Every individual brings with them their unique relationship and perspective on race, trauma and substance abuse wherever they go. Some may display their feelings with pride while others hide them out of shame or fear. Regardless of how one manages their feelings, they will inevitably manifest themselves at work. Each individual’s emotions may collide with opposing feelings of their colleagues, which can damage relationships and create chaos in the workplace. 


Employees deserve to feel safe being their most authentic selves at work. 


Leaders who recognize that feelings on race and trauma will permeate the workplace can create a trauma-informed environment that mitigates the tension that can come from a multitude of conflicting feelings occurring in the same space. 


While it is impossible to control an employee’s feelings or experiences, a leader can establish a trigger-free environment built on transparency and trust. This work is most effective when initiated with a DEI consultant who can unearth the root causes of racial trauma. An expert DEI consultant will aid leaders in understanding how racial trauma impacts the workplace and explore strategies for deploying trauma-informed leadership to combat it.


The Role Racial Trauma Plays in the Workplace


Accepting that one’s racial trauma will impact every aspect of their life, even their career, is critical for leaders. Deploying empathy and empowering employees to honor their trauma, while also learning how to manage it, fosters the healing process. As employees navigate the effects of their traumatic experiences, a leader can foster healing by acknowledging these deeply personal struggles and implementing measures to mitigate their effects in the workplace.


Understanding racial trauma and its effects in the workplace is the first step to create an environment where everyone feels safe being their most authentic selves.


Exploring the Roots of Race-Based Traumatic Stress

Continuing trauma, such as race-based traumatic stress (RBTS) endured by people of color, often leads to mental health issues (such as anxiety or depression), increases the risk of substance abuse disorders and plays a role in the development of chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer. 


Unlike traumas that occur as discrete episodes, RBTS is ongoing, which means one can’t move past it to truly heal from it. Often beginning in childhood, RBTS can compound other traumas and may be perpetuated in the workplace through microaggressions, which are often unconscious. These subtle discriminatory actions, like comments about one’s appearance or language, accumulate over time and directly impact one’s mental well-being.


To mitigate the harmful effects of race-based traumatic stress, it is imperative to deploy trauma-informed leadership and foster an inclusive and psychologically-safe work environment. Leaders can do this by promoting awareness of racial trauma and its effects in the workplace, and being cognizant of unconscious biases. By demonstrating that any form of racial bias will not be tolerated, leaders can cultivate a workplace culture that combats the effects of trauma and contributes to healing. 


Understanding How Trauma is Often the Source of Substance Abuse


There often exists an invisible link between substance abuse and trauma. Devastatingly, individuals who experienced racial trauma during childhood often turn to substances in an attempt to ease their pain. The stigma around mental health, as well as a lack of access to affordable care, are common factors in the increasing prevalence of substance abuse disorders in those who have experienced trauma. 


To create a culture that prioritizes mental health and supports healing, it is important for leaders to first unearth the deeply buried roots of substance abuse.


The Deeply Rooted Link Between Substance Abuse and Trauma

Racial trauma experienced during childhood has a devastating impact. Research indicates that Black people have a much higher exposure to trauma compared to people from other racial backgrounds. A study on highly-traumatized individuals revealed substantial rates of substance dependence, with childhood trauma, including physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, closely linked to current PTSD symptoms and cocaine dependence. More than 70% of adolescents undergoing substance abuse treatment reported a history of traumatic exposure. In fact, someone who experiences more than five childhood traumas is seven to ten times more likely to have a substance abuse disorder as an adult. 


The National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence estimates that drug and alcohol misuse costs U.S. businesses more than $81 billion annually in lost productivity and led to a 300% increase in an employer’s medical costs and benefits. These numbers are staggering but become almost trivial when compared to the heartbreaking impact substance abuse has on an individual and their loved ones. 


How can a leader combat this widespread and massive issue?


To truly effect change, leaders can raise awareness about the link between trauma and substance abuse and openly discuss how this issue negatively affects mental health in the workplace. If every leader prioritized racial equity and incorporated supportive interventions in the workplace, it could directly impact employees dealing with traumatic experiences and create a positive ripple effect that reaches far into the future.  


The Resistance to Seeking Help for Substance Abuse and Mental Health

Although strides have been made to demystify the stigma around substance abuse disorder and mental health issues, there is still a lot of work to be done. This is especially true in marginalized communities whose trauma rates are much higher than that of non-marginalized individuals. Prioritizing racial equity and incorporating supportive interventions in the workplace can aid in reducing the stigma around seeking help.


By creating a safe and supportive environment that encourages openness and honesty, leaders can empower employees to speak freely about trauma, substance abuse and mental health without fear of judgment or reprisal. As they become more comfortable sharing their experiences and feelings about these sensitive topics, the barriers to seeking help will begin to break down.


1. Recognizing the Barriers to Accessing Substance Abuse Treatment for People of Color


The fact that trauma rates are much higher in marginalized individuals is compounded by the lack of access to substance use disorder (SUD) treatment facilities and a shortage of BIPOC providers. Many Black individuals dealing with the effects of race and trauma end up in the criminal justice system due to little or no access to proper treatment for their substance use disorder. 


The most effective treatment for substance abuse is Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) with Buprenorphine. Unfortunately, without culturally responsive services and representation that allow equitable access to treatment, BIPOC patients are less likely to be offered MAT and are instead diverted to methadone treatment. While methadone can be effective, it is harder to secure, while MAT distribution regulations are less restrictive, making it much more widely available. This means that marginalized individuals being treated with methadone run into obstacles accessing and using the treatment; therefore, the chance of success decreases significantly.


For a Black individual suffering the devastating effects of trauma that are more prevalent in their racial background than any other, to finally gather the strength, disrupt the stigma and seek help takes immense courage. Discovering that the help they can access to is still not equitable to that received by other racial backgrounds only exacerbates the trauma they are already enduring. Ensuring equal access to the most effective substance use disorder treatments is critical to improving treatment outcomes across all communities. 


2. Encountering Stigmas and Discrimination when Seeking Support

The stigma surrounding seeking support continues to compound the issues related to the lack of options and diversity in substance abuse disorder treatment facilities. Fear of judgment, social isolation, and negative labeling would discourage anybody from reaching out for support. Add discrimination into the mix, and Black individuals suffering from substance abuse disorder face an even bigger challenge than that of individuals from other racial backgrounds.


3. Inclusive Treatment Programs Break Racial Barriers

The lack of diversity within substance use disorder (SUD) treatment facilities is concerning. When Black individuals are unable to locate a culturally-informed and linguistically-concordant mental health professional who can understand and connect with them in a meaningful way, it deters help-seeking, which leads to treatment noncompliance and drop-out. Tailored treatment programs that respect diverse backgrounds and cultural norms are essential to ensuring culturally competent care. When an individual feels seen and understood, they will be more open to seeking, accepting and continuing the life-altering treatment they so desperately need. 


5 Ways Leaders Can Mitigate the Effects of Trauma in the Workplace

Although an individual’s trauma may not have originated at work, its effects will likely manifest themselves and impact the workplace at some point. Leaders can mitigate this by creating a safe, inclusive environment where people (and their feelings) are paramount. The following list of strategies for combating the harmful effects of racial trauma will help leaders foster a workplace culture of holistic well-being, racial equity and psychological safety where every employee thrives.


1. The Role of HR Professionals, Managers and Executives 

HR professionals, managers and executives have an important responsibility — and opportunity — to demonstrate empathy, implement inclusive policies and offer support resources to individuals struggling with substance abuse disorder. It is vital that leadership empowers them to foster a compassionate, inclusive and supportive workplace. This should include providing comprehensive training on the interactive process required by the ADA when an employee discloses a substance abuse problem. It is imperative that disclosure is handled professionally and confidentially, and that the manager or HR professional displays empathy and avoids judgment.


The interactive process begins when an employee requests assistance or the employer initiates an inquiry into unsuitable behaviors and involves bilateral conversations regarding appropriate accommodations. Once accommodations are established, periodic check-ins should occur to ensure their effectiveness, and modifications can be made if needed. By empowering front-line staff, leaders can ensure that employees feel seen, heard and understood throughout the process, resulting in greater outcomes. 


2. Open Dialogue and Ongoing Learning Demonstrate Support


Creating a safe space is essential for empowering employees to feel comfortable speaking freely about their experiences with substance use disorder and its treatment.  Leaders should invite open dialogue and then actively listen, seek understanding and acknowledge the trauma and its effects. Inviting productive conversations around difficult or sensitive topics is integral to building an inclusive and supportive workplace culture. When employees recognize that their leader does not judge or berate them for their struggles, it will alleviate their concerns about how their struggles will be perceived in the workplace.


3. Creating a Safe, Equitable and Inclusive Workplace Environment

According to a 2021 survey by SHRM, over 42% of Black workers faced race- or ethnicity-based unfair treatment in the workplace over the past five years. That is almost half of the Black workforce! This level of racial inequity is unacceptable and entirely solvable. It is possible to effect change if every organization prioritizes diversity and inclusion training by engaging a DEI consultant, organizes workshops, implements policies that protect employees from discrimination and bias, offers Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and provides access to resources for substance abuse and racial trauma support. Mental health awareness and racial equity in the workplace is long overdue, and the time to correct the issue is now.


4. Encourage Therapy as a Supportive Path to Recovery

Trauma-informed leadership supports healing by embracing therapy as an integral part of recovery. Providing access to culturally competent therapists and offering mental health benefits will demonstrate to Black employees that leadership truly understands their struggle and supports their healing journey.


5. Discover Strength in Numbers 

Regardless of how supportive a leader is, nobody understands an individual’s struggle better than someone who has gone through it, or is going through it, themselves. Creating employee-led support groups can cultivate a sense of belonging and understanding for individuals facing racial trauma and substance abuse challenges. Building a supportive and inclusive community where everyone is accepted regardless of their struggles enables all employees to thrive.


Forge Ahead with Empathy to Foster Racial Equity in the Workplace

Employees will carry their trauma with them wherever they go, including the workplace. Leaders cannot control this, but they can alleviate the burden (and not add to it) by acknowledging the trauma and promoting mental health awareness in the workplace. Engage in trauma-informed leadership by offering support and access to equitable treatment and healing options, engaging the expert guidance of a DEI consultant and fostering an inclusive, psychologically safe workplace that prioritizes every employee’s holistic well-being.  

If every leader prioritized racial equity in the workplace, it could create a profound impact on the world.