For decades, workplace trauma has been associated with people working in professions like the military, firefighting, policing, and first-response. Yet recent research shows that trauma is widespread among employees beyond these high-risk/high-stress jobs and can impact workers in any industry for a multitude of reasons that often go overlooked or ignored. This has to change.
Emotional trauma can be traced to a variety of causes – from workplace violence, sexual harassment, racism, discrimination or a toxic workplace culture to natural disasters, the loss of a family member or loved one, or a childhood event. A recent World Health Organization (WHO) study found that 70 percent of people across 24 countries have experienced traumas, with an average of 3.2 traumatic events over the course of a lifetime.
COVID-19 has only intensified this alarming trend. In the US, the reported risk for post-traumatic stress (PTS) – one of the major mental health issues related to trauma – is 83 percent higher than pre-pandemic levels. Not surprisingly, healthcare workers are especially in danger. Globally, more than one-in-five have experienced PTS, anxiety or depression during the pandemic.
Beyond healthcare workers, COVID-19 has also blurred work-life boundaries and heightened workplace insecurities through added pressures ranging from a new 24/7 Zoom culture to millions of business closures. People feel increasingly cut-off from personal relationships with supportive colleagues, while toxic conditions that afflict the workplace have now simply gone online.
The growing emotional trauma in the workplace manifests itself as absenteeism, poor presenteeism, task avoidance, employee conflicts, accidents or loss of motivation. Additional red flags include heightened anxiety, fear, and anger or rising levels of uncooperativeness or forgetfulness.
Beyond these signs, employees suffering from workplace trauma have difficulty reaching their full potential, which has profound implications for organizational performance.
It’s time for organizations to make mental health support a key priority in the workplace, including trauma-informed care and support. Employers can take steps to mitigate the worst impacts and help their employees through a proactive approach aimed at creating a trauma-resilient workplace.
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These steps include:
Building a resilient culture with tools that can promote mental health. This includes employee training on stress reduction and coping skills and upgrading emotional intelligence in managers to help them better identify workers who are suffering and direct them to support systems.
Reducing stigma around mental health challenges by creating a safe environment where employees feel comfortable reporting and discussing traumatic events and employers offer the resources and support to address their needs.
Creating empathetic leaders trained to recognize distress among employees and willing to share their own experiences with mental health challenges. Adopting strategies to support employees through their experience can help build trust and well-being, while alerting people that mental health challenges are not a barrier to thriving in the organization.
When a traumatic event occurs, a strong crisis response starts with putting people first. An organization that visibly and emphatically focuses on employee needs builds a sense of security and validates employee reactions. Employers should also make available a variety of support systems – including on-site support, telephone and app-based services and peer-to-peer sessions – to allow people to choose the services most comfortable and supportive to their recovery.
Organizations also need to understand that recovery from trauma is a journey that can sometimes take years. Every employee responds differently, which means a long-term commitment to worker well-being and support systems that give employees control over their own journeys. Employers should also regularly seek qualitative feedback from employees to understand where they need to improve. To learn more about supporting employees in the workplace, read Trauma and Mental Health in the Workplace by One Mind at Work and the SHRM Foundation.
Above all, organizations should view traumatic events not as issues to be ignored or, even worse, swept under the rug. Instead, they should be seen as an opportunity to reduce stigma, open doors to positive change and demonstrate that employee mental health is paramount to their workplace culture.