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How Trauma-Informed Employers Can Foster a Sense of Safety at Work

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

There’s a common belief that some workplaces are trauma-free.

While it’s true that some vocations—such as healthcare workers and first responders—are faced with higher chances of experiencing trauma at work, every workplace has the potential to present traumatic events to its employees.

Even if you create a working environment that is safe and equitable, there’s no way to ensure that your employees don’t experience trauma at home—or haven’t experienced trauma already.

When people go to work holding trauma in their bodies, they often become reactive to certain triggers, many of which are difficult or impossible to predict by someone who is unaware of that trauma.

So, how can we adjust to create working environments where employees with trauma can feel a sense of safety?

The Subsets of Safety

For employees to feel safe at work, employers must make an effort to establish safety in each of the four subsets of safety.

Formally known as The Sanctuary Model, the four main types of safety include physical safety, psychological safety, social safety, and moral safety.

Originally, this safety theory was developed to reduce reactivity and re-traumatization in individuals living in institutional and residential facilities. We now know that it is an effective method to reduce traumatic stress in the workforce and manage organizational chronic stress.

Physical Safety

When you think of safety, physical safety is most likely what comes to mind first.

For certain jobs, this might mean proper equipment, adequate safety checks on heavy machinery, or properly trained staff—basically, anything that can help you avoid a recipe for disaster in jobs where injuries and accidents are more likely.

In an office setting, physical safety is still relevant. In a lower-risk environment, physical safety can involve respecting physical boundaries, providing personal space, ensuring comfort, or accessing first aid materials.

Psychological Safety

Psychological safety refers to an individual’s ability to be safe within themselves. It encompasses a wide range of feelings and beliefs, including the abilities to:

- protect themselves from danger or harm

- direct attention and focus

- know oneself and foster self-awareness

- exercise self-control

- maintain non-abusive internal authority

- freely express humor, creativity, and spirituality

To promote psychological safety in the workplace, employers can:

- provide learning and wellness resources

- encourage healthy relationships

- check-in with employees and respond to their needs

- establish autonomy or increase freedom

- actively avoid harmful situations, including shaming, humiliation, and bullying

- increase opportunities for employees to follow established systems and structures

Social Safety

Social safety refers to a sense of safety with other people. When we feel socially safe, we feel:

- secure

- cared for

- trusted

- safe being vulnerable around others

- unafraid of judgment or abandonment

- free to be creative and spontaneous

When workers feel socially safe, they maximize their emotional and intellectual functioning, enabling them to embrace their creativity and enjoy their working environment.

Businesses know that community is a huge part of success—and one reason why community is important is that it promotes social safety.

Moral Safety

Finally, moral safety refers to the sense that an environment, group, or organization accepts differences and relies on honesty and respect to operate.

Morally safe workplaces:

- maintain conversations surrounding ethics

- accept, embrace, and celebrate differences

- believe in and commit to human rights

- cultivate compassion, respect, courage, and reliability

You can think of moral safety as a sense of justice. In organizations, you can practice moral safety by adapting both preventative measures to avoid the following issues and responsive actions to address them:

- violence

- dishonesty

- unjust treatment

- hypocrisy

- denial

- discrimination

- hatred

- abuse of power

Cultural and Racial Safety

Although cultural and racial safety does touch on aspects of both social and moral safety, cultural safety in the workplace moves beyond these forms of safety by including express acknowledgement, respect, and integration of employees’ cultural values, beliefs, and practices.

When individuals are able to promote, honor, explore, and live by their cultural heritage without judgement or fear of persecution, they become more resilient. And when you foster an environment that celebrates cultural differences, you enable people to create connections with others, learn from new perspectives, and cultivate acceptance.

Cultural and racial safety are more important now than ever before. In the wake of the racially motivated mass shootings in Buffalo, New York and Laguna Woods, California, trauma-informed leadership is essential.

It’s evident that white supremacy, racial hate, and cultural insensitivity is a problem that isn’t going away any time soon. When employees lose cultural and racial safety outside of work, it becomes employers’ responsibility to take action in the workplace to ensure that it is a safe space.

Leaders can foster racial and cultural safety by:

- acknowledging racially motivated attacks with compassion for employees’ feelings, trauma responses, and needs

- addressing and preventing discrimination, bigotry, tokenism, and cultural isolation

- normalizing asking permission to practice cultural traditions

- ensuring that team members feel connected to their culture and safe expressing their cultural traditions

Trauma-Informed Approaches Create Safety at Work

No matter what working environment you look at, you’ll find workers and leaders with trauma.

To support our workforce, we must adapt to changing times and adopt trauma-informed leadership practices, which include acknowledging trauma, educating our workers, and creating safe working environments.

Learn more about how you can improve the lives of your employees and the health of your organization with a trauma-informed approach with Chefalo Consulting.


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