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The new workplace is trauma-informed

Most businesses have a crisis plan designed to help manage any number of difficulties that could negatively impact their employees, customers, and the communities they serve. But how many are prepared for the psychological and emotional aftermath when tragedy strikes?

You should have a plan to help support your employees as you work to restore health and well-being to your workplace. With the recurring complex trauma of social injustice and the COVID-19 pandemic, consider a trauma-informed approach to help your workforce feel safe, supported, and empowered.

Understanding stress and trauma

We’re living through a sustained traumatic experience on a scale not seen in recent history. The catastrophic impact of the pandemic and the national unrest related to long-standing social inequities have left individuals, communities, and businesses shell-shocked. Now we’re struggling to remain productive despite the demands and pressures of our new realities — and we face the daunting task of reopening, recovering, and healing in a cloud of uncertainty.

It’s no wonder that 7 in 10 employees report the pandemic is the most stressful time of their entire professional career.

Left unchecked and unmanaged, this high level of stress can lead to poor outcomes at work, absenteeism, and a sure recipe for burnout.

The coronavirus pandemic is causing unprecedented levels of stress. 7 in 10 employees say this is the most stressful time of their career.

While the workplace can be a source of stress for many, it can also be a place of healing. With the trauma so widespread, you must understand how to create or strengthen a psychologically healthy workplace. The road ahead doesn’t need to be murky. By drawing from field experience in the aftermath of tragedy and taking a trauma-informed approach, it’s possible to take the next steps into the new normal with greater confidence.

While the workplace can be a source of stress for many, it can also be a place of healing.

How we respond to trauma
Our society has lived through community-level traumas before. Economic downturns, natural disasters, terrorism, and other catastrophic events that tear at the fabric of our communities are sadly and increasingly common. Social media amplifies the impact, causing many more to bear witness and share in the trauma. Each event becomes imprinted on our brain, especially on the young, and can permanently alter brain structure, wiring us for reactive responses in the future.

Traumatic events impact each of us differently, based on personal experiences that can be traced back to our first years of life. Our past influences the depth, breadth, and complexity of our emotional response as it’s happening now and carrying over long term. The greater the number of adverse experiences a person has survived in their life, particularly in childhood, the more likely they are to struggle with stressful events throughout life, and for that stress to harm their emotional and physical health. Genetics, socioeconomics, demographics, existing health conditions, and home and work environments all play a role in how we react and cope when tragedy hits.

Not all these contributors lead to a negative response. In fact, some help us build resilience, adapt quicker, and better regulate response to future stresses. This sheds light on why some people bounce back after hard times while others struggle longer. However, this isn’t a prediction. Each event is different, and each person’s response is different. When you understand the effects of trauma, you can offer the understanding and compassion that your employees need right now.

Assessing the workforce
Whether you’re bringing your business back online, or you’ve managed to stay open through the lockdown and curfews, your workforce probably faced challenges that might be unknown or hard to understand. Isolation, homeschooling, caregiving, illness (COVID-19 and beyond), financial loss, food insecurity, domestic violence, xenophobia, and societal oppression are just some of the realities that have increased, putting those impacted at greater risk of being unable to cope and function at their best.

Feelings of stress, anxiety, depression, anger, and grief are expected in response to the pervasive uncertainty, fear, and loss. Some people can cope with these feelings and eventually return to their normal state. For others, these feelings may be overwhelming and lead to harmful physical and emotional outcomes. People who were struggling with mental health conditions and substance use disorders before may experience increased severity of symptoms resulting in severe distress, dysfunction, and relapse.

As with most traumatic events, some effects are seen almost immediately, and some don’t materialize until much later. The initial disruption created by these events is swift and devastating. It permeates all aspects of our lives, increasing risk factors for further trauma to individuals, communities, and businesses, particularly those that were already at risk. The impact won’t reverse simply by getting back to work. For some, returning to work may be further traumatizing if they must do so before they feel safe and secure.

When you understand the effects of trauma, you can offer the understanding and compassion that your employees need right now.

Taking stock of workplace health

A trauma-informed workplace recognizes trauma at both individual and organizational levels. Businesses, those living communities of employees, vendors, and consumers, are forever changed by this shared experience in ways that may take months or years to understand.

When trauma strikes, protective factors are challenged. What maintained and grew your business before, the practices that shored it up for difficult times, and the attributes that made its culture strong, may have transformed or disappeared during the months of sheltering at home. It’s important to acknowledge and accept that feelings of grief are quite normal as we all come to process and accept those losses and the work that lies ahead.

It will take time to take stock, reimagine, and rebuild under the new conditions. At a minimum, how you do business, where you conduct business, and with whom you do business are different now. You’re learning new ways to work that support the health or your team, building resilience in preparation for what’s to come.

It’s important for you to get a pulse check on how your workforce is doing. However, traditional tools like satisfaction or engagement surveys, workers’ compensation claims, disability rates, and grievance data may not serve you post-pandemic.

Becoming trauma-informed
It’s important for you to get a pulse check on how your workforce is doing. However, traditional tools like satisfaction or engagement surveys, workers’ compensation claims, disability rates, and grievance data may not serve you postpandemic. Many businesses are embracing open and honest communications and more informal methods with their workforce to understand and address the current state of well-being.

This is a time when managers will want to spend more one-on-one time with their staff. Regular check-in conversations that focus on listening to what each employee is managing and struggling with, acknowledging their feelings and experiences will help to recalibrate expectations together and discuss resources for support so that they can be productive while maintaining their well-being.

Create avenues for your employees to request accommodations or resources and not feel guilt or shame over their needs. While they may be looking for flexible work policies and mental health resources, they may also need support for basic needs like housing, food security, and child care. Not knowing where to turn to or not feeling safe to ask for help creates more stress. This can be reduced by providing a range of readily available resources and tools within your organization as well as from the community.

Building trust and displaying transparency are also key to a trauma-informed environment. Your employees will benefit from brief but frequent communications from their managers that keep them informed about the state of the business and security of their jobs. These frequent communications should also articulate future goals and instill hope by letting employees know how they’ll be able to continue to work in a safe environment. Addressing current events in a direct, meaningful, and respectful way can help foster solidarity and camaraderie, which can uplift employees in especially dark moments. Don’t avoid speaking up but be careful not to minimize an individual’s experience.

Traumatic events are unexpected and uncontrollable. Prolonged powerlessness only increases distress, so help your workforce recover faster by reestablishing predictability and control wherever it’s possible. Recognizing and supporting skills and expertise that strengthen personal ownership, the ability to make daily decisions, and to have choices will aid employees in healing from the trauma they have experienced and regain a sense of confidence and empowerment at work.

Trauma shapes us but doesn’t define us. Most people who experience even the most extreme traumatic events won’t develop a mental health condition as a result. Powerful antidotes to trauma include peer and community support, mutual self-help and altruism, and connecting to meaningful spiritual practices and work. When others share their personal experiences and stories with each other it creates a sense of connection and community and promotes healing. Resilience is a powerful muscle we can build together.

Preparing for the future

We can’t control the events that occur and disrupt our lives. But we can control how we reflect, learn, and grow from the experience. A trauma-informed approach isn’t about bracing for impact. In fact, it’s just the opposite. It’s about uncovering the value and meaning in what happened and carrying forward an understanding and gratitude for life, work, and relationships that will help us handle what’s ahead. We’ll emerge stronger together.

About our expert

Cosette Taillac, LCSW

After 20 years at Kaiser Permanente, Cosette Taillac recently retired as its Strategic Leader for Mental Health and Addiction. Cosette has a master’s degree in child and adolescent mental health from the University of California, Berkeley and is a licensed, board-certified psychiatric social worker. Since 2017, she’s been a board member of the One Circle Foundation, a nonprofit that implements evidence-based models for promoting resilience in children in the United States and Canada. She created a mind-body-spirit curriculum for emplowering girls as part of One Circle’s Girls Circle program.