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What Leaders Should Know About Managing Covid-19 Trauma

Your employees are shouldering the accumulated burden of months of emotional trauma and persistent anxiety. Here's how, and why, you should help them.

For all that we try to keep our personal and professional lives separate, spillover is inevitable. The threshold separating the two is hazy and permeable; it’s all too easy to schlep the frustration of a stressful workday to the dinner table or allow the negativity of a family argument to color your tone in business meetings.

But now, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, workers aren’t dealing with a one-off spat or work problem. Instead, they are shouldering the accumulated burden of weeks of emotional trauma and persistent anxiety.

A recent survey conducted by researchers at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the UNC School of Medicine found that a striking 90 percent of surveyed respondents reported experiencing emotional distress related to the pandemic.

“The coronavirus has already led to diverse mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, PTSD and other trauma and stress-related disorders,” Drs. Phebe M. Tucker and Christopher S. Czapla wrote on the matter for the Psychiatric Times. “Different groups have met DSM-5’s traumatic exposures 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; individuals learning about the death or potential death of a family or friend due to the virus; and individuals experiencing extreme exposure to aversive details.”

Tucker and Czapla further point out that beyond these initial traumatic events, the pandemic has indirectly created a host of other stressors that worsen the problem, such as social isolation, unemployment, economic insecurity and increased childcare responsibilities. The stress suffered by people of color has been further exacerbated by the intergenerational trauma of processing the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.

The stress posed in 2020 has been, for many, utterly overwhelming — and not only in an emotional sense. Research has demonstrated that trauma can manifest in a host of physical symptoms, including but not limited to the loss of energy, pain, poor memory, limited concentration, mood swings and feelings of guilt.

Given the breadth and intensity of these symptoms, it makes sense that team members can’t simply leave their trauma behind when they log into work. Past explorations also demonstrate that expecting them to do so could backfire on employers.

One 2016 study that examined the interplay between work conflict, negative emotions and performance found that employees’ feelings of guilt and sadness often predict lower performance in and beyond the workplace for days on end. Other research initiatives have reported that employees who continually mask their emotions at work can develop a lower sense of self-worth, emotional exhaustion and a feeling of disconnection from their peers. It’s intuitive to think that these symptoms, in turn, can impact productivity and achievement.

Business leaders can’t afford to dismiss Covid-19 trauma. The pandemic impacts us all, and as I’ve written before, the boundaries demarcating our personal and professional lives have faded during the remote-work revolution. We’re in this together; we need to take steps to support employees when pandemic stress inevitably spills over into at-work life.

Upholding employees is a moral imperative — but there is also a business argument to be had here.

Past research suggests that compassionate workplaces tend to foster higher levels of employee satisfaction and loyalty. As one writer for Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine once explained, “A worker who feels cared for at work is more likely to experience positive emotion, which in turn helps to foster positive work relationships, increased cooperation, and better customer relations. Compassion training in individuals can reduce stress, and may even impact longevity.”

Furthermore, there is little doubt that companies will be judged by the measures they do — and don’t — take to support employees during these troubled times.

If leaders treat their team members with coldness and dismissiveness, their brand reputation will tarnish and leave them less able to attract talented workers. According to a 2016 Glassdoor Site Survey, around 70 percent of job searchers check online review platforms before making career decisions, and employees who feel mistreated by a callous employer are much more likely to leave a negative review warning others of their experience. Leaders can’t treat their team members as expendable; if they do, they risk losing good workers in the short term and scaring away others in the long view.

So, how can employers help their teams to deal with Covid-19 trauma?

The first step is to encourage communication in the workplace and meet emotional spillover without judgment. To borrow a quote from BBC’s Keren Levy, “Organizations which allow people to take a break from high levels of emotional regulation and acknowledge their true feelings with understanding and non-judgemental colleagues behind the scenes tend to fare better in the face of these demands.”

Employers may also consider pairing their cultural considerations with formalized resources. A recent survey conducted by the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions found that 53 percent of surveyed employers said they were providing special emotional and mental health programs to their workforce because of Covid-19. By supplying resources, leaders enable their workers to seek support and help themselves stay afloat professionally and personally amid the pandemic’s stresses.

In the end, helping your employees persist against Covid-19 could be as simple as providing support, flexibility, and understanding to those who are overwhelmed. More than ever, we need to come together as community members. Stand up for your employees, and they — and your business — will be stronger for your efforts.


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