By Cosette Taillac
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? As a broker, you can help support your clients as they work to restore health and well-being to their workplaces. With the recurring complex trauma of social injustice and the COVID-19 pandemic, encourage your clients to consider a trauma-informed approach to help their employees 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. This, according to 2020 study by Ginger: COVID-19: Four Radical Changes in U.S. Worker Mental Health Needs. [https://assets.website-files.com/5cbad46537d84e6404551ac1/5e8e6c50da07f0a5df14dba6_Workplace_Attitudes_2020_Preview_R4.pdf]
Left unchecked and unmanaged, this high level of stress can lead to poor outcomes at work, absenteeism, and a sure recipe for burnout.
While the workplace can be a source of stress for many, it can also be a place of healing. With the trauma so widespread, your clients 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.
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 your clients understand the effects of trauma, they can offer the understanding and compassion that their employees need right now.
Assessing the workforce
Whether your clients are bringing their businesses back online, or they’ve managed to stay open through the lockdown and curfews, their 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.
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 clients’ businesses before, the practices that shored them up for difficult times, and the attributes that made their cultures 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 these 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 your clients do business, where they conduct business, and with whom they do business are different now. They’re learning new ways to work that support the health of their employees and their businesses, building resilience in preparation for what’s to come.
It’s important for your clients to get a pulse check on how their workforce is doing. However, traditional tools like satisfaction or engagement surveys, workers’ compensation claims and disability rates, and grievance data may not serve them post-pandemic. 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.
You can help urge your clients to create avenues for their workers to request accommodations or resources and not feel guilt or shame over their needs. While employees 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 the organization as well as from the community.
Building trust and displaying transparency are also key to a trauma-informed environment. Your clients’ 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 your clients can help their 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 will emerge stronger together.
Cosette Taillac, LCSW, is a licensed psychiatric social worker and board-certified diplomate who received her master’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1988. She has worked for Kaiser Permanente (KP) for over 20 years. As the strategic leader for Mental Health Addiction and Recovery, Taillac guides the strategic planning for the program and the work in quality and patient-driven outcomes (feedback informed care) in pursuit of the vision to be the “Model of Mental Health Care in the Nation.” She is the former director for KP’s award winning Early Start perinatal substance abuse treatment program, for which she has also published outcomes research. Since 2017, she has been a board member of One Circle Foundation, a nonprofit that equips community providers to implement evidence-based models for promoting resilience in children and teens in the U.S. and Canada. She authored a mind-body-spirit curriculum for empowering girls as part of One Circle’s Girls Circle program.