Trauma-Informed Organization: Workplace Triggers

Posted on January 30, 2023

In our work we talk a lot about self-care, burnout, etc. What we don’t talk about as much is how our work can trigger us.

We have all experienced some sort of trauma or stress. Small things in our day-to-day lives can be reminders of that and trigger a reaction that can have a negative impact on ourselves and those around us.

Consider—how do you show up to work on a regular basis? What causes you to have a bad day? What actions, statements or nonverbal messages really get under your skin?

Being aware of the answers to these questions can help us identify what may trigger us when we’re at work. These questions are not exhaustive in exploring those triggers, but they can be a place to start.

Triggers can show up in a variety of ways. It could be that having a talk with your supervisor takes you back to school days when you were called to the principal’s office, making you feel like you’re in trouble even when you’re not. It could be a conflict with a co-worker that reminds you of a fight with someone, leaving you feeling unsafe.

Here are some common workplace triggers:

  1. Tone of voice
    If you’ve experienced trauma or stress in the past, you may be hyperaware of changes in tone, which can lead you to worry about what someone else is feeling or thinking. Often, instead of just asking, we come up with our own assumptions (typically negative and inaccurate), which lead to more stress.
  2. Touching
    For those who have experienced touches that have caused harm or made them feel unsafe, a simple tap on the shoulder may be a trigger.
  3. Authority roles
    Authority can take us back to a time when we were in trouble. In contrast, being in a position of authority comes with its own stressors and triggers.
  4. Arguments
    Conflict at work may trigger the fight, flight or freeze response if we have a history of conflict leading to harm.
  5. Weak boundaries
    This trigger may be self-inflicted; it can happen when we struggle to say “no,” or worry that we’re not being a team player for not being available constantly.

It’s important that when the trigger arises that we take some time to sit with the feelings and explore what may be causing them. The self-awareness can help us respond in healthier ways when these triggers inevitably arise.