Collective trauma: Healing the workplace

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This past week I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts when the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill came up as a discussion point. Admittedly, I know a little about the spill thanks to biology class discussions in high school and other podcasts that focus more on American history. But what I didn’t realize was the impact on the people who lived and worked in the fishing town of Cordova, Alaska in the years that followed the disaster. Known ever after as a “dead zone,” the Alaskans who lived through the 11-million-gallon spill experienced what the experts call collective trauma.

What is collective trauma?

BetterUp defines collective trauma as the psychological distress a group (usually an entire culture, community, or other large group of people) experience in response to a shared trauma. In the years that followed the spill in Prince William Sound, the community experienced increases in depression, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, divorce, unemployment, and suicide. Long legal battles drew out the trauma further. And the people of Cordova found themselves unable to trust each other and the entities who were supposed to be helping them. Now, over 25 years later, the community is still struggling.

The trauma of a global pandemic

I’ve found myself, particularly lately, talking about COVID-19 as if it was a blip on the radar. But according to the World Health Organization, nearly 15 million people worldwide have died as a result of the coronavirus. And while it’s not the worst pandemic we’ve experienced in the modern world (it’s estimated 50 million people died in the 1918 influenza pandemic) it is certainly one of the most devastating outbreaks of a disease in over 100 years. To say we’ve not been impacted by the stress, uncertainty, and loss caused by COVID-19 would be a lie.

We’ve all seen the data: school children are behind. People lost their jobs, homes, belongings, and loved ones. Businesses closed. Entire cities were shut down. We have every right to feel traumatized, uncertain about the future, and frankly, wary of our leaders who claim to be looking out for us.

Start the healing process

As with any traumatic experience, we can all learn to heal and help others. Leaders, in particular, have a great opportunity to help their teams begin to heal and deal with the trauma we experienced these last few years. Here are some ideas on how to begin the process of healing within your organization:

  1. Acknowledge the past couple of years have been hard for everyone and remind your teams we’re in it together. Share the positive outcomes your organization has experienced due to the creativity and innovation team members had to unlock to keep going when we moved to remote work. And also relay what you’ve learned as a result of the pandemic (i.e., “I never thought we could be productive while working remotely, but we did it!”).
  2. Check in regularly with employees, particularly those you know had a tough time navigating the consequences of COVID-19 at work and/or home. This means doing a lot of listening and letting team members know you are there for them and you care about their wellbeing.
  3. Encourage breaks from long meetings or Zoom conferences as well as time off for self-care that doesn’t count as vacation or sick time. People shouldn’t feel punished for needing to take time off to relieve any stress or anxiety they may be feeling. However, organizations should be clear on what is encouraged and discouraged when making any changes to paid time off policies to reduce the likelihood of someone taking advantage of flexible work schedules or unlimited PTO.
  4. Bring remote or hybrid teams together to connect in-person on an annual or semi-annual basis. Now that many organizations have shifted from an office to a hybrid or even totally remote work environment, people are no longer finding impromptu moments of connection like they used to by the coffee pot or water cooler. Intentionally make time for people to get together and find opportunities to serve the community as a way to foster your evolving work culture and help team members not feel isolated and alone.
  5. Check with your benefits provider to learn about what is and is not covered in terms of telehealth counseling and mental healthcare. Make sure employees know what is available to them beyond the medical, dental, and vision insurance they may already be familiar with. It’s important for team members to know what they have access to in case they are considering reaching out to a healthcare provider or utilizing a mobile app to access counseling or therapy services.

COVID-19 served as a great case study on the importance of emotional intelligence for leaders. ADVISA Leadership Consultant and certified EQ Coach Kye Hawkins shared back in 2021,

“As much as we want the world to go back to the way it was, it can’t and it won’t. The impact of COVID-19 extends beyond economic and public health ramifications into the mental health of every individual.”

By taking a deliberate approach to acknowledging the collective trauma we have all experienced since March 2020 and addressing how we intend to learn and bounce back from COVID-19 as an organization, leaders can start the healing process for their teams. And if given the time and resources, we can come back collectively stronger.


For more on dealing with trauma, read “Why Empathy Might Be Your Most Powerful Tool as a Leader Right Now” by Leadership Consultant Kye Hawkins.

And, don’t miss “How (and Why) to Grieve Your Pre-Pandemic Work Culture” by Leadership Consultant Stephanie Murphy.