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Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce

Take a trauma-informed approach to workplace violence and harassment

If you want to see lasting change after a workplace violence and harassment incident, a trauma-informed approach could be your solution. Kristy Cork, Health and Safety Consultant with WSPS explains that when we explore why a person reacts in a certain way and look to understand what may have triggered their reaction, it can have a greater long-term impact on future behaviour than discipline alone.

Incidents of workplace violence are rising

If it feels as though everyone around you is quick to criticize and your co-workers seem to be on edge, it’s likely not your imagination. “We’re seeing an increase in workplace violence and uncivil behaviour, which is probably related to rising stress levels,” says Kristy. “We all have  capacity to cope effectively with stress. When underlying pressures, such as financial difficulties or family problems, exceed our capacity, we’re no longer able to cope and manage our emotional response. These stressors all stack on top of one another and we carry them around. So, when something happens at work, it can trigger an angry outburst because we’ve hit our capacity.”

High stress levels make it more difficult for people to regulate their emotions. Looking at things from this perspective may help explain why an employee has a disproportionate reaction to something seemingly small or why they suddenly demonstrate uncharacteristic behaviour. “In these situations, it’s important to understand that there could be more going on, that this person isn’t simply being mean or intentionally disrespectful,” says Kristy. Look at it as an opportunity to talk with them and better understand their situation.

What is a trauma-informed approach?

A trauma-informed approach to addressing workplace violence and harassment is based on the idea that everybody has past life experiences. Past traumas can impact how people respond in certain situations. “When someone is put in a stressful or difficult situation, our body may respond automatically (fight, flight, freeze response) based on a past experience,” explains Kristy. “Often, the person is responding from a place of a perceived threat or fear. A trauma-informed approach would seek to understand that.”

Taking a trauma-informed approach does not mean that the behaviour is being excused. “We’re not saying that this makes negative behaviour permissible in the workplace. People are not allowed to hurt other people,” says Kristy. “But we are saying that when you focus on why it happened, you can help that individual take steps to prevent it from happening again.”

When an incident occurs, the employee still needs to be held accountable for their actions. But you can also take some time to talk with them. Help them gain a better understanding of what may have triggered their reaction and coach them through strategies to prevent a similar reaction in the future. “You can even practice coping strategies with the employee to help them become more prepared if those triggers arise again,” says Kristy. If your organization has an employee assistance program (EAP), you could recommend accessing its services. Whether it’s past trauma or underlying stressors, EAP services can help people work through them toward positive mental health.

“When you use a trauma-informed lens, you go beyond discipline. You focus on the whole person and on changing future behaviour,” says Kristy.

How WSPS can help



Connect with a WSPS mental health expert to learn more about using a trauma-informed approach in your workplace.

The information in this article is accurate as of its publication date.

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Categorized in: WSPS