By Esther van der Sande
I recently issued a challenge to a corporate CEO. I suggested she should devote a couple of days to meeting with her employees, one on one, simply to chat about their personal lives.
“In these meetings, try to approach each person with curiosity, generosity and, above all, humanity. Don’t think about the meetings as business discussions. Focus, instead, on human conversations,” I said.
“Importantly, ask each employee about the most difficult challenges they have faced in their lives.”
Two weeks later, when we spoke again, the CEO revealed that the exercise had been enlightening.
“I had no idea that so many people in our company have endured such difficult personal circumstances,” she said.
“One woman in our call centre told me her 10-year-old daughter is battling Leukemia. A man in finance described how he was injured during the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in Thailand. To this day, almost twenty years later, he still has emotional flashbacks that trigger anxiety and depression. A transgender employee, from a black Caribbean family background, explained how they’ve endured decades of discrimination, harassment and abuse due to their sexual and racial identity.
“Almost every person I met had a story of loss, grief and physical or mental pain. I’m surprised and impressed they still turn up to work in a professional way.”
Trauma comes in many forms
I explained to the CEO that a single term can be used to describe all these stories and circumstances.
And, there are many different types of traumatic experiences, all of which can negatively impact an organisation’s efficiency, productivity, culture and bottom-line success.
For example, relationship issues – such as constant arguments, infidelity, separation, divorce and domestic violence – can compromise an individual employee’s work performance and an organisation’s workplace environment, if not addressed.
Physical or mental health challenges – including chronic illnesses, disabilities, mental health conditions and even addiction – can be labelled personal traumas, invariably impacting an employee’s ability to perform at work, interact with colleagues and cope with workplace stresses.
Bereavement, grief and loss – typically involving the death of a loved one – can deplete a worker’s emotional state and ability to function normally. This may lead to an inability to concentrate, reduced productivity and increased absenteeism.
Specific traumatic events – such as accidents, natural disasters and injuries – may lead to post-traumatic stress, anxiety, chronic pain or physical limitations that diminish a person’s ability to perform tasks or even feel safe in the workplace.
Discrimination, harassment and bullying in the workplace can culminate in emotional distress that affects employees’ mental well-being and engagement at work. It can also contribute to a toxic organisational culture.
Caregiving responsibilities – including the challenges of balancing work with caring for a child with special needs or an elderly family member – can be emotionally draining and can decrease a person’s ability to perform effectively at work.
Even financial crises – such as overwhelming debt, foreclosures or bankruptcy – can lead to high-stress levels and distraction at work.
Some corporate leaders believe such personal traumatic experiences are “none of their business.” However, personal trauma directly affects employees’ well-being and, by extension, the relative health of an organisation’s workplace environment.
Individual traumatic experiences – multiplied by the number of employees in an organisation – are likely to undermine workplace communication, team cohesion and morale. This leads to a decrease in organisational productivity and an increase in absenteeism and employee turnover.
Trauma in the workplace also has legal and ethical implications. Failing to support employees dealing with trauma can lead to issues related to employee well-being and duty of care.
Organisations that recognise and support employees dealing with trauma cultivate a more inclusive, empathetic and supportive workplace culture, which generates tremendous business benefits in terms of productivity, stability and even profitability.
To mitigate the impacts of trauma and nurture a supportive workplace culture, organisations can take proactive steps such as:
- creating a trauma-informed culture of understanding and empathy: encouraging open communication, encouraging managers to recognise signs of distress, and promoting an inclusive environment in which employees feel comfortable sharing their challenges.
- facilitating relevant training programs: to employees and managers on how to support colleagues dealing with trauma and mental health challenges.
- providing resources and support: with counselling services, employee assistance programs and access to mental health professionals.
- offering flexible work arrangements: with flexible schedules or remote work options to accommodate employees dealing with trauma.
- establishing policies and procedures: that detail how the organisation supports employees dealing with personal trauma.
Begin with training
The first step is education.
At Beside Consulting, we deliver specialised training programs that equip HR managers, leaders and employees with a nuanced understanding of trauma.
We provide the practical skills required to create an environment conducive to healing and open dialogue.
Beside Consulting training programs enable organisations to take a deliberate step towards creating a culture that prioritises empathy and acknowledges the profound impact of trauma on individuals’ wellbeing and the wider health and effectiveness of the workplace environment.
For more information, please contact us today.