Well, here we are at the end of summer 2020, and it’s Groundhog Day all over again. We’re still in the middle of a pandemic and, while its impact is not experienced equitably across communities, we are all faced with an incredibly uncertain future. Will our family members stay healthy, will our kids go back to school in person, will we remain employed and keep a roof over our heads, when will we be able to safely hold in-person gatherings…. ? And while the national racial justice movement carries with it glimmers of hope for a brighter future, it also has caused much grief and emotional exhaustion for many Americans...
As we discussed in an earlier blog post - When Grief Runs Deep – our country is experiencing collective trauma: “a shared experience of helplessness, disorientation, and loss among a group of people” (Dr. Molly Castelloe). Our workplaces are a reflection of this generalized state of affairs. We have seen trauma – collective or individual - manifested within our teams as:
- Heightened levels of stress and anxiety
- Lack of motivation
- Impaired communications and decision-making
- Employees feeling disconnected
- Performance issues
Whether our teams are currently scattered, back in physical workspaces or in hybrid scenarios, many of us are struggling to effectively support our employees in keeping up with daily responsibilities when the world is experiencing anything but ‘business as usual.’ In seeking to foster healthy connection and communication, it’s crucial that we apply trauma-informed principles to our management practices.
Trauma-informed workplace communications
Trauma takes away a person’s sense of control, and the resulting feeling of powerlessness can wreak havoc on our psyches. Trauma-informed approaches aim to give back a sense of agency to those impacted. How does this play out in our workplaces?
- SAFETY FIRST
It goes without saying that in-person workplaces must enforce proper COVID-safe hygiene protocols to ensure the physical safety of their employees. But that is not enough. We must also continue to protect our people from harassment - whether in person or virtual - by empowering them to communicate their boundaries, as well as creating clear, accessible reporting processes and ensuring there’s no retaliation for doing so.
- FOSTER TRUST
Trust begins with honest communication, including managers showing genuine feeling and vulnerability with their teams. It’s OK to not be OK right now! Modeling healthy self-care sends employees the message that prioritizing their mental and physical health is strongly encouraged. Remind folks to take time off, pause for frequent breaks and do whatever it is that brings them comfort throughout the week.
Validating a person’s feelings by saying, “You’re not alone” or “I’m glad you shared this with me” goes a long way to nurturing a sense of emotional safety with our teams. Avoid “why” questions that could signal judgment: “Why did you send your kids back to school?” will just bring out defensiveness or shame, where “It sounds like you’re scared that your kids might get sick” shows empathy.
- BE AS TRANSPARENT AS POSSIBLE
It’s unsettling not to know what’s happening in our near future, so be generous with information-sharing as it relates to your workplace and organization. Provide a clear plan of action as the COVID-19 situation evolves, and utilize a variety of delivery platforms to ensure all workers are well-informed.
- EMPOWER TEAM MEMBERS TO MAKE CHOICES
When individuals are struggling with the feelings of powerlessness that come with trauma, simple things like allowing employees to make their own schedules and to identify their work priorities will help them regain a sense of control. Recognize that it may take longer and feel more frustrating to accomplish regular tasks. Focus on outcomes, not hours clocked! And as much as possible, avoid giving advice. Instead, offer options and respect that each person knows what’s best for them and their family.
- PRIORITIZE COLLABORATION & CONNECTION
To quote Brené Brown, “Connection is why we’re here. It’s what gives us purpose and meaning in our lives.” Well-functioning teams require social connection, and so while this pandemic has robbed many of us of physical closeness, we can encourage team members (who wish to do so) to talk and chat throughout the day. Your team might brainstorm together innovative ways to stay connected - maybe a socially-distanced bring-your-own-lunch picnic in the park?
While we hope for a swift recovery from this pandemic, there will continue to be periods of confusion, anxiety, and real despair as we grieve for our pre-COVID workplaces and lives with the growing realization that the recovery won’t be static.
Let’s focus on what we can do: provide a safe space for healthy, respectful working relationships by adhering to these simple values of trauma-informed workplaces.
The SAFE Institute offers training on how to prevent and address harassment in the workplace. For more information, visit safeinstitute.org.