Real Leaders

It’s Been a Tough Year: How to Deal With Traumatized Employees

If your employees are behaving in new and disturbing ways, it might not be stress; it may be trauma. And if so, we can’t expect employees to learn to cope or get over it. Here’s why leaders need to know the difference.

There are many reasons your employees might be suffering the effects of trauma. For the past year, of course, their lives have been disrupted by a pandemic and that has been plenty traumatizing. But even if that feels like old news, there are lots of other potential trauma inducers. Looming layoffs. The death of a coworker. A sexual harassment accusation. A major restructuring.

You get the point.

Trauma can be extremely destructive, not just to individuals but to entire organizations. If the crisis is not “named and claimed” as trauma and managed effectively, it’s sure to linger on in the form of chronic stress and anxiety. And left unspoken and unaddressed, blame, shame, and guilt often permeate the culture of the organization and erode its ability to thrive in the future. 

Only by naming, claiming, and framing trauma can we help people start to heal—and heal the organization along with them.

When people are traumatized, they experience the fight/flight/freeze survival response where they feel fear, uncertainty, and panic. Employees (and yes, leaders too) may exhibit these predictable behaviors:

  • Acting angry, aggressive, or “difficult”
  • Resisting change at all costs
  • Rigidly clinging to their “competence zones” and failing to learn new skills
  • Turning to self-destructive behaviors like substance abuse, avoidance behaviors, or overworking
  • Insisting they are “fine” when something is clearly wrong

If your employees are displaying these symptoms of trauma, it is important to recognize the warning signs ASAP. Here’s why:

It signals that someone needs help. Anyone struggling with trauma needs and deserves support and understanding. It’s the leader’s responsibility to intervene and get them the help they need.

It helps you realize people are not resisting change or resisting you. Instead, you understand that they’re holding onto ways of doing things that no longer work as an act of self-preservation. You will realize they’re not trying to be difficult. Rather, they are acting out of fear and uncertainty. When you know people are doing the best they can in bad circumstances, that can quickly defuse your feeling negatively toward them.

…which keeps you from judging or punishing them. Without recognizing trauma for what it is, you may write off unsavory behavior as “Sam’s just crazy” or “Bob has lost his mind.” Or worse, you may let go of a perfectly good employee who simply needs a little support and understanding.

…which allows you to respond in a way that helps employees heal rather than escalating conflicts. Calling out or scolding an employee for normal trauma responses only leads to further resistance and escalation (perhaps on both your parts). Recognizing trauma for what it is helps you circumnavigate this trap and get on a better path, quicker.

…which, in turn strengthens your relationship. All of this can rapidly deescalate conflicts between you and them. Furthermore, when they feel more understood than criticized, they have less need to be self-protective, guarded toward you, and reactive against you. When their defensiveness turns to appreciation for your understanding and compassion, that can make them want to cooperate with you instead of pushing back.

It helps you recognize trauma in yourself. For example, maybe you are lashing out at a colleague. Or maybe you have the urge to retreat to your office and hide. When you know why you are feeling the way you are, you can take a step back, assess, and shift your behavior to a more appropriate one.

It enables you to teach others why they feel the way they feel. Once people become aware of how they show up when they are afraid or insecure, they can start facing and changing undesired behaviors.

Ultimately, you are able to get the focus off of people’s “bad behavior.” This frees you up to start making healthy and productive changes that make life better for everyone. It is amazing how much leaders can accomplish when they do not constantly have to address “problem” employees.

Most importantly, recognizing trauma helps you intervene in time to stop tensions before they boil over. We already know panic is contagious. The sooner you recognize and address trauma, the better off everyone will be.

“When we recognize trauma as something entirely different from stress, it allows us to move away from typical coping skills and resilience-building and address the real problem,” says Dr. Goulston. “This minimizes the time people spend suffering and helps everyone move forward in a productive way.”

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