How to Navigate Institutional Trauma

RAFT Team, October 23, 2023

Institutional trauma is a profound issue that can affect organizations and their employees at various levels. It occurs when systemic or organizational practices, policies, and cultures inadvertently cause harm or trigger distress among employees. In this article, we’ll explore the concept of institutional trauma, its impact on individuals and workplaces, and provide valuable insights into how organizations can identify, address, and prevent it through trauma-informed care practices. 

Understanding Institutional Trauma

Defining Institutional Trauma

Institutional trauma refers to the cumulative and lasting emotional, psychological, or social distress experienced by individuals within an organization due to systemic issues such as discrimination, lack of support, or harmful workplace practices. This trauma can manifest in various forms, including feelings of powerlessness, alienation, or emotional exhaustion among employees.

Recognizing the Signs of Institutional Trauma

Listen Actively

One of the first steps in identifying institutional trauma is to actively listen to your employees. Encourage open dialogue and anonymous feedback mechanisms where your staff can express their concerns, fears, and frustrations.

Observe Behavioral Changes

Look for behavioral changes among employees. Increased absenteeism, declining work performance, or an uptick in conflicts might indicate underlying trauma. Be mindful of shifts in workplace dynamics.

Examine Employee Turnover

High turnover rates can be a sign of institutional trauma. Employees leaving en masse may suggest systemic issues in your organization that need to be addressed. Exit interviews can provide valuable insights.

Understanding Secondary Trauma

The Unique Challenges of Sexual Violence Advocates

SV and DV advocates play a crucial role in supporting survivors through their healing journeys. However, this role often exposes them to the trauma experienced by survivors, leading to secondary trauma or vicarious trauma. The emotional toll of hearing survivors' stories and providing support can take a significant toll on advocates' mental and emotional well-being.

Supporting Advocates

Your organization must recognize the unique challenges faced by these advocates and implement additional measures to support them. This may include regular debriefing sessions, access to counseling services, and a supportive work environment that acknowledges the emotional toll of their work.

Trauma-Informed Care at the Organizational Level

Develop Trauma-Informed Policies

Work to create policies that prioritize your employees' well-being. These policies should clearly outline procedures for reporting workplace concerns, seeking support, and addressing grievances.

Create Safe Spaces

Designate safe spaces within the workplace where your employees can relax, decompress, or seek support away from their workstations. These spaces should be free from work-related stressors. Can you have a work bulletin board in a hallway instead of the break room?

Train Staff in Trauma-Informed Care

Offer training for your staff and leadership in trauma-informed care principles. This education can help your people better understand the effects of trauma and how to respond empathetically. 

Foster a Culture of Support

Encourage a workplace culture that values support, inclusivity, and open communication. Establish Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and support networks that provide resources for your employees dealing with trauma.

Address Systemic Issues

Identify and address systemic issues that contribute to institutional trauma. This might involve reviewing and revising discriminatory policies, improving diversity and inclusion efforts, and eliminating harmful practices.

Promote Self-Care

Educate your employees on self-care techniques and provide resources to help them manage stress and trauma-related symptoms. Encourage a work-life balance that supports employees' well-being. Be willing to model this behavior.

Seek External Expertise

In some cases, it may be beneficial to consult with external experts who specialize in trauma-informed care. Their insights can guide your organization in creating more supportive environments.

Healing and Growth

Institutional trauma can have a profound impact on your employees and organization alike. Recognizing its signs and taking proactive steps to address it through trauma-informed care practices is essential for fostering a healthier, more supportive workplace. Additionally, your organization must prioritize the well-being of your advocates — they work tirelessly to support survivors while facing their own unique trauma challenges. By actively listening, creating safe spaces, developing trauma-informed policies, and promoting a culture of support, your organization can embark on a path of healing and growth, ultimately benefiting both individuals and the organization as a whole.