What does it mean to be a trauma-informed organization?

What is all this talk about trauma-informed care and why all of a sudden does every school system, hospital and health system have a mandatory training? Trauma is a broad subject matter, and its complexity matches the complexity of humans themselves. Trauma expert Bessel Van der Kolk describes trauma as when an"individual experiences a risk of personal destruction so great that it re-organizes the self to feel helpless and to interpret the world as dangerous." We think of war, gun violence, sexual assault, and poverty; but we forget about substance abuse, divorce, early death, and emotional neglect--which are ubiquitous in our world today. Trauma is real and especially when exposed to it at an early age, can have a lasting impact on the way we interpret and navigate the world.  

Trauma-informed organizations commit to seeing the world through this lens and implement practices to prevent re-traumatization while building upon training, practices, and policies that strengthen resilience. SAMHSA has 6 principles; the National Council for Behavioral Health talks about 6 domains of trauma informed care, and countless organizations and associations have identified their own set of domains and principles. They share these four core commitments:

  1. Train staff on the prevalence of trauma in our society and the symptoms of trauma and re-traumatization on individual behavior, interpersonal relationships, and organizations.
  2. Review organizational policies and practices to ensure that they reduce the likelihood that employees and clients will be re-traumatized. This includes increasing transparency, addressing inherent biases, building more collaboration vertically and horizontally, and engaging client voices.
  3. Establish practices that build resiliency, and address vicarious trauma and toxic stress. These practices include instituting equity in flexible work schedules, encouraging para-sympathetic practices that support rest and recovery in the workplace, and offering financial incentive and compensation for employees who model resiliency and build resilient and collaborative teams.
  4. Ensure that people feel physically and emotionally safe at the workplace and having clear un-ambiguous practices to address complaints of sexual harassment, racial or gender discrimination, bullying, verbal abuse, etc.

In sum, becoming trauma-informed is a decision to address human flaws that are ubiquitous, but when left unaddressed, become toxic to individuals and workplace cultures. The trauma-informed lens allows organizational leaders and teams to see and acknowledge human behavior and the role of trauma in shaping how we show up, while instituting concrete training, policy changes, and ongoing practices that foster resiliency and build more successful and impactful institutions.

Ali Jost