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Trauma-Informed Workplaces Are the New Normal


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From Covid to discrimination, employees have experienced trauma at all new levels. Trauma is trauma, no matter how big or small. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that poor mental health costs the global economy more than $1 trillion per year. 

The impact of the pandemic has put concern for psychological safety in the workplace at the forefront of organizational leaders’ minds. The pandemic has delivered a mental-health emergency; about four in ten adults in the U.S. have reported anxiety or depressive disorder symptoms, compared to one in ten adults with these symptoms in 2019. 

With unpredictability and disruption, organizational conversations have pivoted to explore how to effectively support employee mental health and trauma as we face these new challenges. WHO reported that when workplaces promote mental health and support their people, they are more likely to reduce absenteeism, yield productivity and benefit from economic gains.

Organizational leaders must gain insight into the dimensions of trauma, both at a macro level in terms of events and at the micro-levels of daily trauma and how they impact employees’ wellbeing and performance. Here’s how leaders can get started.

Prioritize good mental health as a core part of a company’s culture 

ISO 45003 is the first international standard on psychological health, safety and wellbeing at work. The framework delivers practical advice on identifying where psychological health and safety risks arise in the workplace and actions organizations can take to alleviate anxiety, burnout and low productivity. Essentially all organizations, irrespective of size or industry, can focus on understanding sources of harm that a workplace can control. Integrating this standard within workplace culture can help detect potential risks to employees’ mental health through consultation with employees, reviewing recruitment and onboarding processes, analyzing worker surveys to help shape solutions and creating a culture of care.

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It starts with leaders

For employees to stay well and at work, workplaces must create environments that promote transparent conversations about stress and mental health. Leadership check-ins regularly set the tone that it is okay for people to access professional support. One resource, People manager’s guide to mental health, provides practical advice, information and templates to support managers and employers to facilitate open and resourceful conversations.

Access to professional support within the workplace

Mental-health and wellbeing coaches play a vital role in building a collective and individual understanding of trauma, delivering collaboration exercises to help develop an environment of belonging and safety. Individuals can learn how to support their peers who may be experiencing effects of trauma and empower leaders to know what to do in the event of trauma-induced behaviours, reduce the feeling of helplessness and help an employee feel safe.

Peer-support programs often assist in normalizing and validating people’s traumatic workplace experiences, promoting collaboration and strengthening resilience. In 2021, Zendesk offered employees easy to access resources, including coaching, counseling and videos. In addition, Ernst & Young (EY) boosted its mental-health offering to 25 no-cost sessions for counseling or mental-health coaching per employee per year and their families.

Creating a culture of care within your team

Managers and supervisors require training and support to be confident in identifying signs of distress and proactively responding with empathy and compassion. Managers must lead by example, encourage their team to adopt healthier work habits and be clear about organizational policies and practices regarding health and wellbeing. 

Normalize mental health through regular check-ins with staff; set a standard agenda item at team meetings to discuss the team’s collective wellbeing and develop a team action plan to identify factors and strategies for people to feel supported. As a leader, challenge stigma and ensure mental health is on the agenda at all levels. Leaders can share videos about trauma and self-care within team meetings and provide access to tools such as depression self-assessment books, courses or online activities that center on mindfulness. 

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Inject doses of positivity 

Recognition programs can contribute positively to culture, build resiliency and strengthen trust among people. When leaders recognize values and behaviors, small doses of positive energy can make a difference. For example, acknowledging success, celebrating progress and highlighting achievements in a world that seems bleak can empower workers and build self-esteem.

Pacific Gas and Electric Company focused on executing clear companywide communications through videos, webinars, podcasts, emails and weekly employee calls, reiterating the importance of employees prioritizing their mental health and accessing support when needed. In addition, they embraced sharing employees’ stories and created a virtual gratitude board.

Build learning hubs

Organizations can support mental wellness for all employees and help people through trauma by creating a learning hub that shares resources around trauma, anxiety, stress, self-care, dealing with difficult emotions and accessing support from professional bodies. For example, a CEO can record a message and share how the company stands with employees struggling with trauma or mental-health challenges and the resources available within the workplace. Even further, make a bold statement and commitment to your people that you will always listen if people want to reach out to discuss sensitive issues or challenges the organization is facing around these topics.

Modern Health, a mental-wellness platform, integrates the WHO well-being assessment, self-service wellness kits and a global network of certified coaches and therapists available in 35 languages, all within a single app. More recently, Modern Health created circles that are live provider-led sessions where individuals can learn about topics that impact wellbeing and share and connect with others and put skills into practice.

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Integrate wellness action plans

A proactive way to manage mental health at work is developing and implementing a personalized practical tool called a Wellness Action Plan (WAP). This evidence-based system allows individuals to identify what keeps people well at work, what can lead them to become unwell and the type of support they would like to receive from their manager to aid recovery and boost wellbeing.

Opening a dialogue between manager and employee allows both parties to understand employees’ needs and experiences better. Organizations can integrate these discussions and evidence-based tools to normalize the conversation as part of their wellbeing strategy during their induction process. It sets an unequivocal message from the start that the workforce matters. 

Within the WAP conversation, the employee shares early warning signs, workplace triggers, support needed and positive steps and actions that both parties will take if the employee experiences poor mental health.

As many continue to work from home due to Covid-19, it is more important than ever to reflect on what keeps you well and identify what can impact your wellbeing during this time. 

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