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Developing workplace support for childhood trauma survivors: A toolkit for employers

Stefanos Nachmias, Principal Lecturer, Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University

The extent of childhood trauma in our society is only too apparent when you read the data. One in five adults, for example, aged 18 to 74 years has experienced at least one form of child abuse (ONS, 2021). Childhood trauma is defined as any overwhelming negative experiences in early life, which negatively affect individuals’ health and wellbeing in adulthood years (Karatzias et al., 2017). Many survivors must live and deal with the social stigma and self-blame that create barriers in all domains of life, including their employment (Nachmias, 2021). Childhood trauma causes feelings of fear, terror and helplessness, and has a profound effect on cognitive, social and emotional competencies and emotional distress, and is linked to an increased risk of chronic diseases (Stirling & Amaya-Jackson, 2008).

‘Childhood trauma causes feelings of fear, terror and helplessness, and has a profound effect on cognitive, social and emotional competencies and emotional distress, and is linked to an increased risk of chronic diseases.’

Our British Academy-funded project explores childhood trauma at work (Nachmias et al., 2022). In-depth interviews were conducted with 19 survivors (between May to September 2021) to capture their perception of the effectiveness of current organisational support in the UK. All participants were employed and experienced a childhood adversity. The novel focus was to go beyond the causes of trauma, and focus on the survivors’ work experiences.

The study revealed several concerning findings. First, there is a lack of understanding about how to explain trauma. Survivors are afraid to openly talk to management about the trauma in order to avoid stigmatisation and bias. It was strongly emphasised that organisations tend not to empathise, talk confidently or actively listen to survivors, and thereby fail to offer an appropriate level of support. Second, there is a complete lack of trust in how organisations approach childhood trauma support. Based on survivors’ experiences, trustworthiness and honesty are critical elements required to open up and disclose their trauma. Third, survivors strongly supported the idea that non-disclosure is the best course of action as it makes it easier to leave the organisation and seek new employment. Past experiences have shaped their current perception in such a way as to encourage survivors not to discuss their trauma with management. And fourth, survivors argued that current organisational support is based on managers’ personal experience rather than on professional knowledge emerging from specific training activities. Decisions are primarily driven by financial resources, with less emphasis on the prevention of exacerbating symptoms.

Lack of disclosure practices, poor management knowledge and generalisation of trauma symptoms present work barriers (such as sustaining current position or being promoted) to survivors.  We need, therefore, to continue raising awareness of the severe effect of childhood trauma at work. Organisation learning activities should facilitate the development of key knowledge of how to manage trauma and accommodate survivors’ needs. There are several realistic and minimum practices/policies that can have a positive impact on trauma support.  These include trauma policy development, increasing staff development, reviewing workload, enhancing communication between managers and survivors, and assessing recruitment/selection practices. The organisation’s expectation should be to create the infrastructure for an integrated, individualised and targeted approach to supporting survivors. The primary organisational goal, from our point of view, is to primarily accommodate some needs and eventually establish a psychologically safe work environment.

Of course, we should not underestimate the fact that organisational size and strategy might affect the direction of any support mechanisms; nevertheless, survivors should feel supported and able to flourish at work. It is not simply a conversation between a manager and a survivor. Such conversations are highly individualised and require organisations to create the right climate/culture/environment and infrastructure to be able to accommodate survivors’ needs. Our study reveals that an effective, supportive working environment for survivors can contribute to reducing absenteeism, sickness and poor performance, and enable them to feel supported and able to flourish at work (Nachmias et al., 2022).

As a result of this project, an employer toolkit has been created to offer individuals, organisations and policymakers practical advice and information on how to develop appropriate levels of support in the workplace for survivors of trauma.


References 

Karatzias, T., Shevlin, M., Fyvie, C., Hyland, P., Efthymiadou, E., Wilson, D., & Cloitre, M. (2017). Evidence of PTSD and CPTSD. Journal of Affective Disorders, 207, 181–187. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2016.09.032   

Nachmias, S. (2021, January 16). Are we ready to support survivors of childhood trauma in the workplace? People Management. www.peoplemanagement.co.uk/article/1741872/ready-support-survivors-childhood-trauma-workplace

Nachmias, S., Karanika-Murray, M., Kougiannou, N., & Miles, L. (2022). Managing trauma at work. www.ntu.ac.uk/research/groups-and-centres/projects/managing-trauma-in-the-workplace 

Office for National Statistics [ONS]. (2021). Crime survey for England and Wales 2021. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/bulletins/crimeinenglandandwales/yearendingdecember2021

Stirling, J., & Amaya-Jackson, L. (2008). Understanding the behavioral and emotional consequences of child abuse. Pediatrics, 122(3), 667–673. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2008-1885