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Mental Health & Inclusive Leadership: Trauma-Informed Leaders

Before you build on the diversity of your employee population, make sure your home is in order.

Make sure you’ve addressed the critical issues of equity, inclusion and belonging. There are many ways to address these key issues; however, in honor of mental health awareness month, I’m focusing on the importance of having a trauma-informed leadership approach.

Over the years, in working with a variety of people, one thing that has always stood out to me is how much trauma we all carry within us and how that informs how we show up in the workplace. 2020 was an especially traumatic year for almost everyone. Almost 80% of adults reported the worst stress they’ve ever experienced, according to a poll conducted for the American Psychological Association in October 2020. Similarly, Mental Health America saw a 93% and 62% increase in the number of people taking their screenings for anxiety and depression, respectively, from 2019 to 2020 and a December 2020 survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau found 42% of respondents reporting symptoms of anxiety, a significant increase from the 11% reporting the same in 2019.

Members of marginalized groups carry an especially heavy load of trauma. For those who have intersecting identities or multi-dimensional differences (e.g., Black lesbians, White disabled men, Asian impoverished, transgender women, etc.), that trauma is likely complex and cannot be discounted when they are members of your organization.

How impactful trauma is and our ability to cope with traumatic events can depend on how many traumatic events we’ve survived and from what age.

Members of marginalized groups are likely to have experienced trauma from a very young age for reasons beyond their control, sometimes race, sexuality, ability, childhood poverty, etc., resulting in a greater likelihood that they will struggle with newer traumatic events in adulthood. In some cases, surviving trauma can lead to the development of positive traits like adaptability, resilience and occasionally, better regulation against future stress but the impact of trauma is not guaranteed and will vary from incident to incident.

I recently viewed a webinar, “Uncovering the Complex Layers of Racialized Trauma & Mental Health,” led by Dr. Niloufer Merchant. I hadn’t heard trauma discussed through this lens, although I know those layers intimately. I’m sure many people of color viewing that webinar recognized themselves while listening to what was being shared, even if, like me, they hadn’t heard those specific terms used to describe what we experience. Research has also shown that people of color are more likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than White people, and the stressors of the past year may be having a disproportionate impact on people of color, making it especially important for leaders to account for the impact of trauma, and be aware of trauma triggers – reminders of past trauma – when leading diverse teams.

So how can leaders ensure that they are accounting for trauma and setting their current and prospective team members up for success?

Recognize Signs of Trauma

There are distinct signs of trauma you should be aware of. Employees who have experienced trauma may display changes in mood, thinking, or behavior, changes in appearance (e.g. suddenly appearing disheveled, when they previously dressed with care), self-isolate (e.g. not responding to calls and emails or atypically not using their cameras for Zoom meetings), or communicate differently (e.g. sounding negative or pessimistic where they previously would have been optimistic).

Adjust Your Leadership Approach

Leaders don’t have to change who they are at their core. However, I would encourage you to adjust your approach to meet your team where they are. While you can, and should, be consistent in your application of policies, fairness, empathy, opportunities extended, etc., treating all of your employees like they are the same person is not conducive to the success of the employee, team or organization. People are unique and differences should be acknowledged, embraced and celebrated. Get to know your team members. Be genuinely curious. It’s always amazed me to learn how many people are not actually quiet or shy; they’re simply waiting for someone to ask questions and listen to their answers. This applies to employees at all levels, from executives to the seldom seen (and spoken to) overnight cleaning crew.

Anticipate Triggers

Before we are employees, we are people. People have a need to connect; a need to feel seen, heard, and valued for who they are. You can’t really know who someone is if you don’t have conversations with them. By finding ways to connect with your team members, you may also learn about their triggers. Anticipating triggers can be difficult because they vary from person to person. The best way to anticipate what a team member may find triggering is to get to know them.

As you have conversations about your lives, some things will naturally come up during the course of conversation, alerting you to past trauma and possible triggers such as the anniversary of the traumatic event and any other associated dates (e.g. if a family member was murdered, the anniversary of their death and their birthday may be times for additional attention to impact). While this may not be commonly thought of, toxic workplaces and workplace incidents can be incredibly traumatic. Members of marginalized groups suffer many indignities in the workplace, making it an especially triggering space for us. If you are aware of team members with a history of traumatic experiences in the workplace – mistreatment by managers or co-workers, microaggressions, surviving workplace violence, etc. – you can be sensitive to that in your approach, and choose to be mindful of words and tone.


Engaging your team members in regular conversation is critical. Team gathering are important, but remember that not everyone will open up in a large group setting. Make time for one-on-one check-ins as well. Ask team members how they are doing and practice active listening during those conversations. Utilize follow-up questions based on what they’re sharing. It’s important to note that the check-in only works once a relationship has already been established with that team member. People won’t share as readily in crisis if that is the only time you attempt to engage them in conversation. Hopefully, by having consistent check-ins, you are also able to offer support before certain situations reach the point of crisis. Other times, you will be able to provide appropriate support during or after that crisis because you’ve created a safe space for sharing that a crisis is occurring or has occurred.

Offer Comfort

Hurting people don’t want to hurt. While you may not be able to resolve the issue – or even know the right thing to say – you can offer words of comfort. Share that you are there to support them, that you empathize, that it hurts you to see them hurting. These words, said with intention, can go a long way for someone who is struggling. There is no perfect statement. What’s most important is that your words are authentic. People are comforted by genuine caring. Even when it comes out awkwardly, it’s obvious it’s coming from the heart.

Make Room for Emotion

At the end of the day, recognize that you’re dealing with people. Not human resources, not human capital, actual human people. People can’t shut off what they’ve been through just because they log on, or clock in. They can’t shut off or stuff down their emotions. Asking your employees to hide any aspect of who they are runs counter to creating an inclusive culture. Additionally, stuffing down, or numbing, emotions is a temporary solution. Eventually, they can, and will, bubble up to the surface and the end result is not usually good.

Allowing people to fully be themselves, whoever they are, is not only freeing; it results in happier, comfortable, more productive team members. Employees who feel like they belong are better workers because they can focus on their actual work rather than the distraction created by trying to “fit in.” The cost of embracing your team members' unique identities and lived experiences, inclusive of any trauma they may be carrying, is free and the result is priceless.

Someone recently shared that we now know “the return on exclusion is failure.” There are plenty of statistics showing the incredible return on diversity in the workplace. While we don’t know the exact return on inclusion and belonging yet, we know there’s only up to go from here. Is that not worth it?

Looking for more on Diversity, Equity, Belonging and Inclusion? Check out the previous blog post in the Let’s Talk About It series: Continuing the Conversation: How to be an Ally.