Ideas for Incorporating Trauma-Informed Care into Employment Services

By Tara Maguire, Workforce Research & Policy Fellow, National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity


Practitioners are increasingly recognizing the importance of incorporating trauma-informed care into social service settings, including employment services. While minimal literature exists on how to incorporate trauma-informed practices and principles into employment services specifically, our recent webinar, Integrating Trauma-Informed Care into Employment Services, shares lots of ideas for getting started.

As many people facing barriers to employment have experienced trauma, it’s important to consider the effects of trauma when providing employment services. According to the Midwest Harm Reduction Institute, traumatic events frequently occur quickly and without much warning, cause an individual to fear for their safety due to actual or threatened violence, and overwhelm the individual’s coping abilities. While trauma may lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), even in the absence of PTSD trauma’s lingering effects may cause behavioral reactions that can act as barriers to employment. For example, traumatic stress can cause concentration difficulties, which can make it challenging to keep up in training programs. At the same time, what may appear to be lack of motivation to engage in a job search may actually be caused by depression induced by trauma.

Recognizing that these behaviors are reactions to trauma rather than an indication that a program participant isn’t interested in employment can help providers address these symptoms productively. Providers can make employment services trauma-informed through talking with participants about trauma and potential triggers, helping them access therapy and other supports, and helping them develop skills, such as grounding and relaxation techniques, to deal with overwhelming feelings when triggers arise at work.

Larkin Street Youth Services is one organization that incorporates trauma-informed care into its employment services. Larkin Street, based in San Francisco, helps youth experiencing or at risk of homelessness with their housing, healthcare, and employment needs. Because many of Larkin Street’s youth have experienced trauma, and because homelessness is itself traumatic and future homelessness may be re-traumatizing, making sure services are trauma-informed is essential.

At Larkin Street, practitioners incorporate trauma-informed care into employment services by drawing from a stages of change framework and using harm reduction techniques to help youth achieve the goals they set themselves – in line with trauma-informed care principles emphasizing participant choice. The stages of change is a framework for understanding behavior change as a process, not an overnight transformation. As a participant undertakes a major life change such as becoming engaged in the workforce for the first time, and starts to progress through the stages of change, new traumas can occur and cause relapse.  In the context of employment services, relapse may look like participants making choices that don’t align with their employment goals, such as disengaging from a job search or no longer attending work. Instead of seeing relapse as a failure, service providers can use motivational interviewing techniques to help a participant move forward and get back on track to employment success. Larkin Street uses a number of harm reduction techniques to address trauma including making sure youth have a voice in planning services, engaging youth in non-judgmental conversation about harmful behavior with a goal of decreasing it, and understanding the social inequalities that impact youth and cause trauma.

Because people returning from incarceration frequently have experienced trauma, Workforce Solutions for Tarrant County also emphasizes trauma-informed care in its employment services for the re-entry population. Workforce Solutions’ process begins with an assessment for trauma and its effects, using instruments such as the Adverse Childhood Experiences screening tool and the PTSD Screen for Primary Health Care. After assessment, practitioners—acting as coaches—form partnerships with clients, guiding and motivating participants and providing them with accountability as they set and strive to reach their goals. Workforce Solutions endeavors to ensure that all aspects of services are trauma-informed: all staff are trained in trauma-informed care, office spaces are inviting, and once participants are placed in employment, staff continue to follow up with them regarding potential workplace triggers.

As many populations facing barriers to employment are likely to have experienced trauma, incorporating trauma-informed care into employment services can further help these jobseekers succeed in employment. For more on how to incorporate trauma-informed care into employment services, including helping employers become trauma-informed, check out the full webinar here.

About National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

Heartland Alliance’s National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity is dedicated to ending chronic unemployment and poverty. We believe that every person deserves the opportunity to succeed in work and support themselves and their families. Through our field building, we provide support and guidance that fosters more effective and sustainable employment efforts. Our policy and advocacy work advances solutions to the systemic issues that drive chronic unemployment.

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