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Are we ready to support survivors of childhood trauma in the workplace?

16 Jan 2020 By Stefanos Nachmias

Complex post-traumatic stress disorders can affect employees at work, says Stefanos Nachmias

Many organisations recognise the benefits of supporting wellbeing and mental health in the face of high levels of sickness, absence and stress in the workplace. But to what extent are they ready to offer support for childhood trauma survivors when it is disclosed, or symptoms are identified?

Childhood trauma is not specifically covered by the Equality Act 2010; instead it is labelled under the ‘mental health’ category, prompting much debate on whether it should be considered as a health and/or mental issue. Regardless of the category, childhood trauma is a complex post-traumatic stress disorder. Many survivors of childhood abuse have this diagnosis. But given the taboo surrounding childhood trauma and the fact that the impact is not yet recognised in the workplace, survivors might hide behind a mental health label. 

While mental health is a factor, the impact of the trauma reaches beyond this label to a combination of issues such as self-esteem and confidence when dealing with social stigma and self-blame at work. Some survivors make compromises to achieve career goals and, most importantly, to balance the effects of trauma and work duties.

Historically many survivors decide not to inform their employer because of the fear of stigmatisation and discrimination, mostly by management. Of course, balancing professional and personal matters contributes to the decision of whether to disclose childhood trauma or not. 

Nevertheless, the level of disclosure is related to survivor confidence when discussing key issues with their employer. Issues associated with job security, promotion and engagement are also equal barriers in non-disclosure. These barriers demonstrate that there is a lack of consistent approach as to how organisations respond to and address mental health problems, allocate resources to support survivors and develop appropriate policies. 

Businesses should offer the space for people to disclose, but evidence suggests this inclusive and appropriate environment is not yet commonplace. 

At Nottingham Business School, we conducted research with 48 survivors holding various organisational positions in the UK. Our findings show that response rate and effectiveness of management actions is inconsistent and requires more strategic actions to fully implement inclusive mental health policies. 

In our research, 92 per cent of participants said access to workplace support was important but the vast majority agreed that their employers’ response to their needs was not at all helpful. 

Childhood trauma can have a detrimental impact upon survivors’ ability to perform in their current roles, and 52 per cent of the participants agreed that individual productivity had been affected by their trauma. 

Absence is a key performance indicator to assess whether survivors receive appropriate support. In the question regarding whether they have been unable to work because of symptoms related to their abuse over the last 12 months, a large proportion of respondents indicated that they have been off work because of the trauma they experienced. Out of those, 21 per cent experienced severe absence from work, indicating a negative impact upon their ability to complete work-related tasks.

However, the study also shows that issues related to productivity and absence are secondary dimensions, and it is the lack of the right climate that prevents survivors from disclosing childhood trauma and seeking appropriate support. 

The nature of job, management structure and level of awareness about childhood trauma play a critical role in whether survivors can progress, manage trauma and make career-related decisions. 

With a high proportion of survivors still experiencing issues in the workplace, this demonstrates the critical role of organisational support in this matter. But what constitutes an appropriate level of support? Certainly, organisations could benefit from mechanisms such as more training and development for managers, the creation of space to discuss concerns, the development of support networks and the reviewing of disclosure procedures. Employers must consider making reasonable adjustments to help survivors in the workplace.

The importance of interpersonal relationships at work also needs to be recognised. Emotional and motivational support is a key ingredient to enable survivors to share their trauma. Work colleagues and supportive management can positively contribute to increased productivity and motivation among survivors. 

The complex nature of the trauma means that a one-size support mechanism would not be sufficient. What is clear is that awareness needs to be raised of the various issues experienced by survivors of childhood trauma. This is essential to remove any discriminatory behaviours and is crucial for disclosure, the important first step in receiving support. 

Legislation might help, but it is only effective when driven by appropriate management actions. It is not the ‘magic tool’ to provide answers to key issues and behaviour change. 

It is upon us all to take effective actions in the workplace. More must be done to support survivors and action on the part of employers is simply the right thing to do.

Dr Stefanos Nachmias is a principal lecturer in the HR management department at Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University

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