Childhood trauma can have effect on workplace

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If the average workforce is a microcosm of the wider world, a significant percentage of employees in any business are living with childhood traumas that can be destructive to career success.

Intermountain Chief Executive Officer Jim Fitzgerald stressed this point during a presentation Thursday morning at the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce. The head of the therapeutic services nonprofit was there to discuss the groundbreaking Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study and its relationship to business environments.

“We spend most of our time at work, with most of our waking hours in relationships with people other than those we picked,” Fitzgerald said.

The study, a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente, is one of the largest investigations ever conducted of the ramifications of childhood abuse and neglect on later-life health and well-being. The study, which began in the 1990s, found that the number of adverse childhood experiences an individual has in their early lives, such as neglect, abuse or death of a close family member, greatly increases the probability of adult dysfunctional behaviors.

“So much of what happens to us in life — how we see the world, how we relate, how we make decisions — is impacted by how well things go in the first five years,” Fitzgerald said.

Intermountain is well-acquainted with the effects of childhood trauma. The organization began working with children living with toxic stress in 1909, when it opened an orphanage in Helena. Today Intermountain serves around 1,200 troubled children each day throughout the state of Montana, with 95 percent counseled on an outpatient basis.

Though Intermountain is a nonprofit organization, Fitzgerald said it still must function as a business to be successful. Its managers are well-educated in the impacts of a stressful childhood, and even for them it is sometimes difficult to deal with the emotional scars that employees bring to their jobs.

“We all struggle with workforce issues and our inability to find people who make things work,” Fitzgerald said. “Finding good solid people who have a solid work ethic and are good team players is difficult. When someone’s struggling, that’s a deficit that takes a toll on your workplace.”

Montana doesn’t rate high in factors favorable to adult mental health. While ranking 24th in overall child well-being, the state is 47th in the nation for child health and No. 1 for suicides per capita.

Fitzgerald pointed out that although employers can’t pry into details, they should be aware that undesirable on-the-job behaviors can stem from childhood neglect or abuse and shouldn’t always be blamed on laziness or a poor work ethic.

There is a limit to the compassion a company can show when trying to keep an operation running smoothly, he said, but understanding employee emotional needs can be good for the employees and the bottom line.

“The office is a gathering place and we spend a high percentage of our lives there,” he said. “A percentage of us are carrying significant issues that impact how we work, who we work well with, our ability to work.”

Intermountain offers presentations to businesses on the ACE study to increase awareness and generate dialogue and understanding among co-workers, Fitzgerald said.

“It’s like a public health concern. If we have something going through the community — if this was a disease — we wouldn’t ignore it just because it’s in the workplace.”

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