Handle With Care: Trauma-informed Workplace Design
Leveraging trauma-informed design in the workplace.
Workplace stress has been on the rise since the beginning of the global pandemic. Coupled with political unrest, growing international tensions and a seemingly endless stream of conflicts and worries, the workforce is experiencing elevated levels of pain, grief and strain that have led to a shared trauma for many people. As such, a collective wave of trauma-related symptoms such as fear, anxiety and isolation have swept over us.
It’s because of this that workplace strategists, designers and change management experts have a responsibility to create office environments that help with healing through trauma-informed design. Prioritizing the workforce’s mental and emotional health, in addition to physical wellness through thoughtful programming and space planning, is essential in keeping our greatest asset, people, healthy and equipped to do their best work.
Whether a single incident or repeated events, trauma is a response to a deeply disturbing or distressing moment that overwhelms our ability to cope. Trauma is associated with feelings of helplessness, diminished sense of self, inability to feel a full range of emotions and a variety of health issues.
Trauma-informed design integrates principles of trauma-informed care into design to create physical spaces that promote safety, well-being and healing. It consists of five guiding principles that include safety, choice, collaboration, trustworthiness and empowerment. By realizing the impact the physical environment has on an individual’s sense of self, worth and dignity, we can create supportive spaces that positively impact a person’s mental and emotional wellbeing and generate a more positive workplace experience for the vulnerable.
When an organization puts trauma-informed design into action, they are demonstrating a commitment to all members of their team. From a change management and organizational planning perspective, this includes equipping employees with the resources and training to recognize and respond appropriately to individuals experiencing trauma symptoms. Going beyond to empower people under distress to practice self-care, individuals will feel free to prioritize their health without judgment or shame.
Strategic Design to Empower and Promote Healing
When designing workspaces with trauma-informed care principles in mind, workplace designers aim to reduce adverse stimuli and environmental stressors, crafting a welcoming aesthetic that feels safe, provides adequate privacy and enables collaboration, trust and self-empowerment.
Thinking strategically about the needs of all workers at an organization, it’s crucial to actively engage individuals with dynamic environments that provide multisensory stimulation while supporting self-assurance and creating separated spaces that accommodate the diverse needs of the workforce. For some, privacy is just as important as collaboration, while others seek social settings to help them decompress after a stressful situation. The key is to empower team members with the opportunity for personal choice and provide areas where those who are distressed can decompress and regain a sense of control while balancing the organization’s goal to provide safety and comfort for the team as a whole.
To achieve an office environment that is visually appealing while not overwhelming, designers will minimize aesthetic complexity while selecting design elements that support autonomy and maintain feelings of safety. Trauma-informed design components include adapting the spatial layout and making thoughtful decisions about furnishings, visual interest, light, colour and art. The overall look should be clean, uncluttered and allow individual choice.
Biophilic design is particularly impactful as a proven method to promote feelings of calm and productivity. Carefully chosen design elements like daylighting, the use of living walls, natural materials, earth-tone colours and natural textures can all work together to provide a direct connection to the natural world. Corporate interiors that incorporate biophilia into workplaces tap into the resilience of nature to elicit a feeling of safety while stimulating productivity and calm through capturing nature’s inspiration, either literally or representationally.
The Future of Trauma-Informed Design in the Workplace
While workplace stress continues to be on the rise since the beginning of the pandemic, looking toward the future we can expect to see continued emphasis on trauma-informed design. This focus will include easy-to-navigate spaces, multifunctional furniture arrangements, purposeful use of colour to create a calming effect and an abundance of natural light. New environments will be designed with an emphasis on worker safety. Whether it’s increased transparency or a focus on wellness, the future of our spaces will not only depend on the standard designs we are used to seeing but will prioritize the end users themselves. This will happen only by creating diverse, agile environments that can adapt to the ever-changing environment and support all employees.
By adapting the principles of trauma-informed design into the built environment, we will positively influence the attitude, mood and behaviour of our workforce and create a beneficial work experience for everyone. For more than two years, people have felt as if they have lost control of their surroundings. By purposefully designing environments in response to this sentiment, employers can give people their power back and enable greater healing for those who have experienced challenging times.
Judith Carlson, LEED AP, is Workplace Strategy Manager at Ted Moudis Associates with over 15 years of experience working in strategy and design. With a background in interior design, she has worked on both the design and client sides and recognizes the impact of a holistic approach to architecture and design.