What Employers Should Know About Trauma in the Workplace
2008 was a difficult year. The Great Recession was underway. People lived in a constant state of worry. In workplaces across the country, employees informally gathered after official meetings, trying to decipher what their leaders had shared and what information they’d held back. If the larger implications of the recession were abstract and theoretical, the possibility of layoffs felt very real.
If you worked during this time and didn’t lose your job, you probably had friends and acquaintances who did. Your leaders may have done their best to keep you updated as you pondered the fate of your employment, but that didn’t stop the whispered discussions in the hallways and bathrooms. You may have wondered what the real story was when decisions would be made, and what would happen to your livelihood. It was a time when people were expected to continue to work as they had before—or put in even more effort—all while raises and benefits were on the chopping block.
In the aftermath, some people felt pressured to pretend nothing remarkable had happened. Their leaders wanted them to carry on, push forward, and, most importantly, not talk about the hard business decisions that were made or the pain those decisions caused. The struggle was real, but that stark reality wasn’t acknowledged out in the open. As a result, both those who lost their jobs and those who didn’t felt anxious, confused, insecure, and distrustful.
At the time, you might not have referred to the mere prospect of a layoff as a “traumatic event.” But it was. Trauma is an emotional response to a distressing experience. And that recession was most definitely distressing. It caused deep and widespread psychological harm. It affected people’s mental health at a time when society took mental health much less seriously than it does now.
When a distressing event occurs in or affects the workplace, leaders need to be ready and able to support their employees before, during, and after the event. That goes whether the event has its source in the workplace—like a layoff, acquisition, or serious workplace injury or death—or impacts the workplace from the outside—like a pandemic, natural disaster, or act of violence.
Responding to traumatic events poorly (or not at all) can make a bad situation much worse. In fact, an inadequate response to trauma can itself become a source of additional distress.
Let’s examine how you can prepare your workplace to weather a traumatic event, support your employees throughout its duration, and help them process their emotions in the aftermath.
Preparing for Traumatic Events
First, you must build trust with your employees before things get bad. If you don’t start from a place of trust before something bad happens, it will be difficult to establish it when you are in the middle of a stressful, chaotic, and challenging situation. To create relationships built in trust, act with transparency, clarity, and consistency. Demonstrate that you care personally for your people. Show them the trust that you want them to show you.
Second, plan for trauma. You may already have plans in the event of emergencies, disasters, or major business disruptions. Make sure those plans account for the emotional state of employees during and after the event. Train managers to recognize signs of distress and what’s in (and not in) their power to manage. Emphasize the importance of transparency, clarity, and consistency. You don’t want to make matters worse by acting chaotically.
Third, establish a communication plan for emergency situations. Employees should know where to go for important, up-to-date information. Leaders should know who will be involved in these communications—who initiates, who reviews, and when and how the communication is shared with employees.
Fourth, practice. Review your plans and run through them on a regular basis so leaders understand their role. Share these plans with your employees as appropriate. Not everyone will read them, but putting in the effort will gain you some trust with many employees.
Navigating Traumatic Events
We all know you can plan and plan and plan and plan, but when a moment of crisis comes, you begin to panic. That’s okay. Take a moment to breathe and calm yourself. Bring your response team together and get organized. Outline what needs to happen, including communications that should go out to employees. Make sure everyone is on the same page.
You will want to have multiple ways for messages to be shared as your employees will likely not receive messages at the same time, especially if you have people on multiple shifts. If you’re conducting a layoff, for example, meet with each affected employee individually (as you are able) and be sure you are giving them all the necessary information. Then follow up in writing, as these employees will likely be in shock and not remember much of what you said.
Act with empathy and sensitivity to those who are most affected. Sometimes, well-meaning leaders emphasize their own pain at a time when their employees are hurting. Less well-meaning leaders sometimes act in callous or dismissive ways, treating their employees as if they are disposable. Both of these approaches to distressing situations break down trust. They also have a chance to become viral news online, at great reputation risk to the organization.
Responding to Trauma When Things Calm Down
When the dust settles, you may be ready to return to “normal,” but that’s not going to happen. Your world has changed. You need to help your employees adjust to this “new normal” and recognize that the past isn’t coming back.
Your employees will need time to process the event and their feelings about it. Share information about your employee assistance program (EAP), if you have one. Create spaces for employees to connect and talk about the changes. Prepare managers to listen. The trauma following the death of a coworker, for example, will affect the workplace long after the funeral. Grief is personal and not everyone will react in the way you think they might.
In a case like this, you’d want to give your employees time and space to process the event and their feelings, while also providing them with information they need to prepare themselves for what comes next. For example, it could be jarring for employees to see their deceased coworker’s job posted. They may feel as though you are pushing them to a place, they aren’t ready to go to yet. Giving them a heads-up may help them prepare themselves emotionally to see the job posting.
You cannot shy away from the events you all collectively went through, nor should you sweep the memory of it under the rug and pretend it didn’t happen. Being upfront and honest about the experience will be a huge benefit to your employees working through their experience and what it means to them. Trauma will always get its say, but it doesn’t have to have the last word.