My Trauma Informed Office Changed My Life (And My Work)

When we hear about all of the innovative and successful businesses out there focused on employee wellness with gyms, unstructured work days, and daycare we usually don’t think about student affairs. But, why not us? As I took a new job in a new state, wellness has been a cornerstone of my office which has significantly improved the quality of my work and the quality of my mental health.

I could talk about all the ways my previous employer failed and how I hated being there. I had a lot of flexibility in my job, a lot of autonomy, and low expectations but my pay was far too low, the hours way too long and irregular, and there was very little support and sense of a team. This is not the story I am here to tell but it certainly exemplifies being part of a trauma informed office.

My office works hard on an issue that is even harder. Sexual violence is at the forefront of media attention and we are one of the largest institutions in the country. What I do in my position could put us in significant national scrutiny or praise. I feel a lot of pressure every single day to create and improve in amazing ways. My bar is set at the highest it has ever been in my career and I couldn’t be happier. So, why am I so happy and thriving in this role when the pressure is so incredibly high? The secret is simple; my office understands and focuses on trauma and holistic wellness.

We believe that each individual is unique and our job is to serve people. This means we take every opportunity we can to learn about different cultures and populations, we listen to our students’ and each others’ stories, and we make a conscious effort to treat each person we encounter without prejudgment. This is something I felt in my first interview with this office. When I showed up to work for the first day, I found it a true value. For me, being able to talk about my female partner at work has made a world of difference in my work performance and overall happiness. We have even created our own bullying policy and value building on each others’ strengths to create a culture of acceptance and teamwork.

We also strive to learn about another kind of diversity, the diversity of trauma. My office is always striving to learn more about how trauma affects the brain and how people operate. It is a value that we not only understand trauma in our students but also in ourselves. We do a quarterly assessment of our secondary trauma in order to track peak times of the year and check our wellness. Even though this hasn’t been in effect long enough to make adjustments yet, it still creates a feeling that my office really cares about my well-being.

Another way we recognize secondary trauma and the draining nature of our work is having a wellness-focused culture. My supervisor really exemplifies this through trying a new work structure this summer. She recognized that we were all working late evenings and long days trying to thoroughly work student cases and get campaigns out and rolling so she decided to create the option to work 4 10 hour days instead of 5 8 hour days. This gives us the opportunity to take care of our personal lives and and cut down on the extra hours we would work just staying late. In addition, once per month we set aside about a 2-hour block of time to do a wellness activity together. This can be painting ceramics, going to yoga class, going for a walk and taking pictures, or playing with puppies.  This all is in addition to us checking in with each other when we know one of us is stressed, is going through a difficult time, or otherwise needs some extra support. We are encouraged to take care of ourselves, hydrate, eat, and get sleep. Knowing the office has my back both in work and reminding me to take care of myself has boosted my creativity and work output more than I could have imagined in a matter of weeks.

Having each others’ backs is just one part of allowing each of us to be vulnerable. I reflect back on my first month of work when in a weekly one on one with my supervisor she asked me, “Are there any triggers I need to know about or anything I can do to help support you?”. I was surprised and a little uncomfortable at first but then I recognized what an incredible gift she had given to me and to the office. I could share what I needed, without judgment and with support. She has since shared some of her triggers with me and it in turn has made our office feel more human, more kind, and made it easier for all of us to support her as well. At the end of the day we recognize the humanity in our work and the toll being student affairs professionals can take on each of us, with or without mental health challenges.

Moving from a place that I was afraid to share myself and felt not cared for to this amazingly aware and supportive office has allowed me to increase my innovation and productivity ten fold (look for big projects coming out of my office soon, that’s what I did in 3 months) and has significantly improved my mental health. I was depressed and having breakdowns and PTSD episodes at least weekly. I have since come out of my depression and maybe had two in episodes in the past 4 months. I couldn’t be more thankful for my office, my supervisor(s), and for the culture she has worked so hard to create for us. There are many ways to create an office culture of wellness and support, not just these. The important piece is that you value and create it in every way you can. The investment will pay you and your institution back infinitely.

Tiff Dyer works as the Sexual Violence Prevention Coordinator at The Ohio State University and has been diagnosed with PTSD and generalized anxiety. They spend spare time finding new adventures, exploring the city, and playing with their amazing west highland terrier and ESA, Max. Tiff strives to change the world one moment at a time and believes that everyone has something to teach. Connect with Tiff on Twitter and Instagram, @tiffmdyer.