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A social worker-turned-designer warns of a “different kind of pandemic” if companies fail to become trauma-responsive for their employees

May 25, 2022, 6:20 PM UTC

At Fortune’s 2022 Brainstorm Design conference, Rachael Dietkus, founder of Social Workers Who Design, said that designers have a duty to keep employees’ potential traumas top of mind when designing workplaces. 

Two years of the pandemic will undoubtedly have a long lasting effect on peoples’ wellbeing in and out of work—especially when the specific trauma from those years intersects with other traumas. 

Before designers can begin to develop a trauma-informed practice, however, they need to define what it even is. Dietkus proposed a three-pronged definition.

“Your trauma is a response to anything that happens too much, too fast, or too soon,” she began. “Often that’s where the definition starts and stops.” 

Dietkus added that difficult events or experiences can manifest as trauma when they’re coupled with a lack of protection or support. That’s the second key component: “So you had an event or a series of events occur,” she said, “but you didn’t have someone to talk with, you didn’t have someone who was there to support you to make sure that you were okay.” 

The third component of trauma, explained Dietkus, is context. “What may be a traumatic experience for me may not be a traumatic experience for you and vice versa,” she said.

Dietkus acknowledged that there are multiple clinical and medical definitions of trauma, but that her own definition pulls variously from her background as a social worker as well as from specialists in trauma studies.

Specifically, Dietkus referenced The Body Keeps the Score, a book by psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk about trauma’s effects on the mind and body that became a social phenomenon when it was published in 2014. She also said that My Grandmother’s Hands by therapist Resmaa Menakem, which explores the interrelation of trauma and racism, informs her definition, as well as the work of trauma therapist, somatic educator, and abolitionist Karine Bell. 

These influences allow for an intersectional conception of trauma, one that can guide designers when developing trauma-responsive protocols for diverse workforces.

Dietkus said that design is just one component of becoming a trauma-responsive company. “I think about the volume of grief, of trauma that we’re all always swimming in,” she said. “And I think the longer that we suppress that and don’t acknowledge that, the longer this is going to continue. 

If employers don’t figure out how to address that facet of their worker’s well being, “It will be a different kind of pandemic,” she said. Outlining a future ideal, she added: “I would love to see every single company here have a team of social workers.”

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