We are currently experiencing a prolonged traumatic event on a magnitude rarely witnessed in modern times. Because this trauma has affected so many people, it is essential that you learn how to foster a positive mental workplace culture. The way forward need not be cloudy. One can go forward into the new normal with more assurance if they draw on trauma-informed practices and practical knowledge gained through working with trauma survivors.
You should have a strategy in place to assist your staff as you make strides towards re-establishing a healthy and safe working environment. A trauma-informed strategy can assist your staff deal with the ongoing complicated trauma of social injustice and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Way We React To Traumatic Events
Traumas on a societal scale are nothing new for our culture. Traumatic occurrences like economic downturns, natural catastrophes, terrorism, and others that rip at the fabric of our communities are unfortunately on the rise. The power of social media multiplies the effect, exposing more people to the trauma and making them part of the experience. Especially in the developing brain, each new experience leaves a permanent impression on neural circuits, potentially hardwiring us to respond to the world around us with automatic reflexes.
How we respond to and recover from trauma is influenced by many factors, including our genes, our socioeconomic status, our demographics, our health, and our family and work settings. Some people may react better to traumatic events due to these factors. Some of these factors actually aid in strengthening resistance, facilitating faster adaptation, and regulating reactions to future shocks. This helps explain why some people are able to quickly recover from trauma while others need a longer time to do so. Everyone reacts differently to trauma. Understanding effects of trauma will allow you to provide the empathy and compassion that your employees desperately needs right now.
The Impact of Trauma on the Workplace
The after-effects of trauma may disappear after a day for some employees. However, it may take weeks for some employees. The effects of trauma on productivity and behavior in the workplace are most evident. Affected employees may begin arriving late for work. They may act strangely or appear disengaged from their work and colleagues. An employee who was formerly affable and enthusiastic may suddenly appear tense and disinterested in their work.
The Importance of a Trauma-Informed Culture at Workplace
Organizational support at times of crisis is particularly effective and has far-reaching effects for those involved. The reason being that the twin themes of institutional betrayal and psychological safety become relevant in times of tragedy.
Many of us rely on our workplace to help us through tough times. If they don’t, or if they take actions that we know or suspect will injure us or those we care about, that might be seen as a betrayal on the part of the workplace, causing us further grief. Psychologist Jennifer Freyd introduced used the phrase “institutional betrayal” to describe the experience of having one’s trust or dependence violated by a company. It can result from both overtly harmful behaviors and inaction in foreseeable situations. These choices or inactions can make a bad situation much worse. A company’s actions on a big scale, such as a COVID-19 reaction that leaves many employees feeling vulnerable and trapped, or an individual’s actions, such as an employer’s dismissive response to an allegation of harassment or bias, can both lead to a sense of institutional betrayal.
Psychological security is the inverse of institutional betrayal. Psychological safety, a concept made popular by the work of Amy Edmondson, refers to the feeling that one has within one’s team or organization that it is okay to acknowledge to having made a mistake, not knowing the solution, or having difficulty. And the quickest way to create psychological safety was for teammates to rally behind each other when things were bad. We need to be able to have difficult talks with colleagues who are driving us crazy, as well as talk about the dirty and sad things in our lives. Efficiency alone can’t be our only goal.
Thus, if you are not careful in our engagement with the employees who have experienced trauma, you may cause further harm. However, if you respond appropriately, you can forge stronger bonds with your employees. How your company stands by each other during difficult times will echo throughout your company for years to come.
How can you provide the knowledge and tools necessary to handle trauma properly? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outline six tenets for providing care to those who have experienced trauma: First, there’s the issue of physical protection; second, honesty and openness; third, friendship; fourth, teamwork and reciprocity; fifth, autonomy, say, and decision; and sixth, diversity of background and orientation. To sum up, there are three main ideas here:
Acknowledgement: Expression of confidence that “I will be heard”
Support: (as in, “I can get the help I need”)
Trust: Have faith that (“I will be treated fairly”)
The willingness to listen to and understand the anguish of employees experiencing trauma is crucial to a trauma-informed approach at your workplace. Hearing an employee’s experience of overcoming adversity can be therapeutic on many levels. But it’s not enough to just give your employees a safe space to talk about their problems; they also need to feel that their voices are being heard. “Thanks for letting me know” from an employer to an employee whose spouse is dying is an acknowledgement. Expressions of sympathy such as “I’m sorry for everything you’ve been through” or company-wide announcements about local tragedies are examples. Acknowledgement is a far better response as an employer rather than not saying anything at all (“It will all work out for the best”) or trying to divert attention away from the pain (“Let me tell you how I persevered through something similar”). When you ignore an employee’s suffering, you risk falling into toxic positivity or even gaslighting.
People in times of trauma and sorrow often require material types of help, such as mental health services, medical information referrals, and financial aid for funeral and other costs. Such assistance can make a world of difference in an employee’s recovery from trauma and shows that your company cares about its employees enough to be there for them when they need it most.
Working with employees who have suffered from trauma requires constant, and clear communication. When the unthinkable occurs, it might leave your employees feeling vulnerable and unprepared. Getting information can help when employees feel like we’ve lost control of our lives. Therefore, you can also provide help in the form of consistent and regular communication. A text alert system, a Slack channel for sharing information about the current crisis, or even just a daily email from you are all viable options for this type of communication. Whatever method you employ, reliable and constant communication is essential.
When everyone knows the ground rules, everyone feels more secure. Concern, at best, and moral damage, at worst, might result from a company’s rules and principles being just on paper. Thus, the trauma-informed organization should have and make sure its employees are familiar with and able to access policies and procedures that are truly supportive of employees in need (good starting points include this U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) report on harassment and this model policy on domestic violence, sexual violence, and stalking). The declared values of your organization should be strongly implemented through policies, and employees should get thorough, effective, and ongoing training on these policies.
You may not be able to foresee or avert the traumatic event that happens to you or your employees. But with thinking, planning, and commitment, you will be ready to confront the next challenge (whatever it may be) and emerge stronger out of it.
If you want to know more about how you can get your workplace to be trauma-ready as an employer, you can reach out to our employment law attorneys at the Walsh Law Firm, LLC to help you with reviewing your current practices and if need be, have an alternative strategy in place.