Wilhelm Therapy > Blog > If part of your management style is to tell trauma-exposed employees to “toughen up,” read this before you say it again.

Wilhelm Therapy & Consulting Blog


My first foray into supervision was in the late 1990s for a Twin Cities organization that served what we called at the time “victims of domestic abuse.” That language is dated now, and I’m confident the approaches I used in my supervision at the time are equally dated.

As I came up in my career working for domestic violence organizations, (first as a volunteer, then working in a couple of area shelters,) considering whether someone could “hack it” in the work was standard. I’m not coming to you now saying I didn’t engage in that type of thinking or use that language with my own staff. I’m confident I did. Simply put, we know better than to speak that way to our employees now.

Though I was deeply unhappy and traumatized by my work in that field, the dynamics of my family of origin made it second nature for me to suck it up, put my head down and keep working. I could hack it – temporarily. I lasted about six years until I burned out spectacularly and left the field of social services completely for almost two years.

As I’ve shifted the focus of my work to professionals exposed to trauma, it’s became clear that the spirit of “toughen up,” “suck it up,” “she can’t hack it,” or “get used to it, it’s part of the work,” is still going on today. It’s time to stop. We’ve made too many advances in understanding how trauma impacts us to keep on with those old tropes. Further, it’s simply not an effective supervision strategy.

In my current work and as a supervisor in other positions, I’ve heard over and over again how damaging it was to be told to “toughen up” and not given support or tools to actually manage exposure to trauma. Frankly, it says more about the supervisor, not the abilities of the staff.

To be fair, it is a real thing when you have someone new to working with traumatized people to suss out folks that aren’t able to do the work for whatever reason. It’s tough, tough work, that takes a tremendous amount of self-awareness, and it’s not for everyone. There is absolutely no shame in someone deciding they don’t want to dedicate their career to it, temporarily or permanently.

However, if you’re sitting with an employee you suspect isn’t cut out for the work, that conversation needs to be approached with compassion and care, not shame and a “toughen up” attitude.

Before you begin the difficult conversation with someone who you know is struggling with trauma-related work, consider these things:

  1. Does your employee have the necessary technical training to effectively do their job?
  2. Do they have adequate peer and supervisory support?
  3. Do you regularly check in with your employee about how they are handling exposure to trauma on the job?
  4. Have you or your organization provided adequate education about Provider Trauma and the risks of exposure to trauma specific to their position?
  5. Have you or your organization provided strategies and tools to your employee to help them manage the impact of work-related trauma?

If your answer is “no” to any of the above questions, it’s not up to your employee to toughen up. It’s up to you as a supervisor and your organization to provide more resources, tools and support to your employees. Then you can consider whether or not someone is a good fit for the job.