Denise Presnell

Denise Presnell, a school social worker and chairperson of the Watauga Compassionate Compassionate Community Initiative, speaks to business professionals on Nov. 15.

BOONE — Businesses could improve their reputation, culture, employee retention and employee wellness by implementing trauma-informed practices, according to Watauga Compassionate Compassionate Community Initiative Chair Denise Presnell.

WCCI is a grassroots group created by volunteers with the goal of building a trauma-informed community. Presnell spoke on behalf of WCCI during a Nov. 15 Wake Up Watauga event hosted by the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce at the Dan’l Boone Inn.

Presnell said that WCCI has created a standardized presentation it can give to groups — like churches and classes — but has noticed a gap in conversation with the business community. She explained why being trauma- and resiliency-informed should matter to business owners.

To do so, Presnell first presented information about Adverse Childhood Experiences. ACEs research is supported by the Centers for Disease Control, and shows that people can have longterm impacts from toxic childhood stress, according to WCCI. A test can be administered to determine a person’s ACE score that takes into account 10 stressful events in a person’s life: incidents of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; physical or emotional neglect; witness to domestic violence; parental separation/divorce; parental depression or substance abuse; and having a parent in prison.

“When I first heard about this, I operated from the point of view that if someone is in trauma you just take them out, put them somewhere else, give them a little bit of counseling and they should be fine in a few months,” Presnell said. “What we know now is that is absolutely not the case and that it impacts us over the course of our lifetime.”

Presnell added that there are other forms of trauma that aren’t listed in ACEs, but that the previously listed items were the original 10 that were identified. Additionally, a person may experience one or more of these items but not have longterm impacts. The impact could be dependent on elements such as gender, age of trauma, previous trauma, birth order or the presence or lack thereof of a supportive adult.

The presentation also explained the differences in positive stress, tolerable stress and toxic stress. WCCI defined toxic stress as the extreme, frequent or extended activation of the body’s stress response without the buffering presence of a supportive adult. The organization provided the example of living with a physically and verbally abusive alcoholic parent as toxic stress, and how this could damage the function and structure of a person’s brain.

When left unresolved, these traumatic experiences can impact someone over a lifetime. For children, it could show up in the form of developmental delays, lower academic and test scores, or behavior problems — such as being more likely to be sent to the office or suspended. Teenagers with trauma are more likely engage in risky behavior — such as unprotected sex, develop mental illness or an addiction, leave school without graduating or be involved in juvenile justice system.

An adult with a trauma history is more likely to have erratic job performance, experience homelessness, be involved in the justice system repeatedly, be a perpetrator or victim of domestic violence or have children removed from the home.

This trickles into the workforce. Childhood trauma can impact a person’s work performance and productivity, which contributes to a business’s turnover, morale and health care costs, Presnell said. Presnell then presented a few articles that discussed how being trauma-informed is a positive step for businesses. She quoted one of the articles as stating, “Strong healthy employees come from strong healthy communities.”

Presnell said she has heard of companies allowing brain breaks, support groups as well as trauma/resiliency training for employees. She added that all of the information she was sharing could directly correlate to the people that a business hires, the performance the employees are giving, the support employees are able to give to clients, customers or students with whom they are working.

According to Presnell, a company in the article reported that employees leaving within a year were cut in half after implementing trauma-informed practices, and that these strategies provided 64 percent in savings in recruitment costs.

Adding to these practices, Presnell said it could be helpful for business people to be mindful of the use of language, perception and perspective when communicating with people who have high ACE scores. She said people with an ACE score may have grown up being told they were worthless, no good or a troublemaker. People should view a person through a “trauma-informed lens” and see that a person can change and grow rather than seeing them as damaged or attention seeking.

David Still, chairman of the chamber’s board, said the chamber supports WCCI and events like Presnell’s presentation so the information can then be taken back to businesses. He added that he specifically appreciated the information about using “trauma-informed lens language” when interacting with people.

“We can all treat people that way, certainly in our work place,” Still said.

To request a WCCI presentation at your business or organization, contact Presnell at presnelld@wataugaschools.org. More information on WCCI can be found at wataugacci.weebly.com.

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