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Time to Recover: Addressing Exhaustion and Trauma at Work When the World Won’t Slow Down

Although COVID-19 may not be over, most of us are now far from the mass lockdowns of 2020. Despite this, many of us are sighing not from relief but from exhaustion and sadness. International SOS and Affinity Health at Work share six tips on how organisations can address exhaustion and trauma in employees.

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We hoped to be breathing a collective sigh of relief at this point. Although COVID-19 may not be over, most of us are now far from the mass lockdowns of 2020. We are, in the main, able to return to offices, travel, meet friends for lunch, and browse the shops – in short, to engage in everyday life.

Despite this, many of us are sighing not from relief but from exhaustion and sadness. COVID-19 was the start of a flood of news events with global impact: race-related civil unrest, wildfires caused by escalating global temperatures, war in Ukraine and a cost-of-living crisis. The rapid succession and widespread impact of challenges has consequences for collective experience, including at work. We see it in the strained faces on Zoom calls, and meetings where colleagues seem distracted or withdrawn. Work burnout and staff turnover are high, and health systems are struggling to cope with the demand for mental and physical health provision.

Even if, as individuals, we feel the weight of the world to be heavy on our shoulders, in the context of work, we have an opportunity to lighten the load for our colleagues and teams.

Why are people feeling like this?

We’re experiencing cascading collective trauma

In a recent Nature article, psychologist Roxane Silver used the notion of ‘cascading collective trauma’ to describe shared societal reaction to world events, which she describes a “a perfect storm of stressors ….chronic events with an ambiguous endpoint”. Cascading collective trauma arises from a series of compounding crises, each of which has the individual potential to lead to negative health impacts in vulnerable people, with such risks increasing through repeated traumas.

The collective aspect captures the potential for escalating stress when a whole community or workplace is affected. The current fast-paced media environment is an important aspect of collective trauma because it means that we are relentlessly, collectively exposed to negative triggers, and we bring this experience to our group interactions. Deprived of ready opportunities to engage with and support each other through the confines of the pandemic, some colleagues may be feeling especially vulnerable.

We feel helpless and powerless

The psychological notion of ‘learned helplessness’ may further explain a wide sense of impotence in relation to current circumstances. Conceptualised and researched by psychologist Martin Seligman in the 1960s and 70s, learned helplessness explains a phenomenon in which, following repeated exposure to difficult and uncontrollable events, a person learns to accept powerlessness, and becomes passive or apathetic, even where there are options for that person to take control and action. Over time, this can lead to depression and mental ill health.

We’re running out of resources

In some cases, employees are struggling to cope just because they’ve run out of energy and resources. Many people made enormous efforts, in work and at home, to cope with the demands of Covid-19. That might have meant planning for reduced income on furlough or caring for children or elders alongside coping with remote working practices. Perhaps doing OK to begin with, but now faced with new challenges and fears and continued absence and resourcing issues at work, some may feel that ability to cope is falling apart. It is also clear that the speed of work and life has not adjusted; with lunchbreaks, gaps between meetings and boundaries around not working after hours being seen as experiences of the past. Conservation of Resources (COR) theory can help to explain this experience, documenting the process through which burnout occurs. Based on a recognition that in evolutionary terms, resources (those things that give us energy or protect us mentally) are precious and their loss deeply painful, COR explains how people can move into a ‘downwards spiral’ of resource loss, scrambling and failing to hold on to previous sleep, energy, money and relationships. Workplaces can unwittingly contribute to employee burnout, for instance by introducing high work demands at a point where an employee feels they lack the resources to meet them.

What can organisations and individuals do to help?

6 tips on addressing exhaustion and trauma in employees

  1. Address excessive work demands

    Excessive job demands are a barrier to recovery for many workers. At an organisational level, it is an employer’s responsibility to provide achievable and sustainable job demands and therefore it is good practice to monitor and address work demands alongside indicators of burnout and engagement. You can do formally this through a staff survey, but it is also critical to empower line managers to spot the signs and take action where a team member is becoming overwhelmed with work. Consider whether demands have increased as a result not of more tasks, but as a lowering of resources (either through psychological capability or through absence and turnover). Jobs have clutter, just as houses do, so ‘spring cleaning’ and getting rid of low priority tasks at work can be tremendously empowering. Often discussing this as a team can highlight different strategies that may not previously have been considered. Lead by example: prioritising and clearly setting down boundaries in your working day can support your colleagues to do the same.
  2. Build self esteem

    When people are struggling, they can start to feel less able, less productive and less confident at work. Organisations can play a vital role in building back confidence and self-esteem. Take time to recognise and thank colleagues for their inputs and build a culture where recognition is the norm. Provide opportunities for training and development and give feedback to employees to enable them to grow. For people who have lost confidence, setting short-term, challenging but achievable goals can be a useful way to regain a sense of control and self-efficacy. Line managers can play a vital role in supporting reports to ‘chunk’ work tasks in a way that is realistic and achievable.
  3. Make time to connect

    According to Silver, there may be greater protection from trauma in circumstances with “community commitment, integration, strong social networks and instrumental and emotional support”. Remote working patterns of recent years have limited opportunities for creating connections, and organisations should now take time to rebuild them, through providing on or offline opportunities for social connection either through provision of network groups, away days, social events or clubs. Research consistently shows that where colleagues reach out to those who may be vulnerable or in need at work or in their community, they are also likely to experience positive wellbeing outcomes for themselves.

    At team or organisation level, the stories that we tell and the ways that we mark collective trauma can help us to move on from it. Collective narrative coaching is a method for sense making of trauma that has been used in communities and organisations who have experienced trauma. Creating opportunities for employees to share their experiences and the thoughts and fears associated with those at work can help colleagues to realise that they are not alone and support healing.
  4. Build up positive resources

    At a time of depletion, the aim is to consciously try to build up reserves – those things that we know can help and protect us, to safeguard against a rapid ‘downward spiral’ of loss. Organisations can build in supportive resources at individual, team and organisational levels, and can use the IGLOo model to work through what provision is already in place – and where there are gaps either in what is offered, or who in the organisation is readily able to access it.  
    Organisational-level resources might include an employee assistance programme (EAP), stress management training. At the team level, social events, or team discussions might be key. At the individual level, people can be supported to build resources by focusing on boundary setting and gaining respite, maintaining physical fitness, eating and sleeping well and building financial reserves.
  5. Target support where it is most needed

    While group approaches can be very helpful, some colleagues will need extra support, in terms of targeted counselling provision or work adjustments. For some, Covid-19 meant irksome social restrictions. For others however, it entailed serious illness, bereavement and family job loss. We enter crisis with different resources, and those already disadvantaged by low income, minority group status or poor mental or physical health often shoulder greater negative impacts. Effective action begins by listening. Leaders can start by thinking about what they know about different colleagues, what groups they know less about, and how they could learn more. Welcoming the inputs from those lesser-heard voices or from work networks for wellbeing, race and ethnicity, or disability may bring different insights into how to support all employees.
  6. Plan for future crises

    It makes sense to have an organisational plan in place for future crises. Amidst the challenges of recent times, we have learned so much – as individuals and organisations – about how to support effectively and developing a future focused plan will support organisational and employee confidence, resilience and growth.