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Organizational trauma: what you can do to build resilience

Learn the impacts of intergenerational, workplace, and collective trauma, and solutions including the Sanctuary Model and disaster medicine principles as solutions.

Grant H. Brenner MD

Grant H. Brenner MD

organizational trauma

Every person is highly likely to know someone with significant trauma or they themselves have been traumatized.

Likewise, they may be part of an organization struck by serious challenge or abrupt change experienced by staff, leaders and investors as highly distressing.

Rates of individual trauma range from estimates of 40% up to 70% for specific negative individual experiences such as accidents, assaults, abuse, loss and related events. Collective trauma – affecting a large group, institution or organization, community or even the whole of society – involves both loss of life and subsequent strain and crisis of meaning.

Intergenerational trauma is also a factor, with events of past decades and centuries passed along from parent to child, and through the organizational lifecycle long after memories of past events have been forgotten.

Speaking to senior staff members to obtain organizational history can, often surprisingly, shed light on current issues – notably unprocessed losses from changes in leadership, mergers and reorganizations wishfully assumed to be water under the bridge.

In other words, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

The challenges of mental health

Mental illness is on the rise across all age groups, and suicide has rapidly become a leading cause of death, with more than 47,000 deaths annually in the United States as of most recent estimates. Grief is a major background issue for many, due to massive losses from the pandemic, as well as grief for how society is changing and fear about the future.

Workplace trauma has also become more common, as many companies have not survived economic changes resulting in:

  • mass layoffs
  • higher rates of churn
  • reorganization and downsizing
  • sudden financial shock
  • losses due to the pandemic both directly vis-a-vis death and infirmity

Also, the work environment has been disrupted due to remote work including social isolation and impact on team cohesion and social support. The future of the workplace remains uncertain.

The depth and breadth of trauma

Generational issues have further disrupted the traditional work structure, with managers reporting difficulty learning how to work with Gen Z, Gen AI and younger folks in general. They all have different expectations, needs and ways of relating in the workplace, and higher rates of anxiety, depression and related mental health conditions.

While there is increasing awareness of the above concerns, healthcare and workplace support is lagging. Burnout is on the rise, and companies are behind the curve in gearing up, though satisfaction and productivity has been rising post-pandemic after sharp declines.

While rates of trauma are very high, not all individuals who experience trauma develop clinical conditions. Rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) hover around 8% for women and 4% for men over a lifetime, in addition to trauma increasing the risk of many other mental and physical health problems.

The impact of technology

At the same time, technology has thrown gasoline on the fire with social media bringing information from around the world to our fingertips, often driving individual insecurities and exposing us to large amounts of negative information about distant events at an unprecedented scale.

While technology has made our lives more convenient, it has been associated with various health problems. In the workplace, artificial intelligence and machine learning have already transformed our lives in many ways, adding promise and at the same time great concern over how they will impact employment.

AI also has incited fears of human extinction, with prominent figures raising a warning flare. Companies have embraced this technology nonetheless with little pause in order to keep up the productivity and optics arms race, as leaders seek to stay current or ahead of the curve.

Collective trauma at work

We’ve also seen the #MeToo movement and subsequent development of DEIB and an anti-harassment, increased awareness of workplace bullying and microaggression, and rising conflict between conservative and progressive factions. This has led to a workplace rife with mistrust, suppressed resentment, lingering damage, accusations and legal risk.

HR and leadership teams are rushing to figure out how to hold things together while the world shifts underfoot.

Alongside collective trauma, moral hazard represents outrage and injury around failures of individuals, organizations, leaders and society at large to provide protection.

This leads to increased feelings of betrayal and mistrust, feelings of shame and anger, and condemnation of oneself and others for these perceived injustice and failures. Collective trauma and moral injury work side-by-side to undermine individual and group awareness and function.

Trauma plays out in the form of “enactments”, as patterns of split-off, or “dissociated”, unrecognized trauma and moral injury repeat on multiple organization levels in what psychologists call “parallel process”. Collective trauma reverberates in similar ways, for instance:

  • within work groups
  • between leadership and investors
  • between staff and managers
  • between and among leadership and staff
  • in conflict and dysfunction among team members and workgroups

There are two science-backed models that leaders can draw from to mitigate and even resolve the above. They are the Sanctuary Model and ‘disaster medicine’.

The Sanctuary Model

The Sanctuary Model, developed by psychiatrist Sandra Bloom, addresses collective organizational trauma and its consequences. This can include a lack of safety, emotional management issues, miscommunication, authoritarianism, decision-making difficulties, aggression, and unresolved grief in the workplace.

These issues can lead to a toxic work environment characterized by mistrust, high turnover rates, and a loss of organizational identity.

The model, particularly useful for social service and healthcare organizations, promotes recovery from collective trauma through the SELF framework: Safety, Emotional balance, Loss recognition, and Future orientation.

This requires a commitment to seven principles:

  1. nonviolence
  2. emotional Intelligence
  3. inquiry & social learning
  4. democracy
  5. open communication
  6. social responsibility
  7. growth & change

Here, leaders can be trained to use specific tools and processes to foster trauma recovery and prevention, aiming to restore team cohesion, strong leadership, and a safe, enjoyable work environment aligned with the organization’s mission.

‘Disaster medicine’

Organizations can also draw leadership lessons learned from disaster medicine. Based on work at Johns Hopkins during the COVID-19 pandemic, George Everly and his colleagues defined leadership principles to “decrease psychological casualties in COVID-19 and other disasters of uncertainty”.

These principles include:

  • establishing structure as antidote for chaos
  • listening before speaking
  • using information as antidote for anxiety
  • ensuring transparent, timely and truthful communication is essential to maintain credibility
  • knowing that people trust actions not words
  • recognizing empowerment as an antidote for feeling out of control
  • perceiving support as antidote for isolation
  • building cohesive groups – these do better with stress and challenge
  • preempting absolute uncertainty
  • learning to embrace ambiguity and uncertainty – what poet John Keats called “negative capability” is essential for navigating crisis and change

Both the Sanctuary Commitments and the Johns Hopkins Leadership Principles are evidence-based and draw upon best practices.

What you can do as a company leader

Leaders must become psychologically savvy, looking beyond traditional business training to develop the skills and tools required to shepherd their organizations through uncertain and turbulent times.

They must become experts in organizational dynamics and social and emotional intelligence.

Moving beyond conventional transactional leadership to models of transformational and servant leadership, leaders become “internal consultants” and trainers, themselves highly skilled with the above practices and perspectives.

They’re also able to delegate and empower their teams to ensure collective trauma and moral distress is prevented, mitigated and addressed when present.

There’s a cost savings to it all as well. Research shows that for every dollar spent on mental health, there is an estimated four in future savings. Of course, each organization needs to do their own cost-benefit analysis.

When we ignore the human factor over fiscal considerations, it is likely that collective trauma and moral injury will show up later on in increased costs related to turnover and poor performance for individuals. For organizations, the trauma is felt in the form of increased legal, HR and EAP costs.

In short: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of care.

Grant H. Brenner MD is a board-certified psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and therapist. He is the author or co-author of four books, including his latest, Making Your Crazy Work For You: From Trauma and Isolation to Self-Acceptance and Love.

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