles: safety; trustworthiness and transparency; peer support; collaboration and mutuality; empowerment, voice, and choice; and cultural historical and gender issues. The same six principles are present in trauma-informed supervision.

Trauma-informed care principle Meaning How it applies to the supervisory relationship
Safety Ensure physical and psychological safety in the environment and relationships. Persons served (not the organization) determine whether safety is achieved. Focus on a sense of safety for staff. Defer to supervisees to define it.
Trustworthiness and Transparency Make decisions transparently to ensure survivors feel included in the process. Share transparently with staff about why and how decisions are made. Communicate regularly, openly, and honestly.
Peer Support Other individuals with lived experiences of trauma are valuable resources for support and hope. Create opportunities for peer support and connection. Make time and space for staff members experiencing traumatic stress to support each other.
Collaboration and Mutuality Level power differences between staff and clients AND among different staff members. Rather than tell supervisees what to do, collaborate with them to determine and meet goals.
Empowerment, Voice, and Choice Acknowledge trauma survivors’ strengths by ensuring they have a voice within the organization and treatment plan. Listen to feedback from supervisees. Offer positive support, encouragement, and tools. Facilitate rather than dictate.
Cultural, Historic, and Gender Issues Recognize and address biases. Ensure policies and practices respond to the unique cultural, racial, and ethnic needs of the community you serve. Recognize how factors such as historical trauma, racial trauma, discrimination, and culture impact supervisees’ experiences of their work.


Putting trauma-informed supervision into practice

Because trauma in any setting is an experience of disempowerment, leaders sharing power with supervisees can prevent and undo traumatic stress.

Here are some more specific descriptions of how to share power through trauma-informed supervision:

  • Hold regular supervision at a time and place that works for you both. Collaboratively create an agenda. Ask, “What would you like to discuss today?”
  • Outside of supervision sessions, transparently explain your availability and boundaries. “Thursdays, I focus on projects. But you can email me anytime, and if I’m not available, I’ll get back to you the next day.”
  • Listen non-judgmentally, openly, and empathetically. “I know the Sanders case would be very difficult for anybody. Would you like to start there?”
  • Use humility and self-disclosure to create an emotionally safe environment for supervisees to share. In a recent webinar, Jamila Holcomb, Ph.D., suggested a similar approach to initiating a conversation about race among colleagues: “I’ve struggled with how to start this conversation for a while because it seems uncomfortable… However, I realized that I cannot be silent, as that is being complicit in a racist system. What would be a good way to facilitate a conversation about racism in this space?”
  • Validate struggles and successes. “It sounds like that client made an inappropriate remark. But I’m impressed you respectfully set boundaries.”
  • Work with supervisee to arrive at solutions. “I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about how to move forward? What support do you need?”
  • Work together to create goals, and find the best ways to meet them. “I know last week you mentioned wanting to learn CBT… Do you know of any classes? How about we both look into it and prepare some options for next week?”

Trauma-informed supervision is a simple but powerful tool to create a better workplace. Because it models healthy relationships between supervisees and clients, its effects are far-reaching and transformative.


Creating a Trauma-Informed System of Care E-Book

The experience of trauma has widespread impact on the lives of those you serve. With trauma-informed care, you can address these concerns and create positive outcomes for the individuals you serve, your staff, and your organization.

Download the E-book →

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