Updated: Oct 5, 2022
Establishing safety at work is one of the most important aspects of creating a trauma-informed workplace, but creating safety is easier said than done.
When we discuss trauma-informed beliefs, practices, and values, we often explore big-picture concepts and systems. While this is an essential piece of the work, sharing specific, actionable steps can often improve our understanding better than big-picture ideas can.
Here are some concrete and relatively simple ways to create safety at work, even if you’re new to trauma-informed work.
1 - Plan for “unexpected” sick days
People always say, “expect the unexpected,” and in business models, preparing for the worst can save a business. Still, we often fail to prepare for expected challenges—like sudden absences when employees fall ill.
An easy way to establish safety at work is to create a plan to cope with employee absences.
If an employee thinks, “My work will fall to pieces if I call out today. I can’t take time off,” then they’ll be resistant to taking time off, even when they need it due to illness or burnout.
However, if your company has a solid plan in place (dare I say, a ritual?), then employees know their absence won’t create chaos. They’ll feel secure knowing that they can rest and recover with no negative repercussions.
If the truth is that your organization will fall apart if someone takes an unexpected day off, then you might need to examine some larger cultural and organizational problems taking place.
2 - Ensure employees take enough breaks
The modern American workday asks us to give roughly 8-10 hours of our time and attention 4-6 days a week to our employers. That’s a lot of time.
No one is capable of working at full capacity for 8 hours straight with no breaks. Then, consider that humans are healthiest when we eat three meals a day every 3-4 hours. Our mental and physical wellbeing both require adequate periods of rest to replenish our energy.
Without enough breaks, we become stressed out and overworked. When we’re burnt out, we can experience negative psychological and physiological changes, including brain fog, forgetfulness, trouble focusing, fatigue, muscle pain, and even disease.
So, if you want to establish safety at work, ensure that your employees know they can take breaks when they need or want to—and reinforce this cultural norm by not punishing employees who take ample breaks and encouraging employees to take more breaks.
3 - Normalize emotions at work with Community Meetings
It’s a very common belief that emotions have no place in a professional setting. When you use a trauma-informed perspective, it becomes obvious that emotions are essential to ensure professional environments are as productive as they can possibly be.
Emotions and vulnerability are components of healthy, stable relationships, and positive relationships contribute to improved collaboration, teamwork, and communication.
I teach my clients to normalize emotions at work through a trauma-informed tool known as a Community Meeting.
A Community Meeting is a short pre-meeting that you hold before your main meeting or session. In a Community Meeting, each participant answers three questions with a simple answer:
What are you feeling?
What is your goal for our time together?
Who can you ask for support?
The goal of a community meeting is to take the emotional temperature of the room. It can be helpful for everyone involved to be aware of each other’s emotional states.
For example, you might learn that someone’s dog recently passed away, and they’re coping with their grief. You might see a pattern that half of your team is feeling really stressed about an upcoming project deadline. You might notice that one or team members are especially motivated after coming back from vacation.
Community Meetings make it possible for you to approach others with sensitivity and emotional awareness. They help build a strong, connected community. And, they normalize talking about emotions at work.
4 - Resist and intervene
We live in a society where problematic beliefs are normal: racism, sexism, ableism, islamophobia, homophobia, and much, much more. When we’re raised in a culture with white supremacy deeply embedded into our culture and history, we often fail to recognize when we push negative and harmful beliefs onto others.
But, with awareness, we can change our actions and language—and we can intervene when we recognize that other people’s behavior is actively harmful.
There are behaviors that can make us feel unsafe, especially if we have less power (social, perceived, or actual) than the perpetrator, such as shaming, bullying, harassment, and racism.
When we witness these behaviors—or notice that we are harming others—we can re-establish safety at work by resisting or intervening.
This is a bigger conversation than we can have right here, but the important thing to take away is that you can make a difference by standing up for human rights, even through small interactions like micro-resistance.
5 - Delegate decision-making power and communicate plans with employees
Employees often feel unsafe making decisions. They might worry about potential repercussions or feel as though their decision simply wouldn’t be good enough.
Empowerment is a trauma-informed value that can create safety. You can give your team more autonomy by clearly communicating who has what decision-making power.
We often come to unspoken agreements regarding who makes decisions. Usually, it’s the higher-ups. Then, there becomes a pattern where everything needs approval from a higher-up before moving forward. If communication fails, change halts.
Generally, I’ve found that the higher-ups usually appreciate team members making decisions for themselves.
So, have an explicit conversation about who has the power to decide what, what suggesting ideas and requesting approvals look like, and when you might need to request approval.
When in doubt, you can always ask, “Do I have the power to make this decision?” You might be surprised to find that you’ve always had the power.
6 - Set ground “rules” at work
It’s easy to go about our lives assuming that other people think and behave in the same or similar ways as we do. But that’s not true at all.
One person’s idea of appropriate behavior at work can be completely different for someone else. We often have different ideas of what respect, good communication, conflict resolution, and active listening look like.
So, you can help create safety at work by making sure everyone is on the same page about how you do things at work (ideally, these ground “rules” embody trauma-informed values). I use “rules” as a loose term because these shouldn’t be rigid definitions where people are punished when they fail to meet expectations.
More so, our ground “rules” outline our expectations. They give us an idea of how to behave in certain situations. They are also likely to change and develop as your team works out the best ground “rules” for them.
Your team’s ground rules can answer questions like:
How would we prefer to handle conflict?
What behaviors create an unsafe workspace for us?
What is the best way to navigate a situation when our ground rules are broken?
What are our boundaries?
How do we prefer to…?
Keep in mind that there is space for different team members to have different answers to these questions. The most important goal of setting ground rules is to understand each other.
7 - Teach employees about the subsets of safety
If your organization’s goal is to create safety at work, then educating your employees about the various subsets of safety (and how to achieve each one) is a great place to start.
Safety is a complex topic, especially when we use a trauma-informed lens to talk about it.
When creating safety at work, it’s important to remember that safety encompasses:
cultural and racial safety
8 - Commit to trauma-informed implementation
Finally, one of the best ways to accomplish safety at work is to commit to trauma-informed organizational change. Trauma-informed implementation is typically a 3-year process that embeds evidence-based trauma-informed practices and values into the core of your organization.
The trauma-informed framework offers many benefits for organizations and individuals, and safety at work is just one of them.
For more information about establishing safety at work or the trauma-informed model, schedule a free consultation with a trauma-informed expert today.