The HR Origins of Workplace Trauma

15 Mar 2022

Last month, user researcher Alba Villamil co-authored a study on common corporate responses to workplace dysfunction facing design professionals. Many of these “solutions” are just as traumatic as the crises they were meant to address. Today, Alba and anti-oppression consultant and educator Kim Tran talk about their respective work and possible ways forward for better workplaces.

White letters on a board colored millennial pink that say DON'T PANIC

Minimizing the problem, one of four playbooks used to address workplace trauma. / Source

The Worker’s Perspective

Kim: I’d love to do introductions, since we do similar work but haven’t really met yet. How did you get here? How did you get into this kind of research?

Alba: I’m an independent user researcher who works mainly in the social sector, making products and services more equitable for historically marginalized and underserved groups. I’m also a facilitator and partner at a company called HmntyCntrd, where we work with company leaders to help them cultivate healthy and trauma-informed workplaces.

Something we’ve noticed in conversations with leaders is that companies invest a lot of money into initiatives around mental health and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) but employee burnout, disatisfaction, and resignation rates remain at an all time high. That made us curious about how these initiatives were actually being implemented and what were some of the unexpected effects these company responses had on employees.

So I did a research study with Vivianne Castillo at HmntyCntrd and Karen Eisenhauer at dscout. We surveyed design professionals about how their organizations responded to major events like COVID-19. And what we found was that many of these companies had a very limited or poor understanding of organizational trauma. So that’s what I’m up to right now.

Kim: I started my career doing mental health with queer and trans youth, and seeing your study from that perspective is easy, since folks in that work know what trauma-informed approaches look like. So how do we broaden these definitions and categories of trauma for the workplace? Who is experiencing organizational trauma, and why?

Alba: Our study tries to push against several ideas about trauma. One is the idea that trauma is only experienced by people who are traditionally categorized as “vulnerable” and have experienced Trauma with a capital T, like veterans, refugees, people who have been in serious car accidents. The other idea is that trauma is only experienced at the individual level.

Instead, trauma can also emerge at the organizational level, meaning it is experienced by many people within the same workplace. It can happen after a cataclysmic event, like COVID 19, that completely disrupts the way an organization works. It can happen after a major re-org or layoff that was handled poorly by leadership. And it can happen because of ongoing issues within that organization, like discrimination, harassment, or abusive managerial tactics. But what was most striking for us was how the very nature of work can cause trauma like when your company asks you to design a product that violates your sense of ethics.

Kim: Can you explain what you found when you looked at these traumatizing experiences? Your study talks about playbooks organizations and managers use that have a particularly harmful impact. What were those?

Alba: We found that American companies respond to these different sources of organizational trauma in one of four ways, which we call “playbooks”. Organizations tended to apply certain sets of tactics or playbooks to address employee trauma without actually considering the ways such tactics could negatively impact them.

Here’s a quick run down. When organizations recognize an employee need for mental health support but rely on individualistic solutions like floating mental health days or a subscription to meditation apps, we call that the DIY playbook. Organizations technically provide resources, but they’re usually one-off, inadequate, and require an unreasonable amount of effort for employees to sign up for. Other organizations create “space” for workers to express their experiences, like employee resource groups (ERGs) but then don’t actually do anything with that feedback. We call those Empty Empathizers. These two playbooks reinforce trauma by “betraying” employees – they promise help but then give no relief.

We also saw playbooks that actively harmed employees. Unlike the first two organizational responses, which mainly harmed employees through neglect, other organizations used common abuse tactics to keep employees in order. Organizations that used the Minimizer playbook downplayed serious workplace issues with toxic positivity and gaslighting. But the playbook that was most emotionally damaging for employees were the organizations that publicly released statements of support for employee wellness and DEI but then behind the scenes would retaliate against employees actually trying to get those initiatives off the ground. We called that playbook the Performer.

What each of these playbooks had in common is that by either downplaying the cause of employee trauma or providing inadequate change, they ended up exacerbating the problems they were meant to address or creating new ones. Despite these solutions, the workers we surveyed reported organizational wide mental and physical health issues. The majority had thought about quitting their job in the last year or had already done so.

Kim: I feel like I’ve seen little snippets of this everywhere in DEI work. Consultants come in to do an assessment, help craft a public statement, maybe form ERGs. I hear a lot of “change your relationship to the trauma that you’re experiencing!” But this serves existing power by socializing the risk of trauma and individualizing the healing. One thing I appreciate about the study is that you encourage folks to shift away from thinking about trauma as a behavioral issue. How is that different from the usual personal solutions?

Alba: We definitely want to challenge the concept of individual resilience and confront companies with the fact that their organizational-wide solutions – the DEI consultants they’ve worked with, the mental health resources they’ve invested in, the internal resource groups they’ve initiated – every single one of these recommendations, if not implemented with care, can be useless and even destructive.

Kim: One of my struggles is that we’re working at two different levels. The first is more abstract, a matter of getting coworkers to recognize that everyone uses these playbooks, and organizational trauma is real. The second level is more grounded but overwhelming, the result of actually acknowledging our role in organizational trauma – “I’m one manager, but I’ve done all this harm.” What are you hoping for after that point?

Alba: This speaks to a larger issue of leaders developing the foundational skills to process their shame around organizational harm while leaning into their power to represent the interests of their reports with care.

People in leadership roles often feel trapped and isolated after recognizing they’ve harmed their teams. Others, to avoid those intense feelings, create shields that resemble the harmful behavior that contributed to the organizational trauma in the first place. What we do at HmntyCntrd is help folks deconstruct those feelings and context of shame so they can develop healthier coping strategies. To lead in times of organizational trauma, they need to operate from a point of discomfort.

Kim: And managers too, right? I just read a report by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that said if you could only train one part of your organization on preventing gender-based harm, 95% of your time it should be managers. What impact are you trying to have on middle managers? What do you want them to do? What do you want them to feel after reading this?

Alba: I once had a client whose design team was completely burnt out. At first, I assumed it was because of the company’s fast paced “workplace culture.” But in working with the team, I began seeing patterns in how their manager misinterpreted business objectives and then communicated project scoping to their team. The team was burnt out because they were expected to deliver back-to-back intensive research projects that their business stakeholders ultimately had no appetite for. That, coupled with the sensitive topic of the work (healthcare access), meant that the team was continuously being exposed to potentially traumatizing participant interactions. Burnout was a symptom of that dynamic.

So much of the trauma we learned about in our survey stemmed from design managers not being accountable to their role in creating harmful conditions. Design work is hard because it requires a high degree of empathy and often exposes professionals to emotionally difficult experiences. Managers should invest in building an infrastructure of care for their teams like contingency and debriefing protocols or aftercare resources. But at an even more basic level, managers can help create more trauma-informed organizations by just being better at stakeholder management and assigning their teams the right projects at the right pace.

Part of that restoring care I mentioned earlier comes from managers recognizing that work as a culture and work as a practice are intimately tied together. It’s about managers exercising their sphere of influence but in sustainable, trauma-informed ways.

Thanks to Kim and the TWC newsletter crew for the opportunity to give workers why so many well-intended HR-led initiatives aren’t working, and what to do about it. Check out our full study, “The Corporate Playbooks Used to Combat Organizational Trauma (And Why They’re Not Enough),” and our work at HmntyCntrd.