University of Wisconsin–Madison

How to Cultivate Trauma-Informed Care in HR

Imagine you have an employee who is intensely reactive to another employee in the workplace.1 What you may not know is that the employee’s reaction is similar to the way they reacted to a parent who was abusive, cruel, passive aggressive and/or mentally ill.

Imagine you’re working with a manager who is trying to support employees after an employee’s suicide.1 You’re hearing concern from a few employees that the manager’s “support” is making things worse. What you may not know is that the manager’s level of distress is related to a memory of their sibling who took their life many years ago.

Imagine you have an employee who has been through two layoffs before taking a job at UW–Madison.1 When the employee’s manager sets up a meeting for the annual review, the employee becomes distracted and fearful, and starts to make mistakes at work, convinced they are going to be fired. Now that employee is referred to HR for discipline.

While people who have experienced adverse experiences often bring unique strengths to the workplace, and while these experiences don’t affect all people the same way, sometimes they can cause anxiety, which can come across as edgy, hot tempered, impulsive, hypervigilant, withdrawn, dissociated, or numb.2

Of course, we in HR cannot ask about the personal histories of the employees we serve, but we can be trauma-informed when assessing employee-related issues. This practice is called “trauma-informed care.”

What is trauma-informed care?

Trauma-informed care is a way of interacting with people that “aims to avoid re-traumatization,” Scott Webb shared at a 2019 Employee Assistance Professionals Association meeting. Scott is a trauma-informed care coordinator with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. He explained that many problematic behaviors begin as “understandable attempts to cope,” and underscored that trauma-informed care acknowledges that trauma is pervasive. Trauma-informed care attempts to maximize choices for the employee, and to be culturally competent.

Image courtesy of Scott Webb, EAPA Chapter Meeting, 09/13/19


Between 2011 and 2015, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services utilized the UW–Madison Survey Center to collect data from over 25,500 Wisconsinites regarding the experience of adverse childhood experiences—or “ACEs.” The UW–Madison School of Social Work analyzed Wisconsin’s data, which showed that 57% of people living in Wisconsin have experienced at least one ACE, resulting from emotional abuse (29%), physical abuse (17%), sexual abuse (11%), substance abuse (26%), divorce (24%), violence between adults (16%), mental illness (16%), or incarceration (7%).2

Trauma-informed care is strengths-based. Instead of thinking, “What’s wrong with you?”, we consider, “What happened to you?”3  As stated earlier, we in HR don’t actually ask what happened—but we might consider that if an employee is exhibiting problematic behaviors in the workplace, that those behaviors are perhaps a coping mechanism in response to prior adverse experiences. From there, we can work to cultivate safety and trustworthiness in our dealings with the employee. This doesn’t mean we excuse inappropriate behavior. We do, however, seek to understand that there may be a cause, and work compassionately even as we enforce policy, instead of applying policy punitively.

Work relationships that provide a sense of security and belonging will become the “norm” as we improve our skills in trauma-informed care.2 This will serve all employees.

What’s the history of trauma-informed care in HR at UW–Madison ?

  • December 2018: Susan Fuszard, former EAO consultant, recruited Robin Matthies of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services to present, “Applying Trauma-Informed Approaches to Human Resource Practices” at the 2018 HR@UW Conference.
  • September 2019: Susan invited several OHR employees to attend an Employee Assistance Professionals Association meeting in which Scott Webb, Trauma-Informed Care Coordinator at the State of Wisconsin Department of Health Services, presented on trauma-informed supervision.
  • December 2019: Scott recommended folks at Waupaca County for the 2019 HR@UW Conference; subsequently, Chuck Price, Mandy Welch and Shannon Kelly presented “Waupaca County’s Transformation to a Trauma-Informed Workplace: The partnership between DHHS & HR.”
  • Attendees of the 2018 and 2019 conference sessions expressed desire to continue learning about and promoting trauma-informed care practices in HR. We started a community of practice—the “TIC Champions.”
  • February 2020: Scott Webb and Robin Matthias joined the TIC Champions’ kick-off meeting, where they partnered to present “Building Workplace Resilience: The Path to Hope and Meaning.” Following the presentation, the group grappled with workplace scenarios, for example, brainstorming revisions to the Administrative Leave template letter so that it might be trauma-informed.

Then COVID hit….

What are the next steps for furthering trauma-informed care in HR at UW?

In November 2020, Sarah Carroll of HR Communities of Practice was certified by Saint A to train others about ACEs and trauma-informed care. If you’re interested in bringing this training to your HR unit (virtually, during COVID), contact Sarah for more information.


1 Scenarios courtesy of UW–Madison EAO Office.

2 ACE Interface: Understanding Adverse Childhood Experiences:

3  Scott Webb of Wisconsin Department of Health Services: Presentation to EAPA 09/13/19