A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding Trauma and the Workplace

By Micayla Eve Rivin, Director of Community Outreach at Let’s Empower, Advocate and Do, Inc.

Over the past ten months, Americans everywhere have felt the pervasive and debilitating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 U.S. presidential election, and the ongoing fight for racial justice. Indeed, 2020 was a year full of collective trauma. What is collective trauma?

Collective trauma is when a large group of people – such as a national, religious, or ethnic group – suffer a massive trauma, creating a shared emotional bond and experience of helplessness, disorientation and loss.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused an increase in widespread situational stress and life disturbances, as well as led millions of people to develop diagnosable mental illnesses, such as Adjustment Disorders, Major Depressive Disorder, and General Anxiety Disorder. Additionally, those with pre-existing mental illnesses saw an exacerbation of symptoms as a result of increased levels of stress, abrupt lifestyle changes, and fears related to COVID-19.

Now, more than ever, it’s critical that we understand trauma, it’s effects and how to support one another during these unprecedented times. Read on to learn about the different types of trauma and how they might show up in the workplace. 

What is trauma?

Trauma is defined as the “psychological, emotional response to an event or an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing.” Since trauma reactions differ greatly, psychologists have developed categories to differentiate between different types of trauma include: Acute, Complex and/or Chronic trauma.

Interested in learning more about trauma and the workplace? Check out, “Challenge Report: Trauma and the Everyday Workplace (Comings Soon!)

Acute Trauma

The first and most common form of trauma is acute trauma, defined as trauma that is short-lived, occurring at a specific time and place.

Acute trauma can be understood as the emotional, psychological, and physiological residue left over from heightened levels of toxic stress that accompanies experiences of danger, violence, significant loss, and life-threatening events.

Examples of Acute Trauma:

  • Natural disasters such as hurricanes or floods.
  • Accidental disasters such as car accidents or workplace injuries.
  • Human-made disasters such as bombings, assaults, or robberies.

Chronic and Complex Trauma

The second category of trauma is chronic and/or complex, and can be defined as repetitive and prolonged trauma, usually in an environment where escape is impossible.

Examples of Chronic Trauma:

  • Child abuse
  • Bullying
  • Domestic violence.

More specifically, the term complex trauma describes exposure to multiple traumatic events, often of an invasive, interpersonal nature, with wide- ranging, long-term impacts. There is also no easily defined beginning or end to complex trauma.

Examples of Complex Trauma:

  • A child witnesses domestic violence at home and then later becomes the victim of domestic violence as an adult.
  • Someone being forced or coerced into sex-work.
  • A child being torn from their family and put into foster care only to be abused by the foster family.

Read about the ways to identify complex trauma in your staff and how LEAD can help with our proactive, trauma-informed mental health services but checking out, “The How-To Guide for Supporting Employees with Complex Trauma” (Comings Soon!)

Trauma affects everyone in different ways. But no matter the type or intensity of trauma, research shows that our brains are directly affected. Here’s how:

How Trauma Affects the Working Brain:

  • Rewires and reshapes the brain’s amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex.
  • Makes the ‘fight or flight’ response continue even after the crisis resolves.
  • Confuses past and present memories.
  • Elevates levels of stress and causes a constant state of fear.

Trauma also causes individuals to develop trauma-related mental illnesses that have life-long effects and implications. The two mental illnesses most commonly developed as a result of trauma are: Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) – Associated with Acute Trauma

  • Acute Stress Disorder Represents a normal response to traumatic stress.
  • Associated with the experience of one specific trauma rather than long-term exposure (i.e. assault-related trauma, serious burn accidents, severe motor accidents, etc.)
  • Symptoms typically develop and resolve within 4 weeks of the traumatic event.
  • Can progress and worsen into PTSD but usually resolves.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – Associated with Complex and/or Chronic Trauma

PTSD is described as a severe response to trauma, and it is most powerfully characterized by three prominent symptoms, which include:

  1. Re-experiencing the event.
  2. Avoiding any reminders of the event, or feeling emotionally numb.
  3. Hyper-arousal, which consists of a very sensitive startle response.

Studies show that, 70% of adults have experienced a traumatic event at least once in their lives. Of these individuals, nearly 20% will develop PTSD. 

What’s Next?

Now that we’ve learned about the different types of trauma and trauma-related mental illnesses, the next step is to incorporate trauma-informed, sensitive and responsive care into your workplace!

Step One: Start learning about trauma-informed care, check out, “Trauma-informed Care and the Workplace: the 5 W’s (Who, What, When, Where, and Why)” (Coming Soon!) 

Step Two: Prioritize trauma-informed, sensitive and responsive care training for your staff and leadership. Here’s how LEAD can help:

Trauma is tricky, let LEAD help you out! Check out our online, self-paced trauma course today!


LEAD empowers employees with no-fluff mental health training, coaching, and consulting to proactively prevent burnout, maximize productivity, and foster psychological safety in the workplace. 

LEAD provides employees with practical skills, tools, and strategies to promote change-management and fortify existing diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in the workplace. LEAD’s evidence-based courses move “beyond talk” with their tangible takeaways, moving the needle on critical competencies, removing mental blockages to innovation, and building resilience in workplaces across the country

Key features and benefits:

  • Affordability
  • Peace of Mind
  • Customization

Request a free consultation by emailing info@LEADnow.org today!  

What are you waiting for? #LEADnow

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