If You Want to Reduce Absenteeism Among Employees, Become Trauma Informed and Trauma Sensitive

Oct. 22, 2013
The link between absenteeism and trauma in transit’s workforce and what agencies can do about it.

According to the Integrated Benefits Institute, a non-profit research organization focused on the health and wellness of American employees, U.S. workforce illness costs the U.S. economy $576 Billion annually in sick days and workers’ compensation. Thirty-nine percent of that cost is from lost productivity (Forbes.com 2012).

In the transit industry, where the profit margin is narrow and the high stress level of the frontline worker is increasing due to the threat of assaults, these numbers are particularly relevant.  High stress jobs raise productivity losses from days out, generate gaps in scheduling and promote poor job performance. All of these threaten an agency’s growth and sustainability. Addressing the root of the problem is essential to creating a healthier, more resilient frontline less likely to call in sick, fall back on disability, or display substandard performance.

What Can You Do? Ask Yourself Two Questions: “Is my agency trauma informed?” and “Is my agency trauma sensitive?”

Building a Trauma Informed Agency

In 2012, the Amalgamated Transit Union reported that a bus operator is assaulted every three days in the United States. Experiencing an assault or even witnessing an assault is a traumatizing event, which may profoundly affect the victim or witness for a lifetime.

In order to understand trauma and its effects, one must be able to define it. According to renowned trauma expert, Peter Levine, trauma occurs when an individual experiences a real or perceived threat and is overwhelmed by that threat (Levine, 2008). Even if an employee hasn’t been personally assaulted, the environment of fear that spreads through a work community, particularly if the frontline believes that management is not protecting it, elevates the perceived threat. This perception of threat erodes the collective resiliency of the workforce.

Threats of assault and the transit worker’s real experience of daily harassment by a hostile public weaken his or her ability to overcome an assault once it occurs. The likelihood of the victim developing unresolved trauma is high. Unresolved trauma is a physiological issue, which occurs when ones' survival energies are not released from the body right after or within three to four weeks after the traumatic event.

Unresolved trauma causes the body’s dysregulation, creating a host of physical symptoms, debilitating emotions and unproductive behaviors. Many of these physical symptoms and emotions lead to the high absenteeism plaguing transit agencies.

Physical Symptoms

  • Numbing: body doesn't register sensations
  • Chronic stomach issues, irritable bowel syndrome
  • Back Pain
  • Body's internal system fires up on its own (even without environmental stress) producing anxiety, agitation, and the inability to concentrate


  • Helplessness
  • Rage
  • Overwhelming Anxiety
  • Grief and Depression

*These lead to isolation, loss of identity, and erosion of relationships.

Unproductive Behavioral Responses

  • Explosive anger
  • Agitation
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Self medicating
  • Compulsive reenacting

Educating your management and frontline on the effects of trauma is the first step in initiating a cultural shift focused on safety, health and wellbeing. When frontline workers learn about the symptoms related to unresolved trauma, they often recognize themselves and their co-workers as survivors.  This self-awareness and cross dialogue promotes healing and a culture of support that must be backed up by leadership in order to grow.

Building a Trauma Sensitive Agency

It’s not enough to educate your leadership and workforce regarding traumatic effects, the agency must consistently respond with sensitivity to the employees exposed to trauma. The first responder on the scene of a traumatic event often sets the tempo of the victim’s healing process.  That’s why teaching supervisors appropriate first responder skills is imperative to cutting down absenteeism. Additional recommendations:

  • Peer trauma support groups
  • Wellness program that emphasizes movement and exercise
  • Trauma response unit to be activated whenever a front line employee is attacked or witnesses a traumatic event
  • Retraining telephone dispatchers for first responder skills
  • Internal and external facing PSAs and posters to support employee re-humanization

Building a trauma sensitive agency is about communicating a message of compassion and concern for your frontline’s emotional wellbeing and physical safety. But the message must be consistent with meaningful actions. Do this and it won’t just improve the organizational culture, it will save you money in lost time and employee performance.

Charlotte DiBartolomeo, M.A.C.T., is C.E.O of Red Kite Project and earned her master’s in conflict transformation with a specialty in intercultural service, leadership & management from The School for International Training, Graduate Institute.

Red Kite Project is presently contracted by Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority to assist in creating a safer, healthier and more productive work community. Red Kite Project has also conducted trainings for transit agencies in North Carolina.