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  • Anavi Strategies

How Can Human Service Workers Drive Systems Change? A Vision For Trauma-Informed Workplaces

Updated: Apr 19, 2023

Anthony Barrows, Andrés Celin, Anjali Chainani

Public and non-profit human service organizations play a significant role in providing critical services and resources that aim to improve people's health and well-being.

Unfortunately, there are barriers to accessing critical services. A lack of awareness of programs, inconsistent eligibility requirements, and complex application processes all contribute to low enrollment in benefits programs, reducing how well a program actually serves its intended populations.

Thankfully, applied research in behavioral economics has demonstrated that small changes can make large improvements to outcomes like uptake and retention. As former practitioners of this translational science work,* we have successfully tested the use of behavioral nudges to improve outcomes in local government, post-secondary education and civic engagement, helping make programs and services as responsive as possible to residents’ needs.

Human service organizations are critical in today’s economy, and targeted behavioral nudges are effective at increasing their efficacy.

Despite the success of applied behavioral nudges, systemic and organizational challenges continue to be a barrier to both clients and staff, especially the lack of organization-wide trauma-informed principles and practices.

While nudges are an important aspect of the behavioral toolkit, these interventions are not a silver bullet solution to improving resident outcomes, or the quality of services. Program design gaps, workforce conditions, and the policy environment are critical factors as well.

Sector-wide challenges including resource and technology constraints, administrative burdens, and extremely high emotional demands complicate the ability for human service organizations to achieve good outcomes for residents, or to operate as healthy workplaces. In order to achieve broader and longer-term changes than nudges can offer, behavioral science must also inform program design, policy development, and organizational practices.

In 2022, more than 50 million workers quit their jobs, many of whom were in search of an improved work-life balance and flexibility, increased compensation, and a strong company culture.[1] Given the nationwide staffing crisis in the human services, with up to a quarter of positions in non-profit organizations going unfilled[2],[3],[4] and the lingering effects of COVID-19, we believe that an effective place to start would be the creation of trauma-informed workplaces.

One visceral lesson of the COVID pandemic is that the science of traumatic stress can no longer be ignored in the public service workforce

The global tragedy we have all lived through is irrefutable evidence for the necessity of trauma-informed organizations—organizations that require that all staff to understand trauma and its consequences.[5]

In the absence of trauma-informed models, operational challenges proliferate among the workforce, including numbing, reactivity, and depersonalization across staff and leadership. Trauma isn’t limited to public health emergencies, either.[6]

Vicarious trauma - harmful changes in professionals’ views of themselves, others, and the world as a result of exposure to traumatic events can challenge a person’s beliefs and values, and can result in decreased motivation, efficacy, and empathy. Without a trauma-informed environment or operational model, it can be near-impossible to provide a safe workplace for employees, and thus to provide excellent services to residents.

By combining a focus on lived experience with a commitment to trauma-informed work, we can improve outcomes by introducing practical tools and processes into our workplaces.

As we work toward more trauma-informed workplaces, we must also acknowledge a large unmet need among a group of employees we call “Intersectional Professionals.” Intersectional Professionals are individuals whose daily work focuses on issues with which they have lived experience themselves (e.g. a former foster youth who works in child welfare, or a former public housing resident who works at a local housing authority), and as such bring a unique dual expertise to any workplace.

The combination of lived experience and professional acumen is a powerful tool to ensure that services and policies meet communities where they are, and that they work in practice as much as they do in theory.

As we bring more Intersectional Professionals into human services work, we get closer to achieving the goal that the people closest to a policy or service challenge should inform its design. However, we must also acknowledge that the unique skills and experiences that make Intersectional Professionals valuable in the workplace also put them at unique risk to suffer the effects of trauma, and for that to multiply the effects of other structural barriers they may face.

Trauma-informed principles and practices are key to any social-impact organization, but are especially important to any organization who wants Intersectional Professionals to thrive within them.

To meet the needs of the Human Services workforce, as well as those of the communities they serve, we believe we need new systems rooted in evidence from both science and lived experience. To this end, Anavi Strategies is committed to building a trauma-informed business model that guides every aspect of how we serve our clients, and internally operate as a team.

At Anavi Strategies, we believe that in order to fully meet the current moment, mission-driven organizations need to move beyond training and begin developing concrete tools and practices that can: a) acknowledge the impact of trauma on team members, clients, and community stakeholders; and (b) concretely support trauma-impacted individuals during stressful situations. We also know that no single organization can figure this out alone.

We can only build trauma-informed organizational ecosystems if we can learn from one another and build on each other’s lessons through a process of praxis.

Anavi Strategies is excited to partner with The Center for Behavioral Design & Social Justice (CBDSJ) to discuss these issues openly, and together. The CBDSJ’s work to design human-centered systems, policies, and programs in collaboration with a network of Intersectional Professionals will help center the workplace needs of people with lived experience, and will help cultivate a community of champions to advance the work.

Human service organizations are key contributors to our economy, and to the well-being of our communities. This is why human service organizations – non-profit organizations and government agencies included - must be good workplaces: when their employees thrive, the communities they serve will thrive as well.

Join us in building the tools that human service organizations needs to thrive— what’s good for the field is good for the community.

*Anthony Barrows was previously the Managing Director of the Economic Justice portfolio at ideas42 where he oversaw NYC’s municipal Behavioral Design Team, and Dr. Anjali Chainani co-founded the Philadelphia Behavioral Science Initiative in 2016 as the former Director of Policy for Mayor James F. Kenney. Andrés Celin is a Trauma Trainer Supervisor at Lakeside Global Institute, and previously served as Outreach Director for Philadelphia City Councilmember Helen Gym.

[1] Iacurci, G. (2023). Why 2022 was the Real Year of the Great Resignation. CNBC. Retrieved on April 2, 2023 linked here.

[2] Morsberger, C. (2022) Massachusetts Human Services Worker Exodus Threatens Industry. Governing. Retrieved on April 1, 2023 linked here.

[3] Herndon, M. (2022). Philadelphia city services reach crisis point as 1 in 7 municipal jobs sit vacant. The Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved on April 2, 2023 linked here.

[4] Murphy, T. (2022) New York Nonprofits say they’re suffering the worst staffing shortage in years. Retrieved on April 1, 2023 linked here.

[5] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series 57. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 13-4801. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2014.

[6] McCann, I. L., & Pearlman, L. A. (1990). Vicarious traumatization: A framework for understanding the psychological effects of working with victims. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 3(1), 131–149.

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