In their book, Destroying Sanctuary, (Oxford University Press, USA; 2010) Sandra Bloom and Brian Farragher present an insightful and sobering exploration of the current state of service delivery in human services agencies.
They postulate that organizations are living organisms, and are subject to the same trauma symptoms that people exhibit. They examine the stressors on the modern social service organization and demonstrate how trauma symptoms, parallel to those seen in people, manifest in organizations. These include such things as loss of emotional management, ethical dilemmas, authoritarian hierarchies, a workforce crisis, conflict, overuse of punishment, poor decision making, inability to learn, lack of safety, problems in communication, learned helplessness, and unresolved grief. These contribute to an unhealthy work environment where little attention is paid to the physical and mental health of the people actually delivering the services.
Bloom and Farragher give many examples of their thesis. Here is one:
In the human response to stress, fear often becomes a way of life resulting in a person being in a chronic state of hyperarousal with serious negative consequences for the body and mind. Similarly, human service systems in chronic crises also function in a hyperaroused state where there is little safety and stress is cumulative. Employees display impairment in emotion management and cannot learn well when is this state. Communication, the life blood of every organization, is besieged resulting in miscommunication, one-way communication, conflict, secrecy, narrowing of focus, and control measures which eliminate complex team discussions.
The authors suggest that, for individuals and organizations, attachment is the human operating system, the basic underlying process which makes it possible for all the other functions to work (like Windows on a computer). Trauma is a virus, like a computer virus, that attacks the human operating system resulting in impaired individual and group attachment.
The book identifies many processes that are familiar to those working in social services settings. Readers will find themselves thinking, “Aha, so now I understand what is going on! Now I can identify the problem I am experiencing!” While the problems are often daunting, understanding the dynamics of trauma organized systems can help organizations to deal with the pressures more effectively, adapt without becoming cruel, and promote love and care in the system even in the face of great difficulties. Like individuals, organization can understand that much of the problem is not their fault, but they still must take responsibility for making different choices to create a compassionate setting for staff and clients.
Through the Sanctuary Foundation Bloom and Farragher aim to create a new operating system to restore a sense of sanctuary in human service organizations. They promise to offer more detail about this process in their next book.
For a more complete summary of Bloom and Farragher’s theories, click here. Destroying Sanctuary TSI