Before the pandemic, a client hired my employee consultancy firm, Wellbeing Works, to support a team shaken by the abrupt firing of a key member.

In the run-up to the firing, we discovered, the team member’s performance had dropped rapidly, and he developed tense relationships with colleagues. Though the organization tried a performance improvement plan before termination, we found out that it never addressed the root trouble with the employee’s performance: depression and anxiety arising from a problem in his personal life.

Nobody in the organization thought to offer this employee support, Employee Assistance Program information, or grace. Instead, his behavior was viewed based only on the impact to work output.

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More frequently, our work connects us with clients who want to proactively support their employees. For example, a client in the nonprofit sector was about to undergo a large reduction in staff due to funding issues (just before the pandemic hit), and they anticipated the impact this would have on their very committed and dedicated employees. They reached out to Wellbeing Works to put a plan in place to support employees and managers throughout the process, recognizing the potential distress it might cause. Another client in the financial sector started proactively discussing the potential impact of COVID-19 on employees’ distress as soon as the pandemic hit. The organization made key business decisions based on overall employee stress levels, and instituted a year-long training and data-collection program focused on employee well-being to guide them.

The major difference between the first client and the other two lay in their ability to apply trauma-informed management. While the proactive clients may not have named what they were doing, they did check all the boxes in a trauma-informed approach to people management.

Even today—almost two years into the pandemic, and after a long period of explicit racism and political chaos with the Trump years—some employers still don’t realize how much trauma their people may have experienced. Many aren’t convinced that they can or should do anything to help employees who are struggling. So, how can we understand trauma and COVID-19 in the workplace, and what can we do to make management more trauma-informed? Here are some suggestions.

Trauma and COVID-19

What comes to mind when you hear the word “trauma”?

Some can instantly recall traumatic life experiences; others may struggle to identify something in their past that seems traumatic. According to behavioral health, trauma can be defined this way: “An event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”

Simplified, trauma is a harmful personal experience that affects your well-being, even after the experience is over. Let’s hold the last 18 months up to this definition of trauma, and see how the COVID-19 pandemic period might have affected our well-being.

Harmful personal experiences. Extreme shifts in the way we live and work. The unexpected loss of loved ones and friends. Economic strife. An increase in domestic violence. Unprecedented global restriction of personal liberties and freedoms to contain a virus. The heightened fear for your life if you have brown skin—and repeated examples of why you should be scared. Fear to walk the streets if your family’s ancestry has origins in Asia, and incessant worry about the safety of the elderly in your community. Extreme levels of uncertainty. The inability to plan long-term and, for some, managing all of this while trying to parent and educate kids.

Adverse impact to well-being. Increased anxiety and depressive symptoms. High levels of stress, among parents in particular. Sleep, eating, and emotional regulation problems. Feelings of social isolation, especially among young adults and those living alone. Heightened levels of perceived discrimination for Blacks and Asians, which tracks with poorer physical and mental health. And high levels of worry and stress among LGTBQ adults.

Based on these criteria, it is highly likely that most people have experienced some form of trauma over the past 18 months—and there are many who continue to live through or process it. In fact, mental health experts say that it’s unlikely we’ve seen the peak of the psychological challenges related to the last year, anticipating a surge of mental health needs and support.

Roxane Cohen Silver, distinguished professor of psychological science at the University of California Irvine, studies the impact of collective trauma on societies. She calls this past 18 months an example of cascading collective traumas, where one traumatic event occurred after the other, including public health, economic, systemic racism, climate, and political traumas, producing a heavy stress load for people to contend with, without all of their usual coping mechanisms available. 

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Also, we know that trauma can affect the brain, manifesting as a heightened and prolonged stress response that can impair the functioning of key parts of the brain like the prefrontal cortex, responsible for executive functioning, impulse control, and emotional regulation. Trauma can also affect the hippocampus, which is responsible for learning and memory. These key brain areas are necessary for most adults to thrive in the workplace. Trauma can have long-term physical and mental health effects.

But what is perceived as traumatic for one person may be perceived differently for another. The aftereffects of a traumatic event or events are also shaped by factors such as social and emotional support (something the pandemic took from many people), a history of adverse childhood experiences, or ongoing stress.

There is no one-size-fits-all rubric for assessing what is and is not traumatic or a standard effect of trauma. That’s why trauma-informed management must start with knowledge of the individual employee and their circumstances.

When trauma goes to work

So what does this mean for workplaces? More specifically, for the managers and human-resources professionals who are tasked with taking care of the people in an organization?

The concept of trauma-informed approaches is pervasive in the behavioral health space. Behavioral health can provide valuable insights and practices to inform organizational management in the context of trauma. The leaders in this concept offer a useful structure to understand trauma-informed approaches based on four R’s:

  • Realization: where all people within the organization understand the widespread potential of trauma and how it can affect employees; the associated behavioral effects of trauma are viewed as coping mechanisms, not maladaptive.
  • Recognize: People in the organization can recognize common signs of trauma.
  • Response: Organizations respond to the potential prevalence of trauma by embedding organizational practices and behaviors that are sensitive to this reality.
  • Resist re-traumatization: Careful attention to not create stressful or toxic environments that can re-traumatize individuals.

You may be thinking, “This all sounds well and good, but how can we implement this short of hiring a behavioral health specialist to sit on our staff?”

While I am all for organizations having in-house behavioral health resources, especially in high-stress industries, this isn’t necessary to begin to embrace trauma-informed management approaches. Rolling this out is similar to any workplace-culture initiative: It takes the right intention, some education, policies and procedures, and commitment. This isn’t an overnight management technique, but it is a sustainable one.

Managing for compassion

Compassion is defined, essentially, as the desire to relieve the suffering of others, thus contributing positively to their overall well-being. Without this as a core component of the organizational culture, it’s really hard to apply trauma-informed management. The organization, starting from the top, has to believe that infusing compassion into the workplace is a worthwhile endeavor and it needs to be willing to allocate resources (including financial, time, and human resources) to do so.

Once that intention is set, how do you incorporate compassion as part of the workplace culture? Start with your organizational values and ensure that compassion is a core corporate value. Instead of letting those values lay dormant on a performance review form or a beautiful mural in your office, infuse them throughout the employee life cycle.

You should also think creatively about how you can incorporate compassion in your processes and procedures, starting from the candidate experience, to employees in the organization, and finally as employees exit (yes, compassion toward those exiting is just as important). Values are reinforced through rewards, so you should plan to reward compassionate behavior in your organization.

Once the intention is set, you can begin to roll out the four R’s in your organization.

1. Realization

How much of your organization really understands the implications of the last year on employee physical and mental health? Anecdotally we all have our stories, perhaps—but do your employees understand the magnitude of the impact on others? Realization of the impact on others broadens our zone of concern and can be a catalyst for empathy instead of judgment, and social awareness instead of apathy. Those are key skills in a trauma-informed workplace.

Another benefit to recognizing the impact (and the associated adaptive behaviors to cope with the stress of trauma) is that it normalizes the experience. Mental health stigma is a challenge in offering and seeking support in the workplace, because many of us believe—with good cause—that admitting you need support brings with it adverse reputational consequences. De-stigmatizing needing support can also increase self-advocacy, as employees feel empowered to proactively ask for what they need.

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It’s important to recognize that the last year did not affect everyone equally: Racial and ethnic minorities, those of lower socioeconomic status, workers in the health care industry, caregivers, LGTBQ, and those single and living alone have reported the highest levels of distress. Additional support may be needed for specific employee groups in your organization.

How can you do this? Consider an educational webinar, adding discussions about impact to leadership meetings, and creating a space to discuss during regular departmental meetings, combined with a clear statement about the organization’s stance on employee support. Preferably, the statement will be demonstrated through action.

2. Recognition

Are your managers and HR professionals equipped to recognize the potential signs of distress in the workplace?

This is a tricky question, because the signs of distress can track with performance issues: missed deadlines (trouble focusing), tense relationships with colleagues (irritability), or work with errors (impaired memory). The default of an untrained manager is typically to view these behaviors through a performance lens where the objective is correction. However, being able to recognize signs of distress requires the use of a mental health lens, with the objective of offering support.

Some may be concerned that the recognition of signs of distress will violate an employee’s privacy, but the goal of recognition is not diagnosis—it’s awareness of the context of observed workplace behaviors. To help build these skills, leaders in your organization will likely require some education, as this is not an intuitive skillset.

If your organization has an Employee Assistance Program provider, consider seeing if they offer webinars on this topic. There are also organizations focused on the corporate mental health space that can help, such as my firm Wellbeing Works, the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, or Mindshare Partners.

3. Response

There are several layers of response for trauma-informed management.

At the manager-to-employee level, when the manager notices signs of distress, they should express concern and offer active forms of support (such as reprioritization of workload and time off), where appropriate. The focus should be on the employee, not the work.

In a reactive scenario, where an employee asks their manager for support, managers should practice a strong sense of self-awareness to ensure that they meet the request with openness and a willingness to help, instead of frustration or anger about the implications of the employee’s needs on work output. Doing so reinforces psychological safety and increases the likelihood that the employee will ask for support if needed in the future.

At the organizational level, instituting policies and procedures that support employees working in the context of trauma is important. Consider taking away the subjectivity of informal policies where benefits are granted “at the manager’s discretion,” which can leave some teams with a ton of resources and support—and others with little to none at all.

When asked about which policies and procedures organizations can consider to support employees, Silver recommends:

The pandemic and the associated stressors have not impacted everyone equally; there are some individuals who have been more directly impacted. . . . Those individuals may have additional stress above and beyond the general collective stress that we’re all experiencing.  We have to recognize there’s no one-size-fits-all exposure to the challenges of 2020 and 2021 and simultaneously there’s no one-size-fits-all response. What I have been encouraging in the workplace is empathy and flexibility for the challenges people are feeling.

4. Resisting re-traumatization

The final R, resisting re-traumatization, is an important one for corporate spaces.

Most people spend a minimum of 2,080 hours working a year, and workplaces can be a key source of stress. Toxic work environments where “bad employee behaviors” like intimidation, bullying, or harassment aren’t addressed quickly and directly pose a particularly great risk of re-traumatizing the traumatized. This is also true for workplace environments that simply lack psychological safety, which is the sense that you will be punished or humiliated for sharing mistakes, ideas, and questions. “In a psychologically safe workplace, people are not hindered by interpersonal fear,” writes Amy C. Edmonson, author of The Fearless Workplace. Working in the context of fear can exacerbate trauma.

To notice and call out such behavior embodies the core value of compassion—to alleviate suffering. Also, having mechanisms for regular check-ins or feedback opportunities for employees such as pulse surveys, focus groups, third-party whistleblower services, or one-on-one discussions can provide valuable information on how the organization is doing in the area of re-traumatization.

To be clear, trauma is not only relevant for the past 18 months; most people will experience some degree of trauma at some point during their lifetime. However, we have no idea how long this pandemic will last or what new trauma may cascade from an already-exhausting list of collective traumas. This is now a part of all our lives—and it will be present in some form in every organization. Managing with trauma in mind will benefit organizations for the short term—and over the long run, as well, because stress, distress, and trauma are a part of the human experience.

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