It’s Not Just Stress; It’s Trauma: Seven Things Leaders Need to Know About the Post-COVID Workplace

COVID-19 is only the most recent blow: For decades, the business world has faced a perfect storm of crises, changes, and disruptions. The result, according to a timely new book, is widespread organizational trauma. Here are a few insights on navigating it.

Have you noticed your colleagues and employees seem a little stressed lately? (Okay, more than a little.) (Okay, it’s not just them. It’s you, too.) It’s understandable: The pressures we face and the hurdles we must jump are quite stressful. Yet the truth is far more worrisome, say Diana Hendel, PharmD, and Mark Goulston, MD. There’s a good chance your company has moved past stress and into trauma territory.

“Yes, COVID-19 is a big part of it,” says Dr. Hendel, coauthor along with Dr. Goulston of Trauma to Triumph: A Roadmap for Leading Through Disruption and Thriving on the Other Side (HarperCollins Leadership, March 2021, ISBN: 978-1-4002-2837-9, $17.99). “The pandemic has disrupted every industry and changed our lives forever. But also factor in the political and social turmoil of the past year. And consider that for decades we’ve been battered by an onslaught of tech-driven shake-ups and other challenges.”

Any of these changes and crises by themselves would be tough to deal with. But add them all together—and factor in the frequency, intensity, and duration that characterizes them—and you have a “perfect storm” for trauma.  

“Stress and trauma must be treated differently,”

asserts Dr. Goulston. “Stress shakes our balance and is unpleasant to experience, but we’re able to power through it, build resilience, and go on with our lives. Trauma causes us to act from a place of fear. We go into survival mode and get caught up in the ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response. It changes how we see the world—and it’s not something companies or workers can cope with long-term.”

Unprocessed trauma is dangerous for organizations, say the authors. It causes individual employees and leaders to act in destructive ways. Companywide, it compromises your structures, systems, and values. This is why it’s important to “name, claim, and frame” trauma. It’s the most effective way to fix what’s wrong now and prepare to deal with traumatizing events in the future.

Drs. Hendel and Goulston wrote Trauma to Triumph as a blueprint for all organizations. It lays out tactics to help leaders create stability in the midst of chaos, move productively through a traumatic event, and come out even stronger on the other side. A few insights from the book: 

Trauma doesn’t always look like “shock and awe.” It can also be a “boiling frog” scenario. Sometimes trauma is ongoing and cumulative. For example, it may take the form of sexual harassment, racism, or some other type of discrimination. When trauma is not connected to a single event, many of us may not even realize we’re experiencing its effects. In these kinds of scenarios, where the trauma is chronic, the organization is like the proverbial frog in the cooking pot. You know the story: At first the frog is sitting in lukewarm water. Over time, the heat slowly intensifies until, finally, it is at the boiling point, and the frog is in serious trouble.

“Many leaders think that trauma doesn’t apply to them because there’s not a single dramatic event,” notes Dr. Hendel. “But trauma can happen in a variety of ways, all of them destructive.”

Trauma can manifest in employees in different ways. Learn to recognize these red flags. When people go into “fight, flight, or freeze” mode, they may respond differently. Some people might become hostile, belligerent, aggressive, or otherwise “difficult”—often seemingly without adequate cause. Others might cling to their “competence zone,” blindly doing what they’ve always done even though it no longer works. People dig in and resist change. Or they may insist they are “fine,” even when it is clear they are struggling.

“Meanwhile, leaders may behave in distinctively un-leaderly ways as well,” notes Dr. Goulston. “They might hide out in their office instead of jumping into action, or make rash, knee-jerk decisions when they were previously known for level-headed steadiness.”

Certain “common threads” define traumatized organizations. Dr. Hendel—who lived through a workplace shooting a decade ago—says certain predictable things happen in the wake of trauma. People create their own narratives about what happened. Blaming and finger-pointing ensue. And often, people divide into opposing camps, and the workforce rapidly polarizes—opposing views can be taken to the extreme, and rifts can divide an organization.     

“Because it isn’t being addressed, people continue to struggle, and the ongoing, perhaps deepening, division/polarization, blame, shame, and guilt hurts the culture,” says Dr. Hendel. “All of this can damage collaboration, cooperation, cohesiveness, and teamwork and erode their belief and trust in one another—and eventually the trauma becomes ‘taboo’ and unspeakable.

“Fortunately, there are strategies for addressing and mitigating the impact trauma has on individuals—and on the culture of the organization,” Dr. Hendel continues. “When leaders navigate trauma effectively, they can minimize risks to employees and to the organization, help people recover and heal, and position the organization to thrive in the future.”

Here are some examples: 

A Rapid Response Process enables you to spring into action when crisis occurs. You might think of this as a “Code Blue.” It’s a standardized, pre-planned approach for dealing with disruption. Getting one in place helps everyone know exactly what to do so that decisions can be made quickly, efficiently, and with a focus on safety. Here are the components to focus on.

  • Gather your Rapid Response Team. Appoint people to this team before a crisis happens and make sure they know their respective roles. It should include all senior leaders and leaders of key functions such as operations/logistics, security, finance, HR, communications/PR, facilities, etc.
  • Allow the leader in charge to delegate. You need a central commander to manage response activities such as assigning personnel, deploying equipment, obtaining additional resources, etc. This leader must be fully present, visible, and available in the heat of crisis.
  • Have the team report to the command center. This is a pre-determined location (physical and/or virtual) for monitoring and reacting to events. You should also select a code word that puts the Rapid Response Process into action.
  • Gather relevant information. In a crisis it’s critical to centralize information, facts, and data. What’s known? What isn’t known? The goal is to organize and coordinate response activities, ensuring that the most pressing needs are met and that resources are properly allocated.
  • Promote a unifying message. It is vital to deliberately shape and disseminate a message of unity. Make sure your message is one of “we are all in it together.” This helps people transcend the impulse to split into factions.

Communication is never more important than in a crisis. In times of crisis, employees need frequent, real-time, transparent communication more than ever. The acronym VITAL will help you remember the tenets around communicating in the aftermath of trauma:

  • Visible. Leaders must be highly visible and take the lead in communication. Don’t hide behind a spokesperson. Communicate quickly and clearly to reduce ambiguity.
  • In it together. Double down on messages that connect to team-building, camaraderie, and purpose. Acknowledge people’s fears, worries, and anxieties as normal, and inform them of what to expect.
  • Transparent. Align leadership in how they see the external environment and make sure everyone agrees on what “success” looks like to make sure all messages are cascaded consistently. Don’t create voids with silence or waiting to communicate. Tackle rumors head-on. Don’t downplay or mislead, and do share bad news the minute you have it.
  • Accessible. Use all modalities (video, email, intranet, text, town halls, etc.) to convey messages from the senior leader. Have a central repository/FAQ where people can get info. Establish a central number/site for employees to ask questions in between regular communication sessions.
  • Listening. This is the most important piece of the communication formula! Ask questions and leave room for inquiry. When listening, stop talking. Resist the temptation to just listen for what you want to hear (your job is to hear and deal with the hard stuff too).

A “both/and” approach can turn things around. In the best of times, businesses routinely struggle with dilemmas that can lead to polarization. For example, businesses routinely struggle with questions such as mission or margin? and high quality or low cost? Or in the example of the COVID-19 pandemic, health of the economy or health of the populace? People tend to have different ideas on these issues even in the best of times, but trauma can stoke and inflame them. Instead of approaching these issues with an either/or mentality, Drs. Hendel and Goulston say that these are false choices, and organizations can, instead, leverage each side of these polarities with a both/and approach.

“Leaders can intentionally create mindsets to maximize the effects of both sides and minimize the downsides of each to achieve things they couldn’t otherwise,”

says Dr. Hendel. “For example, in a crisis, effective leaders can BOTH take charge AND build consensus. They can be BOTH direct and candid AND diplomatic and tactful.”

 Trauma can be a wake-up call for organizations. Specifically, it’s an opportunity to get some clarity around what you do, how you contribute and add value, and why you’re unique in providing these services. In the aftermath of trauma, you have a chance to build stronger, better teams; reinvent how you make decisions; and fine-tune your problem-solving processes.

“We live in a time of constant flux and chaos, and that will never change,” says Dr. Goulston. “Putting a solid framework into place to lead organizations through trauma is not just a good idea but, increasingly, a necessity. It’s the only way to successfully navigate the future.”

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Diana Hendel, PharmD
Coauthor of Trauma to Triumph
Dr. Diana Hendel is the coauthor of Trauma to Triumph: A Roadmap for Leading Through Disruption and Thriving on the Other Side (HarperCollins Leadership, March 2021) and Why Cope When You Can Heal?: How Healthcare Heroes of COVID-19 Can Recover from PTSD (Harper Horizon, December 2020). She is an executive coach and leadership consultant, former hospital CEO, and the author of Responsible: A Memoir, a riveting and deeply personal account of leading during and through the aftermath of a deadly workplace trauma.

Mark Goulston, MD, FAPA
Coauthor of Trauma to Triumph
Dr. Mark Goulston is the coauthor of Trauma to Triumph: A Roadmap for Leading Through Disruption and Thriving on the Other Side (HarperCollins Leadership, March 2021) and Why Cope When You Can Heal?: How Healthcare Heroes of COVID-19 Can Recover from PTSD (Harper Horizon, December 2020). He is a board-certified psychiatrist, fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, former assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA-NPI, and a former FBI and police hostage negotiation trainer. He is the creator of Theory Y Executive Coaching that he provides to CEOs, presidents, founders, and entrepreneurs, and is a TEDx and international keynote speaker.


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