Survivors of childhood trauma reveal the support needed from workplaces
People who have experienced trauma in childhood have spoken up about the space, dignity, and flexibility they need from their employers to help them manage their trauma and meet their work objectives.
Childhood trauma affects one in five adults, with around 8.5 million people aged 18 to 74 years having experienced at least one form of child abuse before the age of 16 in the UK[i]. The response to this trauma is often ongoing and impacts interpersonal relationships, which can negatively affect health and wellbeing throughout life.
Through a research project led by Nottingham Business School (NBS) and funded by The British Academy, a group of 20 survivors took part in interviews to share their personal experiences of dealing with work and organisational realities.
They revealed a lack of awareness and trust among managers and colleagues within their workplaces, which often led to feelings of anxiety and apprehension, and in many cases the sense of insecurity, vulnerability and of not belonging.
The survivors feared talking openly about the trauma in case it led to stigmatisation and bias. They were also concerned about being perceived as the ‘troublemakers’ and creating the perception that their trauma prevents them for doing their work.
Highlighting the support needed, the survivors did not want their organisation to try to address the causes of trauma, but instead wanted them to empathise, talk confidently, actively listen to survivors and create the space to receive appropriate support based on individual needs.
Dr Stefanos Nachmias, research lead and principal lecturer in the Department of Human Resource Management at NBS, also spoke to policymakers and employers as part of the study. He said: “Talking about trauma is difficult as it’s a very sensitive topic for many of us. It’s even harder for people who have experienced trauma to talk openly, and most importantly to ask for support from their own organisations.
"Survivors shared with me that past experiences and a lack of trust in the organisational approach to dealing with disclosures meant that they would rather leave an organisation than disclose their trauma, for fear of what the consequences might be.
“Workplaces need to be a psychologically safe space for survivors, but I found that there’s confusion as to who is responsible for providing support. The organisation itself, health professionals or the survivors themselves? However, the answer is straightforward. It is a collective effort to develop an approach that offers survivors an appropriate level of support.”
Stephanie Hunter, a social worker, author, trainer and therapist, took part in the research, having experienced trauma due to the deaths of her father and young brother. She said: “Trauma and adverse childhood experiences are in fact not uncommon. I know this from research and the national and international training I deliver and how many delegates seek me out in person and by email to share experiences. What is not available is a consistency in terms of responses to professionals, which are trauma informed and would lead to improvements in productivity and less time in workplace absence, but it is the human cost which pains me. More organisations absolutely need to be trauma informed.
“This research is a positive step forward. In terms of my experience contributing and, for the first time, acknowledging experiences in a professional arena, whilst those involved were warmth and empathic it was not without its sadness. I think we should all work towards enabling authenticity, safely at work and reduced shame cultures to strength based and relational practice models, enabling more recognition of courage and strength.”
The study recommends that supporting trauma requires several organisational, operational and management actions to address individual needs. This support covers a number of complex areas including policy development, staff development, workload, disclosure, communication, performance, and other wider employment practices.
A guide for workplaces has been produced following the study and outlines several practices that organisations should consider at different levels. These include:
- Place trauma into welfare and wellbeing agenda as a strategic dimension and not a single approach to manage welfare.
- Recognise the importance of supporting trauma survivors in the workplace and create the infrastructure for an integrated, individualised and targeted approach to support.
- Replace high reliance on HR policy and wellbeing strategy with a more personalised approach based on the individual needs.
- Address high level of anxiety to talk about the trauma and whether their organisation offer a balanced support mechanism.
- Improve confidence to offer direct support to individuals who disclose trauma by effectively managing line management processes.
- Consider legal requirements, however, this should be followed by extensive training and development on how to support survivors at different stages. This is because legal requirements only apply for those with a diagnosis. Many survivors do not have a diagnosis, but trauma manifests at work. The process should avoid re-traumatisation.
- Seek external support when knowledge in the area is poor and identify best practices.
- Remove activities and avoid making decisions based on personal experience. Any decision to support trauma at work should be only delivered via professional knowledge emerged from specific training and development activities.
For further information and to download the guide visit the project website.
The research is supported by Dr Maria Karanika-Murray, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, Dr Nadia Kougiannou, Senior Lecturer, Nottingham Business School and Lynn Miles, Senior Lecturer, Teesside University.
Notes for editors
About Nottingham Business School at Nottingham Trent University
Nottingham Business School (NBS) at Nottingham Trent University (NTU) is a leader in experiential learning and personalisation of business, management and economics education and research, combining academic excellence with positive impact on people, business and society. NBS has an unrivalled level of engagement with business, public and voluntary organisations. With more than 6,000 students, NBS is also one of UK’s largest business schools.
NBS is accredited by EQUIS and AACSB, which are internationally recognised hallmarks of excellence and quality for business education. The School is one of only six UK business schools recognised as a PRME Champion and held up as an exemplar by the United Nations Principles of Responsible Management Education (PRME).
About Nottingham Trent University
Nottingham Trent University (NTU) received the Queens Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education in 2021 for cultural heritage science research. It is the second time that NTU has been bestowed the honour of receiving a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for its research, the first being in 2015 for leading-edge research on the safety and security of global citizens.
The Research Excellence Framework (2021) classed 83% of NTU’s research activity as either world-leading or internationally excellent. 86% of NTU’s research impact was assessed to be either world-leading or internationally excellent.
NTU was awarded Outstanding Support for Students 2020 (Times Higher Education Awards). It was the University of the Year 2019 (Guardian University Awards, UK Social Mobility Awards), Modern University of the Year 2018 (Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide) and University of the Year 2017 (Times Higher Education Awards).
NTU is the 5th largest UK institution by student numbers, with over 33,000 students and more than 4,000 staff located across five campuses. It has an international student population of 4,000 and an NTU community representing around 160 countries.
In the past 15 years, NTU has invested £450 million in tools, technology and facilities.
NTU is in the UK’s top 10 for number of applications and ranked first for accepted offers (2019 UCAS UG acceptance data) It is also among the UK’s top five recruiters of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
75% of NTU students go on to graduate-level employment or graduate-entry education / training within fifteen months of graduating (Guardian University Guide 2021).
NTU is 4th globally (and 3rd in the UK) for sustainability in the 2021 UI Green Metric University World Rankings (out of more than 900 participating universities).
Survivors of childhood trauma reveal the support needed from workplaces
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