Thirteen months after COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, the realities of pandemic-induced trauma are playing out in real-time, and employers must consider how to manage a workforce that has absorbed months of profound fear, loss, and stress.
The long-term extent of the COVID-19’s psychological toll remains to be seen, but surveys show an overwhelming majority of the population has experienced emotional distress due to the pandemic.
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That’s hardly surprising considering the kaleidoscope of sustained stressors experienced by Americans: millions lost their jobs and are grappling with financial instability, parents of school-aged children are juggling working while taking care of their homebound children, and an epidemic of loneliness and isolation has spurred a sharp increase in drug and alcohol use.
“Different groups have met the qualifying criteria for PTSD during the pandemic: those who have themselves suffered from serious Covid-19 illness and potential death; individuals witnessing others’ suffering and death as family members and healthcare workers; and individuals learning about the death or potential death of a family or friend due to the virus,” Drs. Phebe M. Tucker and Christopher S. Czapla wrote for the Psychiatric Times.
Black Americans are coping with an added layer of trauma as police shootings and racial inequalities have been brought to national attention. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, too, are grieving a wave of racially motivated violence.
The global workforce has been fundamentally changed by the events of the past year, and employers would be well-served to be prepared to assist employees as they recover from any trauma suffered. If left unaddressed, employers may expect unprecedented levels of burnout, employee turnover, and diminished productivity.
Towards a trauma-informed approach
In clinical settings, a trauma-informed approach is understood as an organizational structure that understands, recognizes, and responds to the effects of all types of trauma.
As explained by the CDC: “Adopting a trauma-informed approach isn’t accomplished through any single particular technique or checklist. It requires constant attention, caring awareness, sensitivity, and possibly a cultural change at an organizational level.”
But how can employers integrate a trauma-informed approach into their organization?
Consider these five guiding principles: safety, trustworthiness and transparency, peer support and collaboration, empowerment and choice, and cultural, historical, and gender issues.
Employees who feel physically and emotionally safe at work are more likely to stay at their organizations, and establishing strict safety protocols is more important now than ever before.
“It’s important to have a really clear, concise reentry program and support for employees returning to the office,” say Julie Gilbertson, Senior HR Resources Manager at 501(c) Services. “Make sure that personal protective equipment is available for them, and be prepared to reassure employees with strong safety processes and policies.”
Trustworthiness and transparency
Regularly checking in with your employees isn’t a revolutionary act, but it’s a powerful way to build genuine, trusting relationships. The need to prioritize consistent communication is underscored by the abrupt shift to virtual work, a change that left many employees feeling isolated and disconnected.
“Employers really have to make sure they’re doing trust-building and reassurance and reaffirming the values of the organization so that employees go ‘Alright, it’s going to be okay, my employer is there for me, I want to show up and work hard,’” Gilbertson says.
When checking in with employees, avoid using general or abstract phrases and opt for questions that will elicit honest responses. Instead of asking “how’s your workload?” try asking “are there any tasks this week that you’re worried about, or are more than you have the bandwidth for right now?”
Peer support and collaboration
Facilitating connections between employees and creating spaces where employees can turn to their colleagues for insight and advice is key in creating a trauma-informed workplace.
Peer support programs aren’t a replacement for professional therapy, but they offer a way for colleagues to connect with others facing similar issues and learn about relevant health benefits and employee assistance programs from colleagues who have used them.
“Many employees feel more comfortable sharing their concerns with a peer who understands their circumstances as opposed to an off-site therapist who is removed from the workplace,” Randy Kratz, LCSW wrote for Social Work Today. “The best care and support can often come from inside the workplace, as coworkers provide a familiar outlet for guidance.”
Empowerment and choice
Allowing employees the autonomy to make workplace decisions can ease trauma-related stress by giving them control over their work lives.
This is particularly relevant when planning employees’ eventual return to the office. Instead of announcing a predetermined return date, talk to your employees and find out how they are feeling about returning to the office. Listening to your employees. Take their views into account when enacting policies. Giving them options with regard to returning to work can be powerful.
“Let them consider taking baby steps when it comes to returning to the office,” Gilbertson says, “For example, you could say ‘let’s start out part-time for a week and get your toes wet, get you back into the workplace to see how we’re running.’”
Additionally, normalizing taking time off and reminding employees that they have the choice to use PTO can help them feel empowered to take personal time for their mental health.
Employers are responsible for creating work environments that are safe and productive. To do this effectively, employers need to not only make sure that people aren’t being traumatized at the office, but also recognize that their employees may have experienced trauma outside the office, and will bring the effects of that with them when they come to work. While professional training may be required to help people through their trauma, employers can take initial steps to create safe and empathetic working environments. One step in this direction is the creation of strong policies that clarify that harassment and discrimination of any kind will not be tolerated.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lia Tabackman is a freelance journalist, copywriter, and social media strategist based in Richmond, Virginia. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, CBS 6 News, the Los Angeles Times, and Arlington Magazine, among others.