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The Congregational Consulting Group, organized in 2014 by former consultants of the Alban Institute, is a network of independent consultants. We publish PERSPECTIVES for Congregational Leaders—thoughts on topics of interest to leaders of congregations and other purpose-driven organizations. —  Dan Hotchkiss, editor

Trauma-Informed Workplaces

Staff who negotiated the first waves of the pandemic with resilience may be hitting the wall now. The relentless stress of this season is incapacitating some of our best employees. If you are a supervisor, you may wonder how to recognize and respond to traumatized members of your team. Five key practices will help you provide a trauma-informed workspace.

The staff team at First Church handled the chaos of pandemic with resilience. They negotiated a long succession of health, economic, political, and social disruptions with grace and efficacy.

However, when yet another wave of COVID infections interfered with plans to resume fall programming, core leaders on the team fell apart. The school director couldn’t negotiate a small group of parents complaining about masks. The executive director couldn’t work her way through simple new building protocols. The senior pastor scrambled to rescue and manage the performance of his team, many of whom were disintegrating. A team that handled all manner of chaos over the past eighteen months was suddenly incapacitated by minor setbacks. What was going on?

Recognizing Trauma

Simply put, some staff are traumatized by prolonged and compounded stress. A trauma is an inescapable stressful event or series of events that overwhelms an individual’s coping mechanisms.

A variety of signals may highlight that you have a traumatized employee. Physical reactions might include crying, uncooperativeness, restlessness, forgetfulness, or increased absenteeism. Behavioral red flags include increased anxiety, fear, worry or anger. Changes in interpersonal relationships are another symptom: distrust, withdrawal, increased dependency on or avoidance of others.

We all react differently to stressful events based on our own histories of trauma. The greater the number of adverse experiences we have recovered from, particularly in our early years, the more likely we are to struggle emotionally and physically in seasons of intense stress.

Some individuals develop resilience from life’s early traumas. They learn to adapt more quickly and regulate their response to stress because of those experiences. Others struggle longer and need more tools and support for coping.

So how can we set fair expectations for a team when each team member is responding to stress differently? How much grace do we extend to employees who are seemingly incapacitated? When do we say, “Enough is enough, get it together—or else?” How much extra work do we pile on employees who seem to be coping with greater ease?

Five Things A Supervisor Can Do

Once it becomes clear we have a traumatized team member, most of us want to respond compassionately. The challenge is to balance compassion with accountability. It doesn’t serve the individual or the institution to ooze compassion and empathy in the direction of an affected staff member, without also expecting performance.

We can’t build resilience by yielding to free-floating anxiety, dependence, or withdrawal. Instead, we can balance compassion with the following five trauma-informed practices.

1. Support Psychological Safety

Directly address instances of incivility, blame, shame, emotional outbursts, and any other behaviors that lead to the escalation of tension among your staff. Enforce clear policies, particularly those that define and prohibit harassment or bullying in the workplace. Encourage staff members to adopt nonviolent communication patterns with each other and model those patterns yourself.

Nonviolent communication, as defined by Marshall Rosenberg, has four component parts:

  • Observe and describe what is happening—without judgment: “I’ve noticed that you have stopped talking directly to Michael.”
  • State how you feel but avoid the use of “victim verbs” that disguise accusations or interpretations as feelings. For example, say, “I am disappointed when members of our team don’t communicate openly and I feel burdened when I have to fill in information gaps.” Don’t say, “Why are you intimidated by him?”
  • Explain how your expectations are connected to your feelings: “I expect transparency in communication between team members.”
  • Request a concrete action. “I’d like to meet jointly with you and Michael to help restore communication.”

If an employee is expressing frustration without asking for specific help, you can say “I’d like to be able to help, so I need to know specifically what the problem is. What happened, what are you feeling, and what are you requesting? Without that information, I just feel anxious alongside you.”

2. Be Transparent about Expectations & Provide Regular Feedback

You can offer a temporary reprieve from the stress of the job by taking something off the employee’s plate or by encouraging them to take some time off if that’s possible.

However, the essential duties and tasks of the job must be satisfied long term or the employee can’t thrive. The most important thing you can do is set clear expectations about what must be done now. What are the duties and tasks of the role that must get done no matter what? What can be set aside for the short term? How long can parts of the job remain undone?

It’s always important to provide feedback about performance – it’s especially important in stressful times. Traumatized staff often don’t have an accurate picture of their own performance. So, tell them—regularly.

3. Be Predictable and Consistent

Traumatic events are unexpected and uncontrollable. Prolonged powerlessness increases the distress of your team. Do all that you can to provide a predictable and trustworthy environment.

Your staff need to know that you will do what you say you will do—that you will act with integrity. When you prove yourself trustworthy as a supervisor, your staff will feel less threatened by the unpredictability of external events beyond anyone’s control.

4. Empower with Options

Agency is important in building resilience. Employees who feel trapped are unable to collaborate or create. Name the performance outcomes you seek and then give employees the freedom to define the approach on their own. When a staff member seems incapacitated by stress, outline the choices available to them and then let them choose their next step.

5. Encourage Peer Support

Peer and community support are powerful antidotes to trauma. Provide opportunities for your staff to share personal experiences and stories with one another. Invite staff to connect through meaningful spiritual practice and shared work. This is especially important for staff working remotely who aren’t having random personal interactions with their peers.

Encourage a work environment that honors the different ways people respond to stress. Acknowledge diverse processing patterns and needs. Feelings of overwhelm lead some to emotional outbursts and others to withdrawal. Those who respond with outbursts may interpret withdrawal as unsupportive or uncaring. Those who withdraw may experience outbursts as rude and offensive.

We are weary and so are our staff. Trauma-informed supervisory practices can support the recovery and health of the whole team. In a season when so much is beyond our control, we can control how we respond to the trauma of others. We can balance compassion with accountability and build a resilient workforce.

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Susan Beaumont is a consultant, coach and spiritual director. Susan is a practical contemplative. She works at the intersection of organizational health and spiritual guidance. Specializing in the unique dynamics of large congregations, Susan’s work focuses on staff team dynamics, board development and leadership in times of transition. Rev. Beaumont is the author of How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going and Inside the Large Congregation and co-author of When Moses Meets Aaron.

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