Over the past 18 months or so, I’ve made it a regular habit to make a personal connection with one of my clients each week. I did it not because of the potential business opportunities, but because I was feeling isolated and missed the excitement and curiosity that meeting a client face-to-face for coffee and learning about their world always created for me. I hadn’t seen a client in person for over a year and talking via video just wasn’t doing the trick for me. So, the good, old-fashioned phone call became my new way of connecting.
My clients are in a broad variety of industries – from tourism to retail and consumer goods, from education to healthcare. But there’s one thing they all had in common during our phone calls. After describing the extreme, sometimes unimaginable business impacts and shifts they’d had to make, the rapid pace of change, the personal toll on their lives and their families, they always ended up at one topic: “My team,” they’d say. “I just don’t know how much longer they can maintain this pace. They’re feeling so stressed and some of them just seem at the end of their rope. I’ve talked with them one-on-one and usually it’s the stress of juggling work, the pandemic, family, the state of the world – nothing specific about our company or their job. I don’t know what to do. How can I help them?”
To start to answer this question, we must go back and understand the psychological impact of the last 18 months on our team members. According to both anecdotes and current data, we are experiencing unprecedented levels of uncertainty and turnover in the American workforce. It started with the outbreak of COVID-19 in March 2020, which quickly spread panic to the business community. A mere month later unemployment had reached 14.8%, a rate so high it exceeded all metrics since data collection began in 1948. The U.S. Consumer Confidence index dropped 40 points, from 127 to 80, and the Global Economy plunged 7.8%. Our nation watched as businesses filed for bankruptcy, companies adopted furlough programs, and friends and family members were laid off.
During the months that followed, many people were working from home and struggling with how those changes impacted their daily lives. As vaccines began to rollout in spring of 2021 and life started to normalize again, a new trend surfaced: the Great Resignation. In July 2021, Gallup conducted a poll finding that 48% of America’s working population were actively job searching or watching for opportunities. Gallup’s data showed that it wasn’t confined to one industry, role, or generation. Surprisingly, it also wasn’t always about more pay, benefits, or flexibility. Many just wanted a job that fit their newly created vision of life and made them happier.
As a result, it’s no surprise that people report they struggle to remain productive and focused due to the stress and trauma associated with their current reality. In fact, 7 in 10 employees report that the current period is the most stressful time of their career.
Coming back to the question that so many of my clients have asked, what can be done to help employees who are struggling with stress or anxiety? First, it’s important to understand that each person has a different reason for feeling stress or anxiety. Some may have loved ones who are sick or suffering. Others may be juggling responsibilities as a caregiver in addition to fulfilling their commitments to their work team. Still others may be triggered by a past experience that is becoming more difficult for them to live with during this time. Whatever the reason, there are steps that each manager can take to create an environment that allows everyone to have the best chance to process trauma in their lives and to be productive members of the team. The exciting new field of trauma-informed leadership provides helpful tools for managers to navigate and support their teams.
What is Trauma-Informed Leadership?
Trauma-Informed Care originated in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) patient care in the 1970s after the Vietnam War as a therapy to help support veterans rehabilitate and return to life after severe physical and mental traumas. These therapies expanded into additional fields, such as mental health, childhood trauma, education, criminal justice, and even natural disaster response, such as in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The results have been so positive and significant that adoption of this approach has expanded beyond the behavioral realm to encompass the physical realm as well; trauma-informed design and architecture is now a growing field in the “design of environments for healing, dignity and joy.”
Over the past few years, trauma-informed leadership has been gaining a following in the business world as an exciting field for a new generation of leaders. One of the top proponents of this approach is Brené Brown, whose book, Dare to Lead, has an excellent overview of trauma-informed leadership concepts. Here’s a simple definition of the trauma-informed leadership that I’ve shared with my clients. The outer circle represents the Method, the inner circle represents the overarching Beliefs that support your leadership approach:
Trauma-informed leadership can help your team members find balance in their lives again, feel trust, and become a high-performing part of the team again. I recommend starting with one of the methods and then layering an additional method each week as you become comfortable and integrate it into your leadership approach. Reminder: Don’t worry if you make a mistake and misstep – we are all imperfect. Use this as an opportunity to model humility, apologize, and ask how you can make it right.
After sharing these ideas with my clients, I had several of them call me back to thank me. “Things are so much better now. Thanks for all your help,” they said. I know that trauma-informed leadership has made me a better leader, and I hope it will help you to navigate any rough waters ahead for you and your team, too.
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