With the pandemic’s difficulties layered across South Africa’s complexity, the importance of creating safe, connected, trauma-informed workplaces has never been more pertinent. As academic and psychiatrist Bessel Van Der Kolk says, “Our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another.”  

Grant Stewart, co-director of R-Cubed, delivered a keynote address on this vital topic at the Trialogue Business in Society Conference, under the ‘employee engagement’ theme. 

People understand the word ‘trauma’ in different ways. “Trauma is not limited to an individual event that happened in the past,” says Grant “Trauma is historical – and I mean ancestrally historical – trauma is collective, trauma is individual, and trauma is ongoing. We need to let go of the fallacy that for a lot of people, trauma is post.”  

Stewart set out five key guidelines for creating a trauma-informed work environment 

 1. Recognise the extent of trauma 

The adverse childhood experience (ACE) study demonstrated that trauma is widespread across demographics. In South Africa, people carry scars of the past and experience all forms of violence daily. Add Covid-19, loss, powerlessness, and climate change anxiety. We can’t always see the effects easily, though it comes across in behaviour. 

 2. Recognise the effects of trauma 

Stewart spoke about how the brain functions, and explained how feeling threatened, or exposure to toxic stress, can cause our brains to dysregulate. This hinders our ability to think, plan, strategise, and connect. This affects work, staff relationships, even donor and donee relationships. If we can’t recognise the effects of trauma, we can’t respond to it. 

 3. Respond to the effects 

Understanding more about the brain helps us know how to respond. We don’t necessarily have to learn new skills for this, but we need to apply the right lens or framework. Looking through a trauma lens can help integrate prior knowledge into current work situations.  

 4. Resist retraumatisation 

How do we avoid or prevent unintentional exclusion and dehumanisation? These are often present in our society’s power dynamics, structures, workplaces, and our social spaces. Grant emphasised that we need increased awareness of how power dynamics intersect with race, gender, and sexual orientation. 

Our past experiences can lead us to associate someone in the present with someone threatening in our past. Those in positions of power or privilege must critically reflect on their values, beliefs, implicit biases, and structures. This has implications in CSI, such as in the power dynamic between donor and donee, and anyone in positions of authority. 

 5. Reintegrate  

It takes pioneering leadership to implement this knowledge into the ecology of the workplace: physical space, management structures, policies and procedures, and relational space. 

Stewart noted that creating a trauma-informed environment doesn’t mean therapy. But it does mean recognising trauma’s pervasive nature, and that if we are not conscious, we can add to it. We must consider everyone’s journeys and change people’s experiences of the workplace, reduce stress, and build positive resilience. If we foster a sense of psychological safety, belonging, collaboration, empowerment, inclusion, and care, it can also save time and money. But this involves a commitment to put people first.  

Practical tips for safer workplaces and self-awareness 

Stewart shared more tips for making others feel safe, and practicing self-awareness: 

  • Become body-aware. When we feel threatened or defensive, we close up and our body language changes. If someone challenges you and you feel threatened, notice if you are closing off, and make a choice to resist that. 
  • Monitor your stress levels and how it affects your response to others. Practising self-care can help with this. 
  • Recognise your triggers and watch others to see how they respond to you. 
  • Be conscious of our country’s context and past, and what you and those around you represent within that context. 

Stewart also shared tips for organisations to create safe workplaces. While emphasising that there is no copy-and-paste solution, he recommended the following: 

  • Examine the structures and ecology of your workplace. Physical space affects emotions and perceptions of safety, which affects how people function and engage in the space. 
  • Be critically aware of how your organisation could be causing trauma and stress. Are your employees overstressed? If so, leaders should design interventions based on how the brain works, including the emotional part of the brain, instead of only doing cognitive and intellectual work. 
  • Prioritise safety, connection, and engagement. 
  • Invest in staff development. 

Grant Stewart’s keynote address formed part of the ‘Employee engagement’ theme at the Trialogue Business in Society Conference 2022. 

Watch the session