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How Childhood Trauma Can Result in Workplace Violence


During my FBI career, one of the areas that always caused me significant concern was the risk of a mass shooting. In order to protect the American people, the FBI designs its strategy to effectively assess and address all threats in order to mitigate risk. However, without a tip from a source, how do you reduce the risk of a violent workplace event?

Considering the role of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) in a person’s life can prove useful in understanding and mitigating the risk of workplace violence.

While most people don’t share their trauma out of privacy concerns, when employers seek to be trauma-informed, I’m convinced we can address the privacy concerns, as well as significantly reduce the risk of workplace violence.

For example, the National Safety Council (NSC) names these possible workplace violence indicators: excessive alcohol or drug use, unexplained absenteeism, change in behavior, decline in job performance, depression, withdrawal or suicidal comments, resistance to changes at work, persistent complaining about unfair treatment, or emotional responses to criticism.

The United States Secret Service recently published, “Mass Attacks in Public Places – 2018.” The report provides these insights about the violent perpetrators:  “half were motivated by a grievance related to a domestic situation, workplace, or other personal issue; two-thirds had histories of mental health symptoms, including depressive, suicidal, and psychotic symptoms; and nearly all had at least one significant stressor within the last five years.”

Each of those indicators and insights can be tied to the physical and emotional trauma many people faced in childhood which are finding an outlet in adulthood.

The 1998 seminal ACEs study identified 10 traumatic childhood events related to abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction. The researchers found that approximately two-thirds of the population have experienced at least one ACE and nearly one in eight have experienced four or more ACEs.

People who engage in excessive substance abuse, suicidal comments, or workplace violence are seeking a physical response to an emotional pain.

When a person has not developed proper coping or resiliency skills because of previous trauma,  then the struggles that we call “life” often become overwhelming.

A child whose brain developed from anticipating significant levels of negativity, abuse, and chaos is an adult whose brain only knows how to respond with negativity, abuse, and chaos.

The NSC encourages all managers and safety professionals to develop a workplace violence policy to help employees feel safe.  However, if businesses are not helping their employees address the root of the problems -- in other words, the lasting effects from ACEs -- then the workplace will never be as secure as it could be.

In a recent Kellogg School of Management article, the authors examined why employees engage in escalating retaliation towards another employee who has felt slighted or wronged. They found the retaliation takes on an “eye for an eye” approach. One of their leadership suggestions was to work with employees to de-escalate the conflicts and reduce negative behavior in the first place. This is the beginning of a trauma-informed workplace.

Here is my recommendation: If you want to understand workplace violence, school shootings, or even the country’s addiction crisis, understand the significance of Adverse Childhood Experiences. While not every violent act stems from ACEs, we must shift our attitude from, “What’s wrong with you?” to “What’s happened to you?” Then, and only then, can we make an employee’s workplace a more safe, secure, and positive environment.

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Given the content of this article, it seems to me that when there are school shootings the focus should be on the family vs. the individual.  Prevention how can we offer services to at risk families for example Structural or Functional Family Therapy to reduce the trauma experienced by their children?

Helping employers understand ACEs and how they impact the relationships in the workplace is one of my special interests as well. 

Over the years different approaches to this issue have been introduced - human resources, social and emotional intelligence, conflict resolution, anti-bullying campaigns, psychological safety in the workplace. 

None have had the culturally transformative impact necessary to get to the root of the issue. 

And yet getting business to buy into training in ACEs and Trauma Informed Systems continues to be an uphill challenge. 

It's nice to see I'm not alone in this vision. 

Elizabeth Perry

Excellent post!  Thanks so much also for the links to other articles.  My state has long been first in the country in ACEs prevalence of three or more indicators.  It's also first in incarceration and in the top five in domestic violence.  A coincidence?  I think not.  This topic represents one of the most important policy opportunities I can possibly think of.  Thanks again for reminding us.

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