What are the Symptoms of Organizational Trauma?

This information is from the National Sexual Assault Coalition's Resource Sharing Project, and was adapted from Organizational Trauma and Healing by Pat Vivian and Shana Hormann (2013).

We heard from several of our member organizations  who provide services to, and advocate for, traumatized individuals, families and/or communities and learned that we have all experienced "compassion fatigue" in some form.

This week's Friday Study outlines some of the symptoms of organizational trauma.  We hope this series will provide a starting point for discussion on organizational trauma and trauma-informed practices.  Next week we will complete this series with information on how to address systemic trauma. 



Much like the trauma that individuals suffer, organizational trauma is emotionally and cognitively overwhelming. Trauma can fracture our self-protective structures, making us feel vulnerable and helpless. Trauma has lasting psychic and cultural impact, especially if left unaddressed. Symptoms of a traumatized organization include:

  • Closed boundaries: similar to individual survival strategies, organizations that are traumatized or frightened often close boundaries. These constricting boundaries give rise to the over-reliance on insider relationships or an “us vs. them” mentality. This can happen between the organization and the community, or between groups within the agency.
  • Stress and anxiety contagion: without constructive avenues for conversation, staff members can turn to each other in unproductive or even destructive ways, spreading stress, anxiety, and fear.
  • Organizational amnesia: when we don’t talk about the trauma—or the strengths of our agency—we might forget the incident. However, the effects of it live on in the organizational culture, now influencing the organization in ways that are not understood.
  • Unrecognized wounding from trauma: organizations might recognize and remember the incidents, but deny that it has effects on individuals. This is particularly common and damaging when the trauma is caused by racism or other forms of oppression in the agency.
  • Unproductive relationships between organization and environment: unaddressed trauma eventually colors the relationship with those outside the organization, which might become openly antagonistic, or completely withdrawn.
  • Limiting attitudes and worldview: our attitudes and beliefs about the world influence how we interact with it. When a traumatized organization believes, for example, that nobody in the community can be trusted to treat sexual violence survivors well, they stop collaborating with community partners or perhaps even speaking to them. If we believe that our work is hopeless and that sexual violence will never end, we might lose energy for completing projects or have trouble retaining staff. These limiting attitudes and worldview can lead to an erosion of identity, where we forget who we are as an organization or lose faith in our abilities.
  • Depression, despair, and loss of hope: when an organization becomes depressed, there is a real danger of the organization failing.  Depression can manifest as rapid turnover of staff and board members, regularly missing grant deadlines, and something else probably.   

For more information about local resources that address organizational trauma and provide training around trauma-informed practices, please contact Angie Remington at angie@nebraskatable.org. 

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