In the process of planning to transition to a new version of normal as the worst of the coronavirus subsides, business leaders risk overlooking an intangible and lingering part of the pandemic’s impact: our collective trauma. As a society, we’ve sustained a lifetime’s worth of losses—our health, social connections, economic stability and more—in only a few weeks. This is the textbook definition of trauma.
Before there can be a new version of normal, we must first create the time and space to process both the experience of the past few months and the ongoing impact of that experience, because those losses will continue to haunt us, layering trauma on top of trauma. This is an important exercise for us as individual leaders, and for our teams.
While we must address new challenges to business operations as we head into an uncertain future, we must put at least an equal emphasis on a more unusual task: helping our employees grieve. Why? Because we’re only human, and as humans our brains will consolidate all the emotions, news and images of this time into memories.
While these memories may over time drop to a sub-conscious place, they may on a very real level still contribute to a host of costly business adversities, including presenteeism, where people work long but unproductive hours, and absenteeism, with people taking off much more time from work than usual. Industrial researchers have found that in normal times, the behavioral and business impacts of mental distress cost U.S. companies $300 billion per year. That cost is likely to multiply in the aftermath of Covid-19.
There’s no one proven way to help your employees. But if you create an atmosphere that gives them room and permission to heal, not only will you be helping them, but you’ll be helping your organization as well.
Herald the heroes among you
Be more bullish on recognition. Look for opportunities to celebrate people at your company who have been making a difference. This could be as simple as sharing their stories with words of commendation during virtual all-staffs or creating a digital “hero” badge that can be added to their profile picture in the virtual work environment.
Establish time and space for people to talk about their fears and losses
Consider hosting a virtual moment of silence in recognition of losses. Additionally, encourage team members to share individual experiences and to find commonalities in those experiences. Be intentional about scheduling no-judgment zone pauses for sharing on a weekly basis.
Acknowledge the normalcy of trauma and the time it will take to process it
Before urging action on meaningful operational changes at work, understand that your people will experience and express grief–our emotional response to trauma–in varying ways in the next few months and possibly much longer. Paradoxically, the effects of trauma often become more pronounced after the cause of the trauma is gone. We need to know and say that it is human and healthy to feel and face the trauma.
Lead with optimism to reestablish hope, and with transparency to deepen trust
Share both hope and truth. Set people on a path to be resilient by being transparent about the volatility we will continue to face. Model empathy and flexibility as you address the uncertainty around societal behavioral shifts and consumer sentiment and the impacts they could have on employees and your organization.
To get through this in a healthy way, we need the opportunity to remember our old routines and the bliss of not having to think so much about the simplest of things, like touching our faces. The last stage of grieving trauma is acceptance, during which we face the reality, regain control and determine to move forward in peace.
Felicia Joy is a senior vice president of business transformation and head of behavioral science, and Sheila Mulligan is general manager of corporate affairs and advisory services.
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