It’s just one thing after another. A deadly pandemic, economic downturn, war, civil unrest, rising gun violence. The list of traumatic events goes on and on. The result: More people are dealing with trauma at an increasingly alarming rate and more organizations are feeling the impact. Workplace leaders need to step up and address the problem.
Trauma is a deeply distressing or disturbing experience that affects a person’s long-term mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being. While many people associate trauma only with experiences like war or a serious accident, the causes are far more diverse than we think.
Global and regional issues, like the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic or rising American mass shootings, are traumatic experiences that impact millions of people daily. Between individual and widespread traumas, this is a problem affecting virtually every workplace.
According to a World Health Organization study in 24 countries, 70% of people reported experiencing traumas, with an average of 3.2 traumatic events in their lifetimes. And that was before COVID-19 pandemic – a widespread trauma that increased the risk for post-traumatic stress (PTS) among US workers by 83% over pre-pandemic levels.
Employees also experience trauma through workplace violence or threats, racial microaggressions, sexual harassment, hostile workplace environments, and more. In the US alone, 2 million people report being victims of workplace violence annually, and an estimated 25% of workplace violence incidents go unreported.
The prevalence of trauma among workers should concern every employer. According to a 2021 Trauma and Mental Health in the Workplace report, experiencing trauma increases the risk of mental health issues, including PTS, depression and anxiety, while decreasing cognitive abilities like memory and sustained attention. These issues manifest in the workplace as absenteeism, presenteeism, task avoidance, employee conflicts, accidents, or loss of motivation.
Organizational leaders have a responsibility to ensure they are directing trauma-informed workplaces that offer needed support to their employees. Last year, the World Economic Forum identified ten principles to better deal with trauma. Positive leadership is one of those principles, driving home the lesson that leaders must be highly visible and engaged to help people process the traumatic experiences they endure.
How can leaders become trauma-informed and provide support to their employees?
First, employers must recognize the many dimensions of trauma, including trauma in the workplace. Bringing together a diverse strategic planning group from within an organization can help leaders understand how traumas affect different employees and employee groups.
Second, practicing traumatic event responses gives each person some peace of mind through understanding their role in the event of a traumatic incident and how their responsibilities may change as needs change.
Third, integrating trauma informed care into information sessions can help normalize conversations around the effects of trauma. This step makes it more likely that employees experiencing distress will recognize and respond to their mental health needs.
As widespread traumas become more common, global leaders need to make addressing trauma a top priority. At this year’s World Economic Forum annual meeting in May, mental health received some attention, but the lack of real discussion on trauma was telling: We need to do more.
Not every tactic will work for every situation but becoming trauma-informed and engaging in discussions on trauma are valuable steps. Forums like Davos offer opportunities for global leaders to speak about trauma on the world stage that we cannot let pass again.
We cannot control everything happening in the world, but we can control how we choose to respond. If you are in a position to make a difference, it is time to respond by stepping up, becoming informed, and supporting the countless people and employees recovering from trauma everywhere.