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"If you're going through hell, keep going."
Winston Churchill

Workplace trauma wears a variety of faces - natural disasters, accidents, deaths, violence, chronic stress and anxiety, layoffs, massive reorganization. While the causes and individual reactions vary, there is one constant: you. As a leader, it is your job to help your people keep going, no matter what their particular "hell" looks like. The question is, how?

The Impact of Workplace Trauma

What is "trauma"? Immediately, we think of workplace shootings or violence; but the definition of trauma is more elusive - and much more subjective. According to Esther Giller, President of the Sidran Institute (a trauma education and advocacy group), "The more you believe you are endangered, the more traumatized you will be." Trauma, she says, "is defined by the experience of the survivor."

Those experiences, no matter by what they are caused, can result in decreased:

  • Creativity.
  • Productivity.
  • Ability to manage change.
  • Intellectual abilities.
  • Response/openness to diversity.
  • Interpersonal capabilities.

Additional symptoms include fatigue, headache, irritability, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, difficulty concentrating, withdrawal, outbursts, absenteeism, and increased drug/alcohol consumption. Depending on the individual, workplace trauma can significantly impact employees' performance and leave them drained, depleted, and, frankly, scared.

Helping Your People Cope - and Recover

As a leader, your role is twofold: helping your employees deal with traumatic experiences in a healthy, productive way and minimizing the negative impacts on your workplace. Again, while every situation is different - and every individual's reaction to stressors is different - Dr. Mary Tyler of the US Office of Personnel Management, suggests these steps:

  1. Let your people know you're still in charge. You may not know what to say, and that's fine. You don't need to deliver stirring oratories to the troops: you have to be there to offer support - and an ear. Let them know, by words and by action, that you are available to listen to their concerns and support them. Stay visible, ask how people are doing regularly, and create a safe space in which they can talk candidly about their experience/feelings.

    At the same time, trauma can - and does - impact leaders. (Apparently, we're human too). Don't try to hide it; stoicism isn't going to help your people cope. Let them know you feel angry/sad/worried, etc. - but that you can still manage and function. This'll send the message that they can too.

  2. Ask for support for yourself. Trauma sends ripple effects through organizations. Don't be afraid to ask for support from the higher-ups. Do you, for instance, need an extension on a project so you can focus on your team? Do you need a temp or someone from another department to tackle some of the administrative work until conditions normalize?

  3. Share information. Don't keep your people in the dark. Not knowing - no matter what the situation - can exacerbate worry and anxiety. When you have reliable information, share it with your team right away. If you don't have any, tell them that and let them know you'll get it for them as soon as you can.

  4. Encourage EAP visits. If your organization has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), they can provide counseling or facilitate group discussions to help your people work through trauma. Encourage your team to take advantage of this opportunity to maintain their health and wellness.

  5. Remember your strengths. If you've built a solid team, they're your best asset. Pull together and encourage individuals to look out for each other. They can listen, help with routine tasks, visit hospitals, or whatever the particular situation calls for. Not only will this help the workplace return to normal, it'll solidify their ability to work and cope together in the future.

  6. Get to work. Work can be healing; it is, if anything, normal. Routine. This is comforting to many people, and it can help them work through the trauma while remaining functional.

Workplace trauma is an unfortunate reality, and one that's only more common in today's fast-paced, complex world. While you can't build immunity for your team, you can help them cope with the aftermath and regain a sense of control and calm. You can help them keep going - and come out on the other side of crises.


Larry Hart

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