Trauma-Informed Workplaces Post-COVID-19

In this article, Megan shares four strategies for trauma-informed practices to consider, reflect upon and expand or add to as you think about what returning to your workplace will look like.
Megan Kirk Chang is a PhD candidate at York University in Toronto, Canada and the Founder of the Heal My Trauma Program
trauma informed practices
Megan Kirk Chang is a PhD candidate at York University in Toronto, Canada and the Founder of the Heal My Trauma Program

I have been increasingly curious about the impact of COVID19 on our collective mental health. I personally believe we have a second silent pandemic upon us, a collective trauma pandemic. As the economy in my country begins to reopen, I felt compelled to reflect on what it might look like to return to work post-pandemic. My hope as you read on is to spark your curiosity, whether you’re joining me as an employer, an employee, or a consumer, to consider what it might look like to advocate for and cultivate trauma-informed practices at your workplace.

This is a transcription of Megan Kirk Chang‘s talk about trauma-informed practices for workplaces uploaded on Insight Timer. Listen to the whole talk below or bookmark it here for later:

  1. Trauma-Informed Workplaces Post-COVID19 Megan Kirk 30:04

Trauma-Informed Practices: What Does It Mean?

Now, before we even dive into the topic I think it’s important that we understand what trauma-informed actually means, and I’ll start by saying that there’s actually no commonly agreed upon definition that currently exists. I personally don’t think it’s possible to come up with a singular definition since the lived experience of trauma is so diverse. However, some of the key foundations of trauma-informed definitions include

having an awareness of the prevalence of trauma in addition to understanding that a large stigma exists, particularly among minority groups to report trauma.

Cultivating an awareness of the prevalence but also reading between the lines that the prevalence is probably a lot higher than what is currently reported in the research. 

Trauma-informed means working towards an understanding of the impact of trauma on the whole person. We often focus heavily on the psychological impact of trauma, but trauma really imprints on every single fiber of our being, from physical, social, emotional, occupational and intellectual health.

If you are sitting here confused about an occupational impact of trauma, it means you must do the work to discover and learn how trauma shows up in our behaviors, in our actions, in our habits, how it shows up differently depending on the hats that we wear. Trauma shows up differently when we are at work than it does when we’re with a friend. And trauma-informed really means understanding that the work environment is a place where re-triggering of traumatic symptoms are likely.

There’s one definition that I will share that’s out in the research world by Hopper, Bassuk, and Olivet (2010), that I think sums up trauma-informed care quite succinctly. The authors refer to trauma-informed care as a

“strengths-based framework that is grounded in the understanding of and responsiveness to the impact of trauma that emphasizes the physical, psychological, and emotional safety for providers and survivors, and it creates opportunities for survivors to rebuild a sense of control and empowerment.”

One of the things I really like about this definition is this idea of rebuilding a sense of control. Trauma takes away a person’s control. And so trauma-informed practices give that sense of choice and control back to the survivor.

One of the things that I would add to this definition is a call to action to understand trauma through multiple lenses, not just what’s in the research, not just through your own lens. There is an underrepresentation of minority groups like people of color, women, people with a disability. The voice of these marginalized groups is largely missing from our understanding of trauma, and now more than ever trauma-informed workplaces need to do the work, need to stop denying that there are multiple lenses, and work towards learning what the experience and lived experience of trauma is from multiple perspectives. I’ve always said that there’s no one definition of trauma, there’s just 8 billion versions of it.

The Physicality Of Trauma

One of the things that I believe, and you may or may not and that’s okay, is that trauma is experienced physically first. The experience of trauma leaves people feeling the sense of being chronically unsafe in their bodies with this all-consuming fear that the threat or danger may return any moment, and this represents a dysregulation in our nervous system and specific areas of the brain. This dysregulation shows up in our bodily systems like the sensation of being in fight-or-flight mode, shut-down or collapsed, agitated, on guard or hyper-vigilant, or defensive. I truly believe that these physical experiences come first, and that they are below our conscious in our subconscious autonomic patterns. And then the layer of the psychological or cognitive impact emerges, and this includes the narrative that we give to what we feel in our body or the story that we’ve created about our experience. This shows up as fears, anxious thought loops, persistent negative self-beliefs and low mood.

Read more: The body has its own quiet honesty and dignity in how it processes the world. Explore the different ways how the body stores tension.

Trauma Is Not An Exception

Trauma is a mind and body manifestation; we cannot look at one without understanding the other. And the difficulty especially in workplaces is that we can’t always see another person’s trauma and we can’t expect that someone will come forward about their experience of trauma. As we think about returning to work we should collectively assume that others around you are dealing with trauma, that it is the norm now not the exception.

Trauma-Informed Practices For Workplaces: Returning To Work Post-COVID-19

I’d like to talk about a few different strategies to consider, reflect upon and expand or add to as you think about what returning to your workplace will look like.

1. Not Questioning People’s Trauma

I think the first step is to recognize that we’ve never done this before, we’ve never collectively been in a pandemic like this at any time in history. Letting go of this idea that you have to get it right on the first try or that you have to know how to return to work perfectly, to ease the expectation, to soften, to let go of that. This requires radical self-acceptance, patience, sitting with the discomfort of not knowing and taking the time to hold space for and honor that we are all impacted by trauma in some way. There’s no hierarchy of who’s trauma is worse or less bad, trauma is trauma. As an employer or an employee, returning to work means not questioning people about their traumatic experience or what they’ve endured during COVID, rather simply making the assumption that we are all collectively healing from this global trauma and to resolve to act and respond accordingly.

Read more: Discover how psychologically-informed practices can help us to create our new normal emerging out of lockdown.

2. Establishing An Emotional Safety Policy

The second strategy that I would recommend is establishing an emotional safety policy. So many organizations right now are doing an excellent job generating public policy around physical distancing practices and PPE measures. It’s not about silencing this great work, but it’s also about raising the bar on establishing an emotional safety protocol alongside your physical PPE protocols.

One of the unfortunate side effects of PPE or personal protective equipment is the loss of human connection and safety cues. We look to others’ faces, the eyes, the facial expression for a sense of safety. Our nervous system responds to what we see in another person. And so when we returned to work and we’re required to wear PPE, we no longer have the same capacity to assess safety, and this may be extremely triggering and potentially retraumatizing for yourself, for your employees or as the consumer. We need to expand our policies to include emotional safety policies in the workplace. And this will look different depending on the culture of the workplace but it is necessary and important to implement a strategy to better listen and understand the individual triggers, fears, or anxieties that your team may have so that you can identify workplace triggers and put measures into place early to prevent as opposed to react.

Some of the suggestions that I’ve seen across social media platforms might be to generate a team building activity, returning to work where perhaps you have a photo shoot where each employee has their headshot taken with a friendly, engaging, approachable facial expression, and you work together to create facial recognition name tags. If you’re wearing masks and visors or goggles, let your customers and clients see your face with a facial recognition name tag. You may choose to send out an anonymous survey or implement a response box asking for insights or doing a pulse check on what’s coming up for your staff or clients as being triggering uncomfortable or anxiety-provoking, and commit to consistently addressing these issues. Knowing that your responses must be consistent, predictable, and respectful are key to establishing emotional safety.

And finally, with emotional safety policies is really understanding that you’re not going to always hear from everyone, just make the assumption that everyone is impacted. Build your sensitivity to cultural perspectives, recognizing that gender, race, socioeconomic status, all play a role in lived experience of trauma and that this will undoubtedly add different layers and perspectives to how to go about best addressing and understanding. If you do not identify as a person of color you need to do the work to learn, to understand, to implement cultural sensitivity into your trauma-informed practices.

Information on how to do this has existed for hundreds of years so it’s not about reaching out to a person of colour and saying, “How can I do better? What should I do?” There is an abundance of work, resources, and strategies that have already been shared by marginalized groups on how you can do better, so the work is on you to learn about it and figure it out. Coming to terms with the ways that you deny cultural perspectives in the workplace, coming to terms with how you might bypass the experience of marginalized or underrepresented groups and taking ownership over that. This first starts with yourself in doing the work to uncover your blind spots and committing to doing better, taking that responsibility to hold up a mirror and commit to showing up in your workplace doing better.

Read more: Work-related stress is increasingly common in today’s busy world, having far-reaching physical, mental and emotional consequences for millions of people. Explore how to de-stress at work to create more calm, focus and happiness at your workplace.

3. Creating Flexible Work Solutions

Another really important strategy for trauma-informed workplaces is to emphasize choice and options for employees and clients alike. Again, this is going to look different depending on the workplace but wherever possible, see if you might be able to offer flexible solutions such as work from home policies, perhaps a menu of to-do tasks that range in focus, concentration, cognitive load, so that if somebody is arriving to work feeling depleted or distracted they still have a sense of choice over what they might work on that day and setting them up for success and feeling a sense of accomplishment, modeling that it’s okay, that we’re not at 100% today. We have come through a global pandemic. Providing choice on when and where and how to do work really puts the person at the center not your bottom line.

4. Mindfulness At Work

The final strategy that I would offer to consider is adopting a personal and team mindfulness practice, and this doesn’t have to look in any specific way. You could create walking meetings, you could create a five-minute breath team session before the workday starts or throughout, you could create a weekly journal prompt for reflection during meetings. Adopting some form of a mindfulness practice where you’re building self-awareness, self-acceptance, non-judgment of your experience and emphasizing responding versus reacting is essential for teams to function coherently and cohesively together.

I would recommend establishing a personal practice for yourself first and foremost, and it can be as little as five minutes. Just because something isn’t 45, 60, 90 minutes of your day doesn’t mean it’s any less valuable, start with five minutes or even start with five breaths. Make it mandatory for your workplace to adopt some form of a mindfulness practice. It doesn’t have to look uniform or the same way, but putting the mental health and wellbeing of your team at the forefront, not your bottom line is how we’re going to return to work in safe and healing ways.

Explore Insight Timer’s free collection of mindfulness at work practices. We have also curated a playlist with guided meditations for your workday — let it inspire you to clear your mind and get productive, or use it as a much needed break.

You Play An Important Role in This Change

I understand that some of these strategies might be easier in some workplaces than others, but I would ask you to think about what comes up for you as you read through this article. Does the inner skeptic emerge? Does the inner critic emerge? Does the “Yeah, but…” surface? These are all considered our knee-jerk reactions to addressing change, to taking responsibility over change.

My call to you is to sit in the discomfort, my call to you is to move towards curiosity and away from critique. My call to you is to not leave it up to your manager or your boss or your CEO, but to be the example of bringing trauma-informed practices to your workplace. To understand that you play a role in this, you play a vital role in how the return to work will look no matter what your position is within a company, or if you are a client or a consumer you play a vital role.

With that in mind, I wish you patience, I wish you acceptance, peace and healing as you return to work. We’ll end this article with a short and simple mindful breath strategy that you can put in your pocket and use at any time when you notice that familiar feeling of tension, or agitation, or fight-or-flight emerge during the transition back to work:

  1. Mindful Breath Strategy Megan Kirk 6:51


Hopper, E. K., Bassuk, E. L., & Olivet, J. (2010). Shelter from the storm: Trauma-informed care in homelessness services settings. The open health services and policy journal, 3(2), 80-100.

All of Megan’s donations received on Insight Timer are donated to local anti-racism organizations that promote inclusion, diversity and empowerment of the Black community. The organization she has chosen to support this summer is a grassroots one, Making Change Simcoe County.

Meditation. Free.