Trauma-informed work place in highly-competitive environments

Last week I was present at the Trialogue Business in Society conference 2022 (10-11 May), representing R-Cubed, to deliver a keynote presentation on ‘creating a trauma-informed workplace’. I had around 15 minutes with another 15 for Q&A – it is hard work and good practice to pull a sizeable topic into a small presentation space.

One of the questions that was raised from an online participant was around the relationship between creating a trauma-informed workplace in the context of a highly competitive environment (I can’t recall the exact phrasing). Although I engaged with the question in the moment I continued to reflect on it in the days that followed. It seems to have been a concern as to whether creating a trauma-informed workplace might compromise the competitive edge of the company.

I confess that I have only worked briefly within a corporate-competitive environment, with the majority of my work life within the NGO/NPO/FBO sector (not that that is without some degree of competition, especially as far as funding is concerned). Nevertheless, I would like to suggest that creating a trauma-informed workplace will in fact enhance the capacity of the company to perform within that competitive space.

My key reasoning is that a highly competitive environment that is not trauma-informed, especially in the SA context, is very likely to produce a toxic work culture. It is a culture that sabotages performance even leading to a high turnover of staff, division and/or disengaged staff.

I follow football, have done so for a large portion of my life. What I have seen from highly competitive leagues, such as the English Premier League, is that when the dressing room becomes toxic it manifests in poor results, even with some of the best talent money can buy. In this current season, Manchester United went from being touted as contenders for the league, after their 2nd finish last season, to a club in disarray. Most of it seems to have stemmed from the development of a toxic dressing room as well as toxic relationship within other domains of the club itself. Another example is Chelsea FC of 2015/16 who went from league winners in 2014/2015 to finishing 10th – again toxic culture has been argued as the key reason. (Btw, yes I do think that even football clubs can be trauma-informed especially when you consider the ages of players who become professionals within elite clubs).

Moving to the corporate sector, in the USA in 2021 there was what has being referred to as ‘the great resignation,’ when 24 million people resigned from their jobs. Research by Donald Sull and Charles Sull presented in an article in the MIT Sloan Management Review found that the number 1 driving factor was toxic work cultures. Taking that as a cue, I do wonder whether people in South Africa feel that they are able to resign from toxic work spaces given our high levels of unemployment, with the consequence of feeling trapped. What we know about responses to threat is that when a way out is not considered a possibility (i.e. can’t fight it, can’t run from it) then the term ‘dissociation’ comes into play – disconnected from yourself, even your body and the world around you. What effect will this have on the work place?

Remember that a trauma-informed work space is not all about yoga and meditation (they have their place). What it is saying is that by creating a culture of safety, belonging, inclusion, empowerment and collaboration means that people are more likely to be pulling in the same direction, are more present, less likely to leave and can enhance performance and productivity.

What I do think requires discussion and consideration is, what does a trauma-informed culture look like in a highly competitive environment?


  1. Charles Sull, Donald Sull and Ben Zweig, Toxic Culture Is Driving the Great Resignation, MIT Sloan Management Review, January 11, 2022

Shocked into…

Mike Abrams

Image is from

Blog diary a month in lockdown

It’s Friday and News 24 tells me I have been in lockdown for 35 days 12 hrs and 7mins. Eish, I never thought that was possible, that I would stay inside and be able to manage my high levels of energy. But here I am, a 60+ facing a few more months and doing ok…ish. Trying to manage the pain and frustration of the stories of conflict and hunger, while I try to keep work and self alive by zoom bombing my brain.

As I reflect back on the first four weeks of lockdown it seems as if the violence in our country continues alongside the community mobilization: the rise of hunger, unemployment, GBV and clashes between citizens and armed forces all growing alongside the CAN movement and other forms of community mobilization. It feels as if there is a deep symbiotic relationship between the violence burnt into our souls and our ability to reach out and connect with each other in moments of crises. Between negative forms of resilience and positive forms of connection; generations of dispossession normalizing violence as part of the national culture and creating an epidemic of intergenerational trauma alongside 1000s of people mobilizing rage into action for social justice. Eish what a thought…the places one’s mind wonders off to in lockdown….How to manage the dialectic and contradiction….

With this thought in mind I went searching for readings and ways to understand what I was feeling and thinking. My search brought me to Noami Klein and the Shock doctrine. Often in moments of intense crises the trauma of the event and the potential triggering of ongoing intergenerational trauma can create levels of confusion and dislocation and we seize the ideas lying around to help the return to “normalcy” and control.

Watch this video featuring Naomi Klein before reading on….

Ideas that are lying around…like it is OK for some armed forces to use the sjambok to force people to get inside overcrowded houses? Or forcibly remove people from their homes…

Ideas that are lying around…that it is OK that men who practice toxic masculinities + are short of booze can be violent to partners and families

Ideas that are lying around…like selling off SOEs? Break national wage agreements with civil servants? Due to need for money to fight the pandemic. Called privatization?

Ideas that are lying around…like building strong working class organisations to end social injustice

Ideas that are lying around…like building a grassroots movements and alliances against GBV that enters every home in SA?

Ideas that are lying around…that trauma has been weaponized for century’s in our land leading to a silent almost invisible pandemic called intergenerational trauma which we pretend is not there…

Sitting here and reading what I have written I feel strengthened by my memories of mass struggles over the last 50 years. South Africans can organize!!And struggle pushing forward under the most difficult of circumstances. That’s the lesson I have learnt.

BUT can we unite as people fighting for emancipatory education and social justice NOW?

CAN we mobilize the rage brought on by GBV, Unemployment and hunger into peaceful energy of transformation and social equity?

I feel somehow that the next 6 months will answer this question in a deep and profound way

Corona stories: Michel -Strengthening resilience, connection and solidarity during COVID-19

by Michel Friedman (an associate of R-Cubed)

A version of this blog was first published at:
a fingerhold as referenced below

 “I felt extremely peaceful and beautiful tranquility. Thanks all”

“Today I felt my chest opening. I even got my voice back”

“Calm and relaxed. I did not feel alone and isolated, I connected with the other people in the circle”

“You are helping me deal with my fear”

“At first my shoulder felt really heavy. Later it started to ease.”

“Connected so much with courage and who I really am” 

 “I felt tearful and tired today. Focusing on my umbilical cord helped me feel connected to everyone and at peace”

These are typical comments people share after our fifteen minutes of sitting together practicing a simple finger-holding and breathing meditation at the same time every night. The idea was born out of a desire to respond in the moment to the chaos, panic, uncertainty being brought sharply into focus by COVID-19.

Since late 2019, a few Gender at Work facilitators and I had been planning to create a two-day learning space with our Letsema ( a Gender at Work and Labour Research Service initiative) colleagues. We’d wanted to focus on how to respond creatively to trauma and how to strengthen people’s resilience and capacity for caring for themselves and others. About one month before formal lockdown started, when I was about to purchase an air ticket, our friend and colleague in Delhi, Kalyani, strongly recommended we cancel the workshop. “Proceed with abundant caution”.  Reluctantly we listened, to what with hindsight has proven to be wise counsel. Together with our Letsema colleagues, we decided it was safer to be cautious.

Somewhat frustrated and definitely disappointed, I started to wonder what I could do instead. In quite a spontaneous and unplanned way, my colleague Nina and I agreed to do something simple that everyone could have access to on their phones. I chose to record a version of a short fingerhold and breathing meditation that our Letsema colleagues had already been exposed to. Each evening, Nina sends out a message reminding people. We listen to the audio on our own at home, but all together, across time and space. We then have a short ‘open line’ on the WhatsApp chat function where people can share their thoughts, feelings, experiences.

At first, our idea was to offer alternative support to one particular group of people that knew us (Letsema), that we had worked with and that had some experience of finger-holding. The official South Africa lockdown was announced on the 23rd of March and began by the midnight of the 26th. By then we had already been going for 6 nights. Over time, the group has grown including participants we’ve worked with from all parts of the continent – Southern, Eastern, and Western Africa. There are roughly 60 members and whoever wants to join in each night does so. Some listen to the audio themselves when they can.

the fingerhold and breathing meditation audio

Helping ourselves in order to support others

It is well known now that fear weakens the immune system. So, by transmuting anxiety and fear, the finger-holding helps us strengthen our immune systems.

It helps to cultivate our capacity to be self -reflective, aware of what is going on in our bodies, hearts/feelings, and minds. We learn to listen to ourselves and what our bodies are telling us.

In taking a moment to pause it helps us to be a little less reactive, to find some clarity that can help us be more response-able in the face of strong emotions.

By doing it at the same time every day, like a ritual, we create a rhythm and bring a moment of soothing comfort to what can otherwise, feel out of control.

By doing it with a group of colleagues, comrades, and friends we strengthen our connection and solidarity. We have group members representing a wide diversity of identities and class positions. Besides having participants across the continent, we have G@W facilitators, people of varying ‘races’, classes, genders, sexual orientation, religion. Teachers, domestic workers, educationists, feminist and unemployed activists, health-care workers, trade unionists. Although our differing access to material resources, to some extent definitely shapes our particular ‘COVID-19 realities’, we also recognise that we all share similar fears, anxieties and a desire to build solidarity across both our divides and our similarities.

We each practice in our own houses, those who are willing to have a public face have shared photos to create a virtual and visual participant circle. Towards the end, we share the benefit of the session with each other, visualising all of us as well, healthy and strong. In caring for ourselves, we are also caring for each other. In our own way, we resist, challenge and even subvert the idea of physical distancing. We sustain a sense of ‘claiming agency’ in the face of hopelessness. Moreover, touch is central to what it means to be human. During COVID-19 we’re becoming scared of “touch”.  This is a moment in the day when we can safely reconnect with how important touch is to us, to our sense of comfort and wellbeing.

When we focus our healing intention also to include others – like health workers, those who are on the frontline, those who are not able to be safely quarantined – we also transform our worry and anxiety into positive energy.

By sharing our reflections each day, we notice that our feelings, our state of mind changes. It’s never permanent. One day we can focus more easily and become calm. Another day it is more difficult.

We’re not alone.

This happens to all of us.

This shows us how the uncertainty we’re all feeling in such an intense way at this time of COVID-19, is actually a part of life. Life is uncertain. Under “normal” conditions we can’t predict and don’t know when we will get sick, when we will die. We can’t control many aspects of daily life. These ‘ordinary impermanent’ realities are very heightened at a time of crisis but they are not actually foreign to us. Doing this regularly, with the same group at the same time every day we are strengthening our capacity to be with such impermanence.

We get overwhelmed with our stress, worry, anxiety, fear, trauma. Trying to contain this ourselves is like using a small glass to catch the water from a litre bottle. By building groups of solidarity like we are, with our evening ritual, is like expanding our bowl – building it wider – to help us ‘catch’ and contain the overwhelming emotions that threaten to flood us. We can’t do this alone – we need to do it together. That is what will strengthen our resilience.  For us, it demonstrates one aspect of feminist activism in action.

Michel Friedman is a Senior Associate Gender at Work, and lives in Cape Town, South Africa.  She’d like to thank everyone participating in the group for their commitment, energy, solidarity and care. A special thanks to Nina for holding all the logistics.

Witnessing the past standing in front of the present

“I am in tears!!! NOTHING has changed! Black bodies, bodies of the poor are expendable”

Last week we posted our first podcast, when the past stands in front of the present, where the trauma implications of the current state of emergency was discussed in relation to the historical context of the state of emergency during apartheid – a relatively recent lived experience. In the midst of producing the episode a storm erupted (figuratively and literally) in Cape Town that has only served to emphasise that.

There was the relocation of homeless people by the City of Cape Town (CoCT) to a few sites around the city, the most controversial of which has been at the Strandfontein sports complex (location coordinates). Now much has been written, tweeted and posted about this with differing perspectives including the city’s defence of its actions (scroll through the Cape Town together facebook page for information). What I want to highlight is how these enforced relocation’s have been a trigger for many, evoking memories of forced removals during apartheid and even more recently in relation to Blikkiesdorp and Wolwerivier.

Then over the Easter weekend there were live accounts of forced evictions occurring in an area near Khayelitsha called Empolweni. Again there is a fair amount of information about what happened (Cape Town together) but what I want to highlight is the presence of casspirs (armoured vehicles), tear gas, live ammunition, rubber bullets and law enforcement and police officials dressed in riot gear. Meanwhile, across the other end of the peninsula there were reports of violence, abuse and threatening behaviour by security personnel, accompanied by casspirs, in the township of Masiphumelele (warning: the linked article contains a number of expletives).

Picture of a casspir belonging to the old south african police

The scenes alluded to above have a deeply historical familiarity. As was noted in the podcast, during the State of emergency in the 1980’s (as well as before that) the South African police and military were effectively at war with many South African communities, especially (or perhaps exclusively) those that were poor and black (I am using black as an inclusive term here). This war was epitomised by the use of casspirs, guns, live ammunition, violence and tear gas. It should not, therefore, require a leap of imagination to see the stark parallels with what is occurring today, as indicated by the raw quote fronting this blog, a response to the events in Empolweni. The mere witness of these current acts trigger a trauma response and so what about those who are directly experiencing it? This is what Lane mentions in the podcast, it is trauma upon trauma (added to that of poverty, hunger, unemployment, covid).

What we are seeing and witnessing are mirrored appraoches of what has been used before; and always against those with the least amount of societal power. Is it possible for our safety and security establishment, the authorities, to imagine an alternative way of engagement?

There are obstacles to that move. First, the police and military, as state bodies, were never re-cultured after apartheid, only restructured. This has meant that the shadow of the past still lives and moves in their institutional cultures. Second, in a violent country such as ours there are also too many individual members of these bodies who are operating in highly stressful spaces with unresolved trauma.  Third, the authorities have too often demonstrated either an ignorance (the benefit of the doubt view) or a disregard of the aforementioned historical reality. We see, for example, that a relatively newly constituted body such as Law Enforcement in the CoCT has missed the opportunity to have established a different legacy to that which has existed in the past.

There is an urgency for those in authority to become intentional about disrupting the cycles of trauma, both within the bodies of safety and security and between these bodies and the communities they are meant to protect and serve. To be sure, this is no one stop shop process. However, the current trajectory of how communities are policed only increases the historical disconnect, exacerbating existing distrust and anger. And we cannot wait for this work to start only when the pandemic is contained, since covid did not create it.

Corona stories: Kati – staying socially connected

By Kati Wicht

Lockdown is here. Taking a moment of quiet in the garden on the morning of day 1, I closed my eyes and listened; the hustle and bustle of Cape Town Main Road, just two streets away, was gone. I could only hear dogs barking and the odd siren blaring, but otherwise it was quiet, a bit eerie for a Friday.

This is bizarre. It is as if we are living in a movie, but it’s not a movie, it is real and it is happening.

Since the arrival of Corona on the global stage, I have watched the buzz on social media grow about the importance of staying connected while social distancing, but what does this actually look like?

For me, “self-isolation” seems to have started at the beginning of March, not because of Corona, but out of necessity to complete assignments. Juggling the world of full time work while doing Masters has been challenging and has meant that my regular weekends of socialising was put on the back burner as I ploughed through readings and wrote assignments. With assignments handed in at the same time as our President’s address on 15th of March, I was ready and looking forward to re-engaging in the social world. But that did not happen. Trying to figure out what a National Disaster meant, how to social distance and the possibility of Lockdown, I became increasingly aware of the fact that social interactions as I know it would be on hold for now, not only in the personal space but in the work space as well. What would this mean for our wellbeing during this time? What impact may this have on our ability to “get through” this pandemic?

As humans, we are social beings and connection is key to maintaining our health and wellbeing. It is well recognised that social isolation can have detrimental impacts on our mental, physical and emotional health. And so, with the new era of social distancing (or physical distancing as some are calling it), how do we move forward and ensure we maintain connections and not become isolated?

Here at R-Cubed, we recognise connection as being two-fold; inter-connection, connection with others and intra-connection, connection with the self. In the time of COVID-19, this two-fold connection is crucial.

I am reminded of the Monday morning after our President declared the National State of Disaster, myself and Grant were facilitating with a group of community members on trauma-informed approaches when working with youth and children. We were met with an atmosphere of uncertainty as we began the day. After discussing the practicalities of COVID-19 (washing hands, social distancing, not touching your face etc), it became apparent that we needed to make space available to recognise what was happening internally for people in the room. Not the practicalities, but the emotional impact of the President’s address and the largely uncertain future which lay ahead. Two critical points came from our discussion in the group: firstly, recognition of our emotions, be it fear, anxiety, panic, confusion or cynicism, is important in understanding what is driving our actions; and secondly, getting through this pandemic together would mean supporting each other. Connection with the self and connection with each other.

Reflecting on how these connections may look like at this time, I am aware of the fact that it will be different for each person out there, not only because of our individual preferences but because of our different positionalities within society. Being a young middle class white South African, privileged to have access to a range of different resources at home, self-connection for me, during lockdown, means online yoga, gardening, journaling and engaging in creative hobbies. While my social connections in the work space (which I derive much meaning from) has declined, I am still able to connect via virtual platforms with friends and family across the globe and spend quality time with those who I am isolating with, thus ensuring my personal connections are maintained through this time.

But this is not the case across Cape Town, or South Africa for that matter. I sit here, feeling unsettled by the stark differences people living in an informal settlement may be experiencing. How do you isolate in a shack the size of my bedroom when there is maybe 5 or more people living in it? Lane’s article highlights the fact that many South Africans, prior to COVID-19, were already living in survival mode, so is this state of being new?

Having said that, I am mindful of not falling into the trap of perpetuating stories of working class people as victims, but rather recognising the immense strength and resilience which lies within our communities across our country. My social media has also buzzed with stories of connection amongst communities, whether it be health workers calling for support or community forums organising food and sanitizer drives, our resilience through connection is strong in South Africa.

I am aware, as I finish this post, of the fact that I am sitting in the comfort of my home, making a comment on our country’s class inequalities. It leaves me feeling unsettled, as the lockdown has separated me from my connections in various communities which ground me as a South African.

Creativity or paralysis: Reflections on the threat and uncertainty of Covid-19

Covid-19. A name that seems a better-fit for a sci-fi thriller, where an alien life-form comes to wreak havoc. And this ‘alien’ menace is then dealt with by Ellen Ripley (from the movie Alien) or the MIB, who sweep in to deal with it and then eradicate it from our memories.

Except it isn’t.

It isn’t a bug from outer-space; and unlike other scary bugs from our recent past such as SARS, MERS, H1N1 and EBOLA, this bug has escaped the attempts to confine it. Within the space of a few short weeks, the rest of the world watched its ever-closer encroaching reality with an impending sense of inevitability.

Then it landed (almost literally). And we watched as the number of infections snowballed across South Africa. Schools were closed early, people were asked to keep their social distance and a national lockdown loomed as a growing figure in the background.

Bombarded by the reality, especially through media and social media platforms, spuing information both true and fake, was enough to overwhelm. People have reacted in numerous ways. There’s been the panic buying and irrational stockpiling of food and toilet paper. Denialism: “Ag this is not that serious. Isn’t it just like the common cold? Ja that’s what I heard. What’s all the fuss then?” Fantasy: “It’s a conspiracy man, it’s man made, escaped out of a lab somewhere.” The religious-informed needing to make sense of it: “It’s the judgement of God, it says so in the Bible, the plagues sweeping this evil world; we must just hide until the anger of God passes by.” And, sadly but hardly surprising, the greedy trying to make money.

It’s the locale of chaos and disorder, unsafe and uncertain. This is novel in more ways than one.

Oh but wait, a little perspective is neccessary. For far too many people in our country, and the world, the spectre of an unsafe and uncertain state of being is a daily lived reality. So often the choices, actions and/or behaviours of those trapped in such contexts have been judged as problematic. We need to realise that existential threat along with uncertainty often results in a suite of apparent irrational or unhelpful responses. These are, in essence, normal human reactions to the spectre of real threat.

Most, if not everyone, desire a world, a life that is both safe and certain. But this is not attainable, no matter how hard we as people have tried. It also leaves little room for movement.We do not know what tomorrow will bring, something that is a clear and present reality in our current experience. A question, asked by another in a different space, is: will uncertainty be a pathway to creativity or paralysis?

Paralysis is about stuckness, the inability to move or repeating the same patterns of behaviour, actions or processes used before. Whereas creativity is about being able to imagine and enacting alternative ways of being, of relating and doing. Whilst this most obviously is reflected in art, it also includes (re)designing our living spaces, activities and relationships, not just for us but for others, especially the most vulernable and marginalised.

To move beyond paralysis requires us to embrace uncertainty. BUT this embrace is only possible in the context of safety. Therefore, during this period crafting out safety within our residing spaces is an important process, not only for now but also beyond covid. These actions are not always within a person’s power to implement; and contexts are far from equal, making the attaining of such safety a much greater challenge.

A few value-based guidelines for crafting safety:

  • Daily routines and predictability
  • Mindfulness and self-regulation: this is not denying what we are feeling, instead it’s call to become aware of our feelings and manage our actions/responses and thus model it for those who may be in our care. So for me, one of the things i know will be an issue during lockdown is my inability to go for long runs, which is one of primary means for self-care. I will need to be alert to how this might affect me so that it doesn’t ‘spill’ on to my family.
  • Empathy and grace: for ourselves and those around us. This is connected to the previous point and it is especially about responding to negative actions/behaviours with compassion and understanding. Again for me this means recognising that my children’s fighting or annoyance is not only normal sibling issues but is also energised by the stress of the last few weeks. I therefore use these moments to help them become aware of their feelings and actions but also in not over-reacting myself to their tension. This means feelings aren’t judged but acknowledged.
  • Collaborative problem-solving: working with, to generate solutions to challenges and resolve conflicts, tensions.
  • Build/maintain connection: with self, with others.

Corona stories: Mike

During this period, for how long we need to endure, we will be running the ‘Corona stories.’ These will be short personal reflections on covid-19’s intersection with our lived lives.

This first story is from Mike, one of our R-Cubed team.

Monday morning.

A bit bleary eyed I plop down in front of the screen and get ready for work. A day of planning ahead. A break from facilitating after a hectic month with determined and courageous people from Kensington-Factreton.

The Presidents words in my ears but really, I’ve grown bored by all the president words.

As I sat down, I was more worried about load shedding.

I didn’t see the black swans descending. I always thought I read my environment well.

Shewee did I get this wrong. I did read about corona but amidst our own chaos China seemed far away…Someone else’s problem. Jumana sent me a message from Sudan on Sunday about corona. I responded by saying I couldn’t focus on corona, too many other priorities.

The next few hours were hectic as we went into corona 19 shock. Suddenly everything started closing and postponing.

My own personal stock market crash as the next few months’ work and income became hazy and then disappeared completely by the end of the day. By Tuesday it was clear. I was struggling with new way of being and doing with my head spinning with the speed of the change and the difficulty of the loss of income. And then, suddenly being part of the high-risk group being 64! My physical vulnerability was centre stage.

Unemployed and at home as if I am on holiday. But not. No relaxing, the emotional brain pumping, responding as the world went from busy to slowing down. Gloves, masks and hand sanitizer started popping up. Unevenly, different shops doing different things. Adjusting to distances between people. Trying to decide how to move around. By taxi? Needing to shop up. All the time feeling a bit dazed.

The chat with Lane about how to respond as trauma disruptors to the crises. How we could offer support to our clients and partners helped.

Wednesday 18th. I think I’ll name you Resilience Day as my emotions started slowing and steadying as I saw other people adjusting. I could feel the creative part of me switch on. The plumber and the estate agent came to the house and went on as if normal. Sure, new forms of greeting and distancing. Weird for me. No touching skin? But normal and learning about new ways of being and connecting.

 I wasn’t the only one steadying.

The voice calls, messages changed content as our partners started re-planning for June. The pressure on my heart eased a bit. But only a bit… worried how to protect myself and Astrid as at-riskers? And Astrid’s 92-year-old mom…The economy was tanking. Eish but hey the lights were still on. Thanks Eskom. I suppose.

By Friday, after our staff meeting and connecting with everyone – via skype – I was starting to see our collective resilience as well as people trying to cope with corona amidst so many other issues. But it’s clear the worst is still to come and it’s getting weird. No real idea how we can cope with the new ways being in the unknown. I’ve been stripped down to my heart, my close people and my values. Locked mostly into my house. In 5 days, my world has transformed and narrowed. I’m learning this is how it was for my relatives who suffered the Nazis.