Traumatized Populations in the Workplace: Strategies for Working with Clients with Trauma History

By Krista Schmidt

How is trauma defined? Traditionally, you may hear answers such as war, sexual assault or rape, natural disaster or intimate partner violence. However, traumatic experiences can include any event, or chronic series of events, that induce actual or perceived physical, emotional, or sexual harm to an individual (Van der Kolk, 2003). Nontraditionally, this also includes poverty, community violence, unsafe living conditions, and food scarcity. According to the National Counsel for Community Behavioral Healthcare, 70% of adults in the United States have been exposed to a traumatic event (National Council for Community Behavioral Health, n.d.). It is, therefore, extremely important that career counselors have information on how trauma can affect an individual’s path to career success. Because of the negative impact that trauma can have on an individual’s career adaptability in any workplace setting, it is important for career practitioners to understand the profound effect of trauma, as well as strategies to assist this population of clients.

The Effect of Trauma

Trauma fundamentally changes the way a person trusts both themselves and the world. Unfortunately, trauma survivors are often left with the faulty belief that the world is unsafe, and their own instincts cannot be trusted. This can lead to self-blame, which is a common characteristic among people with trauma history (Keshet, Foa, & Gilboa-Schechtman, 2019). Negative cognitions like these are a hallmark of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). These cognitions manifest in all aspects of a person’s life, including career development. It is highly possible that traumatized clients will struggle with believing they are worthy of a position, deserving a promotion, or having the skills to build an adequate portfolio for the job search process.

Traumatized clients also have a fractured view of themselves. It can be extremely difficult to think about, let alone identify personal strengths, relevant experience, and other necessary components in the initial stages of obtaining employment as well as maintaining employment throughout the lifespan of an employee. One of the most difficult tasks for trauma survivors is answering questions related to their sense of self. Career counselors should be aware that identifying aspects of self are difficult for clients who have experienced trauma and they may need assistance with adjusting their goals to reflect this. Research suggests that clients with a history of trauma need additional support in this area and, “counselors may assist the clients in identifying their skills and abilities and their interaction with specific workplace needs” (Strauser & Lustig, 2001).

It is also important to note that many clients who have experienced trauma will be focused on physical needs, not abstract wants for their future career. As evidenced by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow, 1943), if the client’s basic physiological needs are not being met (food, water, shelter), they do not have the capacity to achieve a sense of security, which includes obtaining long-term employment. For example, if an individual is living in a low-income, high crime neighborhood with food and housing scarcity, their main focus day to day is food, shelter, and survival. It will be more difficult for this client to identify future goals for career development while struggling with these basic needs in the present. Clients may benefit from a counselor helping them with meeting fundamental needs such as computer access for job searching and resume/cover letter writing, transportation to interviews and subsequent employment, as well as affordable child care services during work hours. These are potential barriers for trauma survivors to overcome before making progress toward a fulfilling career.

Trauma-Informed Strategies to Address Needs

When assessing needs and conceptualizing career goals for trauma survivors, there are a few important aspects of the counseling relationship that will provide a strong foundation for success:

Be transparent. It is critical for clients who have a history of traumatic exposure that counselors are upfront and detailed in their process. It can help to verbalize and be clear throughout the counseling process. . Research has shown that, “discussing and clarifying expectations at the beginning of the career counseling process” can lead to the greatest outcomes with trauma survivors (Coursol, Louis, & Garrity, 2001).

Establish trust in the relationship. The client needs to know they have safety within the relationship. This is accomplished through collaboration, genuine care and concern, and always seeking the client’s input. Do not assume what the client wants or needs. Have the client be an active participant.. Additionally, be patient. Trauma survivors are likely to feel that the counselor will not understand their experience and the counselor’s “trustworthiness is likely to be challenged by their clients” (Coursol et al., 2001).

Ask permission. Power and control are stripped from trauma survivors without their permission. Career counselors can be an agent of change for a client to begin restoring their autonomy. Be sure to keep the client informed about the counseling process, ask for permission to do assessments and checklists, and explain why the tool being utilized may benefit them. It is important to request permission from the client to review any assessment results and ensure this is done individually with each client to allow the client to maintain power and control over their own career development. The counselor should continue to request permission from the client throughout the counseling process.

Focus on the here and now. What concrete, tangible needs does the client have related to their career success? Clients who have experienced trauma prefer their counselor to “adopt a solution-focused approach toward career concerns” (Coursol et al., 2001). Use a solution-focused lens and collaborate with clients to find resolutions to their most pressing concerns.

Facilitating a Strong Relationship

Trauma is widespread and likely to influence many clients seeking career counseling. Trauma has a substantial impact on the career development process with clients in any workplace setting, pointing to the need for counselors to better understand the issues facing this population. These are a few suggested strategies to help guide a counselor’s practice and facilitate a strong counseling relationship.



Coursol, D., Lewis, J., & Garrity, L. (2001). Career development of trauma survivors: expectations about counseling and career maturity. Journal of Employment Counseling, 38(3), 134–140. https://doi.org/doi:10.1002/j.2161-1920.2001.tb00495.x

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders : DSM-5. (5th ed.). Washington, D.C: Author.

National Council for Community Behavioral Health. (n.d.). How to manage trauma: [How common is trauma?]. Retrieved from https://www.integration.samhsa.gov/clinical-practice/Trauma-infographic.pdf

Keshet, H., Foa, E., & Gilboa-Schechtman, E. (2019). Women’s self-perceptions in the aftermath of trauma: The role of trauma-centrality and trauma-type. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 11(5), 542–550. https://doi.org/10.1037/tra0000393

Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0054346

Strauser, D., & Lustig, D. (2001). The implications of posttraumatic stress disorder on vocational behavior and rehabilitation planning. Journal of Rehabilitation, 67(4), 26–30.

Van der Kolk, B. A. (2003). Psychological trauma (2nd ed.). Washington DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.


Krista SchmidtKrista Schmidt is a second year Master of Science student studying Community and Trauma Counseling at Jefferson (Philadelphia University + Thomas Jefferson University). She has clinical field experience in Philadelphia area high schools as well as a background in higher education. Krista received her Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Virginia Tech. She can be reached at krista.schmidt@jefferson.edu.

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1 Comment

Holly Waite   on Tuesday 12/03/2019 at 02:45 PM

Thanks, Krista, for this article. With ”70% of adults in the United States having been exposed to a traumatic event,” many in our profession need this reminder to assure the client’s sense of empowerment in our work with them.

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