Organizational Stress

The Sanctuary Model

The issue of organizational stress turns out to be particularly salient for anyone involved in delivering human services. It is possible to imagine that car batteries, vacuum cleaner parts, and cushion covers could still be produced, even if everyone in each factory is under considerable stress. But there is no easy way to define “product” that comes out of human service delivery organizations. People come to social service programs seeking “help” and when they get what they came for, that goal has been achieved through human relationships, not a factory production line.

Organizations, like individuals, can be traumatized, and the result of traumatic experience can be as devastating for organizations as it is for individuals. The outcome of a traumatic experience will be in part determined by the pre-traumatic level of organizational health and integrity. We believe that at this point, our social service network is functioning as a trauma-organized system still largely unaware of the multiple ways in which its adaptation to chronic stress has created a state of dysfunction that in some cases virtually prohibits the recovery of the individual clients who are the source of its underlying and original mission, and damages many of the people who work within it.

Just as the encroachment of trauma into the life of an individual client is an insidious process that turns the past into a nightmare, the present into a repetitive cycle of reenactment, and the future into a terminal illness, the impact of chronic strain on an organization is insidious. As seemingly logical reactions to difficult situations pile upon each other, no one is able to truly perceive the fundamentally skewed and post-traumatic basic assumptions upon which that logic is built. As an earthquake can cause the foundations of a building to become unstable, even while the building still stands, apparently intact, so too does chronic repetitive stress or sudden traumatic stress destabilize the cognitive and affective foundations of shared meaning that is necessary for a group to function and stay whole.

Excerpt from Bloom, S. L. (2010). Trauma-organized Systems and Parallel Process. Managing Trauma in the Workplace: Supporting Workers and Organizations. N. Tehrani. London, Routledge (pp.139-153) and from Bloom, S. L. and Farragher, B.(2010). Destroying Sanctuary: The Crisis in Human Service Delivery.

A Trauma-Informed Framework

We think it is important for people working in human service delivery to have a shared and coherent framework that helps us understand the influences of chronic stress on our organizations. We use the term “parallel process” to hold this framework together. Our evidence supports that many sources of chronic workplace stress result in organizations that are chronically hyperaroused, have lost the capacity to manage emotions institutionally, and as a result fail to learn from experience. In this way, our organizations can develop learning disabilities accompanied by organizational amnesia. Under such circumstances, the most emotionally charged information becomes “undiscussable” and organizations develop “alexithymia”. Leaders are likely to become more authoritarian and punitive, workers respond with more aggressive and passive-aggressive behavior and the entire environment becomes progressively more violent and unjust. Despite this apparent deterioration, the likelihood is that chronically stressed organizations will simply continue to repeat the past, engaging in reenactment and as a result, steadily deteriorating.

For More Follow Links to

Sandra L. Bloom, audio file, Organizational Stress

Bloom, S. L. Organizational Stress As A Barrier to Trauma-Informed Change

Organizational Stress Table


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