A comprehensive mental health strategy must take into account support for adult survivors of childhood trauma


In the last 12 months we’ve delivered well over 1000 coaching sessions for individuals with mental health conditions—and during this time we’ve encountered countless adults who are still suffering from the long-term impact of child abuse.  This is why we’ve launched Thrive.  We recognised that when Managers have the confidence to support Survivors of childhood trauma, they also have the confidence to support all employees with mental illness. That’s because the impact of childhood trauma includes and goes beyond mental health.

People are astonished when I tell them that conservative estimates suggest that one in five adults have experienced sexual abuse in childhood.  This means that if you’re working in a team of five people, it’s quite possible that one individual is affected. If you’re working in an organisation of 500 staff, it could be 100 individuals. And these figures only relate to sexual abuse. Other forms of child abuse—for example, neglect, physical abuse, emotional abuse aren’t included in these figures.

Mental illness is described as a taboo subject in the workplace—and understandably employees will only be encouraged to speak out if they’re confident that they will be heard and helped. Stigma, shame, myths and misunderstanding still abound.  But I believe we’re making significant progress at least in terms of Having That Conversation. Lloyds bank is raising awareness in its advertising, Mental Health First Aid is taking off and high-profile figures from business, sports and entertainment are talking openly about mental health.  I’m heartened to see and hear about all initiatives that tackle stigma.

Stigma and shame are frequently life-long companions of the adult Survivor of childhood abuse. Indeed, many Survivors will hide behind a mental health label because this may appear more palatable than the real reasons they are seeking support in the workplace.  This is wrong on so many levels—not least because children are abused in silence. And silence in later life reinforces stigma and shame.

Of course, some Survivors may never wish to disclose their past. However, when they do come forward, it’s important that Managers and HR professionals feel confident to provide the right support and to speak openly. This should be no different from learning to talk about common mental illnesses or the support needs of Veterans. I took the decision to share personal experiences in the workplace with fellow Survivors, I was saddened, though not surprised, that 80% said that their childhood abuse has had a negative impact on their career. Nevertheless, it was good to talk!

The support needs for each Survivor are different, in the same way that two individuals with a diagnosis of depression are different—but it’s not surprising to see common themes emerge.  Managers need to understand that there are links between adult survivors of childhood trauma and other areas of an employee’s life. For example, there are well-documented links with re-victimisation in adulthood—for example in the form of domestic violence. There are also links with substance misuse and alcohol dependency. Add into the mix as well the fact that Survivors can also present with long-term physical health conditions.

Most HR Directors I speak to agree that their line managers simply don’t have the confidence or knowledge to handle these situations. Managers need the confidence to navigate complex (or scary) diagnoses eg complex post-traumatic stress, personality disorders. And it’s useful also to know what to do when a traumatic childhood is disclosed, how to support someone through a court case or how to handle workplace behaviours such as apparent hypersensitivity or interpersonal difficulties.

Savvy managers know that the potential cost of mental ill health in the workplace—and the significant return on investment in proactive solutions, such as training, the unique Thrive Portal, solution-focused coaching or counselling. It’s important that we don’t work in silos: I’ve seen excellent programmes to maximise the potential of all employees—for example, training and policies about domestic violence, diversity and inclusion, mental health, wellbeing and so on.  But we must remember that the whole person turns up to work and we need to join the dots:  An employee with a long-term physical health condition may well have mental health conditions; a black senior manager may have a mental illness; a white male may still be experiencing the impact of child abuse or sexual assault; an apprentice may be experiencing domestic violence

Survivors of childhood abuse who work in your organisation have, by definition, an unusual depth of resilience and “stickability” which, with understanding, can be very useful in the workplace.  Don’t leave them to suffer this hidden inequality in silence. There’s a sound business case for action—and I’d suggest also that it’s simply the “right thing to do.”


To find out about some very simple steps you can take, call Mike Naughton on 07825 393891 or email team@thriveatwork.org.uk.

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