Many employers have implemented education and employee discipline to address workplace violence. While both are important, they often fail to provide employees with tools that could prevent one of the root causes of workplace violence: impacts of early trauma.
As studies show, there is a direct correlation between experiences of childhood trauma and engaging in acts of violence as an adult. By providing employees with tools to mitigate the impacts of earlier trauma and promoting both resiliency skill-building and alternate coping strategies, employers can enhance the effectiveness of their workplace violence education and discipline efforts.
A substantial percentage of employee-athletes in the National Football League (NFL), like employees in all workplaces, have experienced childhood trauma. Because the NFL's incidents of workplace violence often occur within the public domain for all to see, the NFL has a unique opportunity to be a leader in providing employee-athletes with tools to address trauma and thereby prevent workplace violence.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study (http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy), conducted by Kaiser Permanente between 1995 and 1997, is one of the largest investigations ever conducted to assess the associations between childhood maltreatment and later-life health and well-being. The ACE study measured ten types of childhood traumas. These included five personal types (physical abuse, sexual abuse, verbal abuse, physical abuse, and emotional neglect) and five family dysfunctions (a family member who is in prison, a family member who is depressed or mentally ill, a family member who abuses alcohol or other drugs, losing a parent to divorce or separation, and witnessing a mother being abused).
The ACE study found that about two-thirds of U.S. adults — approximately 150 million people in total — have experienced at least one of the ten types of childhood trauma. Based on the widespread results, the Center for Disease Control concluded that childhood trauma is the nation's number one public health problem.
In addition to looking at the prevalence of early-life trauma, the study also looked at the impacts that these experiences had on later-life health and well-being. One of the key outcomes of the study was that experiences with early trauma are correlated with exhibiting violence as an adult. This is attributed to the ways in which trauma impacts a person's connection between their mind and body, as well as trauma's impacts on one's emotional intelligence and empathy.
The loss of a connection with the body and emotions can lead to disconnection from emotional triggers. Everyone has emotional triggers — issues or events that can set them off or push their buttons. For instance, people can become triggered when they feel that they have been disrespected, particularly if they were repeatedly disrespected earlier in their lives. Invariably, these feelings are related to earlier in life traumas that have not been fully processed or resolved. Being triggered can be a sign that the body and mind may still be struggling to cope with a prior emotionally traumatic experience.
Experiences of trauma can also lead to reduced emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence can be described as the ability or skill to identify, evaluate, and manage our emotions. Emotional intelligence involves effectively understanding ourselves and others, relating well to people, and adapting to and coping with situations and individuals. Put into simpler terms, emotional intelligence is the ability to connect with, identify, and express emotions, particularly emotions that tend to overwhelm us and, as such, become a primary cause for reactive responses and behavior.
Severe or repeated instances of trauma can also reduce one’s sense of empathy for others. Empathy is an expression of emotional intelligence that has to do with understanding the emotions of others: it is to emotionally put yourself in the place of another. However, the ability to empathize is directly dependent on your ability to feel your own feelings and identify them. If you have never allowed yourself to feel a certain feeling, it will be hard for you to understand how another person is feeling. Though empathy is usually used in reference to sensing someone else’s painful feelings, it can also apply to perceiving another person’s positive feelings of success, accomplishment, or achievement.
The potential for incidents of workplace violence occur in all industries, including the NFL. In the past few years, there have been multiple high profile incidents of violence between employee-athletes in the NFL. For example, in the 2015 pre-season, New York Jets’ Linebacker IK Enemkpali broke quarterback Geno Smith's jaw in the locker room. In 2013, Jonathan Martin, who played for the Miami Dolphins at the time, made headlines when he filed for emotional distress after a full season of bullying, harassment, and threats by some of his teammates. These incidents highlight the need to develop a highly effective workplace violence prevention program.
As noted by Tony Schwartz in the article, “The NFL as a Toxic Workplace,” there are many unique aspects of the NFL workplace that promote stress and pressure, including low job security, the constant threat of being fired or laid off, and pressure to consistently perform at a high level regardless of the personal cost. As a result, the NFL workplace itself can compound the impacts of individual trauma through increased stress and the promotion of disconnecting one’s mind and body in order to focus on winning.
For example, an NFL player has a very short window of time to make money from a professional football career. The physical and emotional toll of attempting to make it to the NFL can also be devastating. The NFL Players Association estimates the average career of an NFL player is 3.3 years. The average running back survives just 2.57 seasons. The average high school player has a higher risk than a college or professional player of sustaining a concussion, but only a 6.5 percent chance of playing in college. A college player, in turn, has only a 1.6 percent chance of becoming a professional football player.
The NFL is a microcosm of our society. In the NFL, as in other work environments, individual employees have childhood experiences that impact who they are and how they respond to various workplace scenarios. As reported by journalist Jane Ellen Stevens in her article, “Four Things the NFL Can Do to Stop Abuse and Keep Players on the Field,” of the NFL’s 1,696 players, approximately two-thirds (or 1,119 young men) have experienced at least one type of serious childhood trauma identified in the ACE study. Further, it is likely that approximately 22 percent (or 370 players) have suffered three or more types of adverse childhood experiences.
Many employees, including NFL players, have become dissociated from their bodies and emotions as a result of trauma: childhood backgrounds of poverty, neglect or abuse, violent behavior, and working in an environment of constant stress and fear. Being in the NFL and adhering to an NFL Code or the duty to “protect the shield” can further this disconnection from a healthy relationship with the body and emotions and enhance the impact of previous trauma.
Bessel van der Kolk, a Professor of Psychiatry at Boston University’s School of Medicine and a pioneer researcher in the field of trauma, said, “The memory of trauma is imprinted on the human organism. I don’t think you can overcome it unless you learn to have a friendly relationship with your body.”
Scientific evidence has shown that practices like yoga, mindfulness, and meditation have proven effective tools to increase attention, empathy, and emotional intelligence and to decrease stress, trauma, abuse, and reactive behaviors. Alice G. Walton discusses in her Forbes article, “How Yoga Could Help Keep Kids In School” that prominent companies including Google, Target, Apple, Nike, and Procter & Gamble and prominent individuals have already embraced this concept. Tim Ryan, an Ohio Congressman who wrote a book called “A Mindful Nation” believes that mindfulness should be a part of every person’s day to help wire our brains to deal with our many modern stressors. Indeed, a 2011 Harvard study showed that there is a strong connection between mindfulness and self-regulation.
Knowing what triggers you and how you experience being triggered in the body is key to preventing harmful behavior in thought or deed in the workplace. Not understanding the nature or causes of emotional triggers can lead a person to unconsciously engage in harmful thinking, speaking, or actions. People are often completely unaware of what triggers them.
The emotion of anger is a good example of this and a common emotion identified by men and NFL players. From a young age, boys are told, “don’t cry” and “suck it up and be a man.” The message that is consistently sent to young boys is to not experience vulnerable emotions in the body. Additionally, if young boys do experience these emotions, they are told to “suck it up” and not tell anyone about it or express it. The complication of this message is that, most of the time when people express anger, what they are really feeling is hurt, fear, or sadness. Because these other emotions are not considered “acceptable” for men, the conditioned emotion of anger is expressed instead. If boys and men are able to connect with their true feelings of hurt, fear, or sadness and find ways to express those emotions, individual employees (and therefore work settings) could avoid or mitigate a lot of suffering in the workplace.
The Niroga Institute in Berkeley, California applies a combination of movement and mindfulness into a program called Transformative Life Skills (“TLS”), which includes mindful yoga, breathing techniques, and meditation. TLS is an evidence-based practice to reduce stress, increase body awareness, and allow for self-regulation (http://www.niroga.org/vp/research/acjjc6_results2010.pdf). For example, conscious breathing is an awareness of breathing and the sensations in the body that accompany the breath that can be a powerful tool in releasing our preoccupation with thinking and helping center our awareness in our bodies. Similarly, focusing the mind on our breathing and bodily sensations through gentle movement activates the part of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex, or the noticing part of the brain. The noticing part of the brain allows us to observe that we are not our emotions and allows for more self-regulation. Conscious breathing can be practiced multiple times throughout the day for a minute or two while lying in bed, walking, standing in line, or simply sitting still.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” After all, each employee is an investment. Year after year, teams in the NFL waste millions of dollars and often risk the careers of coaches and a franchise based on one player. Moreover, according to most studies, workplace violence and bullying in the workplace leads to dramatic increases in stress in the workplace, higher rates of absenteeism, and increased turnover. These statistics mean decreased productivity and higher costs. Studies relied on by the California legislature in passing anti-bullying legislation estimated that the financial cost of workplace abuse is as much as $200 billion annually.
An effective workplace violence prevention program starts with employee screening and ends with publicizing a tough anti-violence policy, according to Dennis A. Davis, a former SWAT team liaison who now directs workplace violence training for Ogletree Deakins. According to Davis, a violence prevention plan contains five essential elements. I refer to these elements as CARES.
• Screen Candidates: An employer’s best chance to avoid workplace violence is to avoid letting in a violent person in the first place.
• Craft a tough Anti-violence policy: A serious employer needs a policy that stands on its own — not as part of some other general policy on behavior or misuse of office equipment. That sends the signal that you’re serious about preventing workplace violence.
• Establish a Reliable crisis management team: A reliable crisis
management team consists of six to eight people whom an employer can trust to function as coaches before violence erupts.
• Educate and train front-line supervisors/coaches and trainers: These people are your eyes and ears, your early warning system. These are members of your staff who will probably know if someone is about to become violent long before anyone else does.
• Speak about and publicize your anti-violence program: Use meetings, newsletters, e-mail, and the intranet to get the word out that your organization has a zero-tolerance policy on workplace violence.
Like most workplaces, the NFL has implemented education and employee discipline to address workplace violence. Both education and discipline are important. Education is a good start. Discipline often occurs after harm has occurred or after trauma has been passed to the next generation.
The NFL also has the opportunity to be a leader in transforming workplace violence prevention by implementing tools for individual employees to reduce stress and increase self-regulation. Mind-body awareness practices are a proven strategy for achieving these results. By combining mind-body awareness strategies into their workplace violence prevention programs, employers such as the NFL can assist individual employees in mitigating impacts of individual trauma. These strategies not only promote healing and wellness for individual employees, but also lead to healthier workplaces.
Trauma Sensitive Yoga: Principles, Practice and Research. Emerson, Sharma, Chaudhry, Turner. International Journal of Yoga Therapy-No. 19 (2009), pp. 123-129.
Prison Yoga Project: A Path for Healing and Recovery (Book by James Fox, 2012).
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma
(Book by Bessel van der Kolk, September 25, 2014)
Thoughts on Breathing, Author David Emerson (http://www.traumacenter.org/clients/Thoughts_On_Breath.pdf)
Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, (Daniel J. Siegel, Random House 2010)
Working with Emotional Intelligence, (Daniel Goldman, Bantham Books 1998)