The last couple of years have been tumultuous, to say the least. From the January 6 Capitol Attack and the war in Ukraine to racial injustice, it seems since COVID came onto the scene in early 2020, there’s been a continuous stream of traumatic events the global population has been forced to reckon with in one way or another. As a result, people have been left trying to figure out the best ways to cope, both physically and mentally, while taking stock of the workplace’s role in helping their employees manage the collective trauma of the last few years.
According to the Harvard Business Review (HBR), mental health challenges are now the norm among employees across all organizational levels. Seventy-six percent of respondents reported at least one symptom of a mental health condition in 2020, up from 59% in 2019, which isn’t that surprising given where we were at that time. “It was really interesting being entirely remote during the summer of 2020,” says Brad Smallwood, MFT who has worked as a company on-site therapist. “Given what was going on around Black Lives Matter and George Floyd, it reenacted traumas for my clients of color and brought up what they had been feeling their entire lives but maybe didn’t have the language for. It brought up ideas around what it’s like to be a person of color in the workplace and their implicit psychological safety relating to where they live and who they work with.”
Fostering psychological safety is cardinal in creating a workplace where employees feel they are able to speak up and ask for help in dealing with their trauma — especially given our current climate. Two years into a pandemic and in addition to several national crises, people are rightfully struggling. However, according to a McKinsey Global Survey, only a handful of business leaders are taking the steps to implement behaviors that promote psychological safety, which is a surprising notion for many reasons.
First, with increased psychological safety, organizations could reduce turnover and workplace sexual harassment (while allowing employees to feel more comfortable reporting it) — something that was highlighted during the #MeToo Movement. “Creating a culture within a company that is responsive and reflective to trauma, whether it’s specific or collective, is really important,” says Brad. “When the #MeToo Movement came to light, it was as if there was enough collective information out there where people were saying, ‘this also happened to me’ and feeling okay to speak about it.”
And secondly, there’s the employee engagement aspect. A Gallup report found that if organizations increase psychological safety, it makes employees more engaged in their work and can lead to a 12% increase in productivity. The report also concluded that leaders who practice psychological safety could see a 27% reduction in turnover and a 40% reduction in safety incidents.
The company’s role
Even before recent events, employers began to recognize their role as a provider of trauma resources, according to a report from the National Institute of Health. The cause? 9/11. The report stated: “The 9/11 attacks left workplaces in pressing need of a mental health response capability. Available sources of information and guidance for workplace leadership were insufficient to meet the needs of their employees after a disaster of this magnitude. Beaton and Murphy stressed the need to prepare workplaces to manage the emotional responses of employees in the event of a major disaster or occurrence of terrorism.
A report by the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine emphasized the importance of workplace preparedness for the psychological consequences of terrorism and the role of management personnel and employee assistance professionals in responding to the emotional needs of employees after a terrorist attack. Not long before the WTC attack of 11 September 2001, Barski-Carrow recognized that managers of businesses may be overwhelmed by the emotional needs of employee survivors returning to the workplace. Often, managers may not have sufficient experience, resources, and training to support employees emotionally and to assist with their adaptation when they return.”
Since then, and even more so now, managers are now being trained to deal with employee trauma, and when they’re not, employers are bringing trained professionals on-site to help their employees cope with trauma, which Rachael Steimnitz, MPH, Workplace Mental Health Director at the National Alliance of Mental Illness – New York City, has seen an increase in. “I’ve been working in workplace mental health, prior to, during, and now in this next phase of pandemic recovery, and I saw a huge shift in employers and leaders go from not talking about mental health at all to sending out townhall invites to talk about mental health, share their journeys, and even sending emails to individuals to check-in and make sure employees are feeling supported,” Rachael says. “While burnout and mental health challenges in the workplace, were on the rise prior to the pandemic, COVID-19 put them into a really sharp view.”
The new notion of mental health at work
In addition to the pandemic, racial injustice, and 9/11, the war in Ukraine also proved to be a stressor for many employees. Perhaps even more so for certain groups such as veterans, immigrants, and refugees who as a result of seeing the images on the news, may experience PTSD. Some may also be angry that coverage for Ukraine seems to be different from previous and ongoing wars in other countries. Regardless, as Rachael notes, trauma is “not one size fits all”. People are going to have different responses to different traumatic events, but it’s the employer’s job to determine how to best provide support to those employees who need it.
However, one silver lining to come from the neverending cycle of traumatic events is the normalization of mental health challenges at work. In 2019, employers were just starting to grasp the prevalence of these challenges, the need to address stigma, and the emerging link to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), according to HBR. But as the publication notes, in 2020, mental health support went from a nice-to-have to a true business imperative. More employees are also talking about mental health at work — a crucial step in reducing stigma and pushing employers to make it a priority.
“It’s crucial for an organization to create a culture that’s not only proactive mitigating traumatic events but also having a good response,” Brad says. “Having worked in crisis for many years, I’ve seen how people that are trained in crisis know how to respond reflectively versus reacting impulsively, which is actually quite damaging. Learning the language around trauma and how to respond, reflect and appropriately address the situation at hand is absolutely critical.”
How to help
Because more employers are making their employees’ health a priority, many have started adapting their internal infrastructure so that when trauma strikes, they’re prepared. “When it’s a question of what workplaces can do, I think, oftentimes the best way for companies to really weather the next phase of pandemic recovery and deal with tragedy is by helping to train their managers to identify employees who may be struggling, and provide resources to those employees so they can get the support that they need,” says Rachael. “Being a manager is really hard. They’re not therapists and a lot of time they lack that training on what to do. By providing that, employers are saying, ‘we’re not leaving you alone to figure this out.'”
Employers should also equip managers with the necessary tips for helping employees cope with trauma. For starters, it’s always crucial to listen and provide flexibility if needed. Additionally, communication is always key in these situations, whether you’re communicating about their work or available resources. “I work with an executive who really goes out of his way to tell his employees how to use the mental health benefits their company offers and how helpful that has been for him,” says Brad. “The best ways employers can offer mental health resources to their employees is by making them easily accessible and encouraging them to use these resources.”
Why it matters
When employers focus on their employees, especially in times when they’re struggling, it “sends a message to the employee that they are cared for, valued, and seen as more than someone carrying out tasks for the company,” says Brads. He adds, “I have made the observation that companies that focus on employee health intentionally have stronger work cultures, do better as an organization, and have happier employees.”
Rachael agrees, adding that the investment in mental health resources for employees shows a larger company-wide return. “There has been a lot of research that shows employers who invest in the mental health of their employees can expect to see a 4 to 1 return on that investment in terms of dollars, says Rachael. “There’s also increased productivity and reduced presenteeism, where you drive yourself into work, but you’re not working at as high of a level as you can or would like to due to these other challenges. So employers will really see the difference in those two areas.”
And with the great resignation in full swing, employers have to make sure they’re doing what they can to show how much they value their employees and their health — but it all starts from the top. “Empathy and acknowledgment from leadership that these have been an incredibly challenging last two years, can go a long way,” says Rachael. “Cultural change comes from the top. When employees hear a leader saying, ‘Hey, I’m taking a break for a mental health day,’ they’re modeling these types of self-care, which will go a long way in showing employees that it’s okay to do the same thing for themselves.”