How Trauma Affects the Way Survivors Work in the Non-Profit Sector

I have worked in the violence against women field for over 10 years, and almost entirely in direct services. It should come as no surprise that most people who work in this field are survivors themselves. These individuals are courageous and self-sacrificing. They understand the abuse firsthand, and they are surviving. They are good people wanting to do good work. But individuals (staff, executive directors, and board members) who haven’t dealt with their own trauma can be detrimental to an organization and to the survivors that it serves. I have seen organizations ripped apart by this from whole boards stepping down to extreme situations of workplace bullying amongst staff.

Domestic violence, sexual abuse, and exploitation are all traumatic experiences. Coping with psychological and emotional trauma is difficult for survivors. Trauma rewires the brain and releases cortisol. When trauma happens repeatedly, cortisol builds up and activates the amygdala, which is responsible for emotions, emotional behaviors, and motivation. 

“The amygdala of traumatized individuals is often overly sensitive, resulting in extreme alertness. These individuals may appear aggressive, as they might be overly sensitive to perceived threats (words or gestures from peers), or withdrawn due to fear of being close to others. It is a self-perpetuating cycle that leaves the individuals with heightened sympathetic arousal (‘fight or flight’ response).”[1]

In once instance, I worked with an Executive Director of a domestic violence non-profit organization. A board member was asking to fire a staff member for shutting a door too loudly. The loud sound of the door shutting had triggered the board member, which might have been from her experience of a time when her perpetrator slammed doors at home. For this board member, her natural response was to go into ‘fight’ mode. She associated the staff member with her abuser and asked that they be fired. 

In another example, a young man was emotionally abused by his mother when he was young. Every criticism or comment that wasn’t completely positive about his work by his supervisor was triggering. It was impossible for his supervisor to give him open and honest feedback about his performance. 

The nonprofit sector has talked about vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue, and burnout for years. We ask job candidates what they do to take care of themselves. But there is little discussion on this topic of internal trauma that staff is experiencing. And trauma is contagious. If it is not dealt with, it has the potential to create a toxic environment.

So how do we create a space for survivors to thrive?

Survivors are incredible to the field. They bring a depth of experience that enables organizations worldwide to help millions of survivors each year. We can help address this problem through self-awareness, support, and creating a workplace culture that honors them.

1. Self-Awareness

  • Do you know your triggers? When something happens that triggers you, take a moment to reflect on it. Ask yourself: Are you being triggered by something that happened in the past? If so, acknowledge that you might be going through your own stuff.

  • Be aware of your own bias, prejudices, and knowledge about the people you serve and their culture.

  • If someone is going off on you, there’s a good chance that they are dealing with their own trauma, and it has nothing to do with you.

“Self-awareness of one’s triggers that send a person into a flight or fight response is the first step. But this often means revisiting traumatic memories in order to confront them head-on. This can be difficult for many survivors. But if that hurdle can be crossed through trauma-informed treatments, a survivor can rewire the brain to have a new, non-traumatic response.”[1]

2. Gather Support

  • Have a self-care plan that includes how to appropriate respond when you are triggered.

  • See a therapist regularly.

  • Find a colleague you trust who can support you when you feel triggered at work.

3. Create a Workplace Culture that Honors Survivors

  • Conduct regular trainings for staff and board members about trauma.

  • Create a “self-care” space in the workplace. One of the non-profits that I worked for had a “quiet room” where staff could go for quiet time and reflection if they needed it.

  • Put into place policies and procedures that mitigate burnout and vicarious trauma.

  • Finally, set realistic workload expectations and encourage staff to set boundaries. 

The work culture of a non-profit is critical to supporting survivors thrive. After all, we whole reason we do the work we do is so that we can create safe spaces and support survivors.

If you’re a non-profit leader looking to create a culture of collective care, contact me. I’m happy to offer a free hour of consultation to help you get started. For more resources and information, visit the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health.