Right now, the world is grappling with an unprecedented foe. COVID-19 has swept through our lives and changed things so swiftly, that many of us have not had a chance to fully understand the implications. It is hard to see the future, when we are still so immersed in this war with an invisible, yet deadly enemy.

It is inevitable that the impact on the global economy will be brutal. Already the unemployment numbers are rapidly rising, governments are desperately deploying stimulus packages, and companies are bracing to fight for survival.

In amongst all of this, is the impact on the individual. As so often happens in the world of business, companies can change without warning and the employees are often the casualties. However, it isn’t usually a global pandemic that causes a business to change. More often it is a change of leadership, or a change of ownership. However, whether the change is the result of corporate gymnastics or a pandemic, the impact on the people at an individual level can be truly heartbreaking.

So, what happens when the organisation that you knew and loved, changes irrevocably and you are caught in the crossfire? It isn’t always pretty and it isn’t always handled well. The human cost of this trauma is difficult to comprehend and even harder to quantify.

In this article, I discuss the impact of trauma at work and the long term scars and implications when employees are not handled with care. These are lessons that we need to be conscious of, particularly during a time when so many people across the globe are being impacted.

Loving Work

Falling in love is one of the greatest experiences imaginable. All of your senses are heightened and you literally walk on air. For the most exquisite love affairs, you even dream about that person. Being in love is magical, inexplicable and unforgettable.

For some of us, affairs of the heart extend well beyond romantic relationships. Sometimes you fall in love with the organisation that employs you.  Working for an organisation that you love can be a life changing experience. You feel invigorated, energised, happy and fully engaged. You jump out of bed and genuinely cannot wait to get to work. 

Not everyone is lucky enough to truly love their employer. For some work is work – and simply a place where you earn your money. But if you have ever experienced a love affair with your work place, you will agree that it is an incredible experience, akin to the emotions you feel in a romantic relationship.

So, what happens when the organisation that has provided you with so much joy and so much opportunity suddenly changes? What if those changes are imposed on the organisation without any real consent from the business or the employees? 

Particularly in the case of publicly listed companies, this is a very real possibility – the company can be acquired in a takeover, as the company is owned externally. Even with private organisations, the listing process or the decision to merge with another organisation will create enormous change. Sometimes, the change at work can be as simple as a change of CEO or the change of your direct manager.  Or as we are now experiencing, a change created by a global pandemic. In each of these scenarios, the change is imposed, unexpected and not always welcome. In some cases, the change can be traumatic and create lasting scars for both those who survive and stay in the organisation, and those that are suddenly deemed superfluous.

Surviving Traumatic Change

I have survived two hostile takeovers. Neither experience was pleasant nor handled well. I was probably more resilient the second time around, as I knew what to expect and didn’t for one second believe the hyperbole that was spruiked in front of us. I knew what was coming and I knew it wouldn’t be pretty. Sadly, my predictions were pretty well spot on.

It was the first hostile takeover that created the most scars for me – and the most learning experiences. In that takeover, the new board (and I use that term loosely) decided to completely remove the existing board and executives in a decidedly hostile way. It was brutal, public and incredibly short sighted. 

Almost 5 years later, the organisation still has not recovered and it is unlikely that it ever will. A long list of failed CEOs, constant redundancies and restructures, ill-informed legal pursuits of ex-employees and a share price that can’t seem to break 40c would hardly indicate that the takeover has been a raging success. Instead an organisation that was once a proud industry leader has become a laughing stock.  

But what about the people that were collateral damage in the wake of such abrupt changes? Well often the trauma of losing a beloved workplace and the identity that comes with that can be incredibly difficult to deal with. In the example of that first hostile takeover, that was the case for many of us – myself included.

It took time, but once the haze lifted the lessons were plentiful, as were the number of survivors from the carnage. We learnt some serious lessons about heartbreak at work and the trauma that results at an individual level. Although time does truly heal all wounds, the scars remain. Scars from trauma are usually hidden – but they remain all the same.

Dealing with the Impact of Trauma at Work

A couple of years ago I was fortunate enough to share the stage with Dr Rebecca Ray[1] at a Women of Influence[2] event. We were discussing trauma in the workplace and how this is not necessarily an experience that discriminates – it can impact anyone, no matter how senior or experienced. 

I was happy to share my own personal experiences, as some time had passed since that initial hostile takeover and I thought that sharing would be helpful to the audience. To my shock, I could actually feel the trauma of my experience of that first hostile takeover re-emerging in front of a large, captive audience. This was actually quite a shock to me – but it turns out it is quite symptomatic of how we all deal with significant trauma. It never quite leaves you.

A few things that I learnt from Dr Ray on that day really resonated with me:

1.      The memories of the trauma don’t and won’t disappear.  This is particularly important for organisations to understand. Once an organisation has created significant trauma for their people, they can’t just gloss over it. Saying someone should just get over it and move on is incredibly naive and offensive. 

2.      Time does not heal all wounds. Left unaddressed, the wounds from trauma will continue to show up in different contexts. This is important for both the individual and organisations to understand.

3.      Trauma can be unexpectedly triggered, sometimes when you least expect it (for example, in front of a few hundred strangers!).

So, how do you move through an experience that has created trauma for you at work and broken your heart? Well, according to Dr Ray, an important part of healing trauma is about finding a place for the experience in our life narrative that allows us to move forward, rather than being held captive by the memories. Talking about it is a very important part of that process. 

Most organisations understand the importance of an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that offers professional, qualified counselling services to their staff. For many businesses, EAP is a central plank in their strategy for their people’s wellbeing. For other business, it is something they consider in the aftermath of a tragic event – such as a pandemic.[3] It is important for these services to be seen as a way for employees (and their families) to heal some of the wounds. 

More than ever, as so many are experiencing trauma across the globe, access to professional services to manage mental health is incredibly important. It is also absolutely critical for those that have lost their employment to have the opportunity to access these services. This can be achieved either through the EAP or through professional outplacement programs. Mark my words, it is worth the investment – it is much better to spend money on helping your people exit graciously and with psychological support, than to have an ever growing list of disgruntled ex-employees with serious battle scars. 

The Importance of Psychological Safety at Work

Managing the psychological safety and wellbeing of your people is just as important as the physical safety and wellbeing. In short, a culture of psychological safety is vital to the successful functioning of organisations in the modern economy – it is not something that can be ignored.[4] There are long term implications for not actively managing this, at the individual, business and community level.

For those who have to inflict sudden change and potentially trauma on others in the work context, it is important to understand that it can indeed shatter an individual’s sense of self. This can lead to self-criticism, self-blame and self-loathing. The person that has suffered the trauma may feel physically and emotionally drained, overcome with grief or find it difficult to focus, sleep or control their temper. To be clear, these are all very normal responses to what is perceived to be an abnormal event. Those feelings of numbness? Well, it turns out that it is simply your brain’s mechanism for protection against emotional pain.[5]

If you are in a position where you need to inflict sudden change and potentially trauma on another person at work, you need to do this carefully and with compassion. Wherever possible, utilise professional services to supplement your internal processes. This will definitely help to ease the shock and will also help the “survivors” who are witnessing the change to feel more secure. 

How to Move Forward

For those that have experienced heartbreak at work, the road to recovery can be long. It takes time and it is different for each individual. Trauma triggers an overproduction of stress hormones – namely cortisol. Over time, the excess cortisol produced by the fight or flight response can actually rewire your brains circuitry, creating ongoing psychological and emotional distress.[6] You may experience shock, denial, flashbacks, volatile emotions and physical symptoms like headaches, nausea and fatigue. 

However, it is possible to move forward and flourish. In fact, the scars may actually make you stronger and pave the path for creating a better reality. That has certainly been my experience. I now count myself exceptionally lucky to work with an incredible CEO, truly brilliant executives and some of the smartest people I have ever met. 

Here are my top ten tips on how to move forward and actively manage your broken heart:[7]

  1. Accept that you are in mourning and this is completely normal. 
  2. It is an individual process and may take some time, depending on the support mechanisms around you. Give yourself time to grieve.
  3. Identify your emotions and talk to someone about these – preferably a trained psychologist. Try not to bottle things up or ignore your feelings.
  4. Try to keep busy and stick to a daily routine.
  5. Exercise and make time for proper rest when you feel tired.
  6. Heal your body with good food choices and try to avoid overuse of alcohol or drugs.
  7. Express your feelings as they arise – I have personally found that keeping a journal is invaluable.
  8. Focus on the birth of a new beginning. Don’t allow the trauma to define you; rather you define yourself!
  9. Find a mission that you are passionate about, such as helping others, as this can foster healing.
  10. Avoid making any major decisions or big life changes until some time has passed.

Summary

Although it is a personal journey, there is life after trauma at work, or trauma of any kind. Indeed, as Dr Ray taught me, trauma can be the birthplace of profound growth and beauty. Many who experience life changing events often have a profound perspective shift and use it to find a gateway into gratitude. 

From an organisational perspective, it is important to understand that people need to be treated with care and compassion – particularly when it relates to losing something they loved. Imposing change is difficult, but it can be achieved through real consideration of the human impact at an individual level. This must surely be a key part of a successful organisation’s approach to change – including the way we handle a pandemic.

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