Now that COVID-19 restrictions have lifted and we have transitioned back to the workplace full time, we should feel like life is back to normal as it was pre-COVID. Unfortunately, that is not the case for most of us. For many the interruption of the pandemic has fundamentally altered numerous aspects of our lives and we are still recovering from it. Psychologically we have been hit hard, it continues to affect the workplace and we can see how COVID has produced residual effects that mimic trauma. Was the pandemic a collective traumatic event?
Most would say so.
Over the past two years we have experienced feelings of loss of control and safety due to not knowing what was going to happen next. Safety is not just a basic need but our deepest need. After being marked by two turbulent, overwhelming years, we are seeking psychological safety and if we feel any kind of threat from the workplace, we don’t want to be there. As people return to the office 63 percent report the pandemic has changed their lives forever according to the 2022 American Psychological Association Stress in America Poll. The truth is we all have become completely exhausted by widespread worry, anxiety, and grief by the hardships caused by COVID-19. Everything from isolation, loss of family members, financial hardships, political upheaval, violent and angry protests, and the uncertainty of our future and our children’s future have drained us.
In my book, Our Breaking Point: How COVID Has Us Exhausted, Irritable and Overwhelmed, I wanted to point out all we had endured through the pandemic and that we won’t be able to simply jump back to “normal” after it has ended. Nor should we go back to some of the unhealthy parts of our normal. Without the proper processing of what just happened to us as a society we shouldn’t expect a healthy robust workforce. Employers need to understand this and ensure the workplace is safe, flexible and respectful.
Healthcare professionals, group home care workers and other essential workers have never stopped working. They not only risked their lives, they had to figure out childcare arrangements and safety precautions when they returned home from work. They never had a break. It is no wonder why healthcare workers and doctors are now increasingly experiencing burn out, and are stepping away from their profession.
Pandemic fatigue is a real thing, it even as its own Wikipedia page. With emotional exhaustion comes a lack of focus, mental fog, sleeplessness and experiencing unusually high levels of anxiety and exhaustion are some of the symptoms many have been feeling as of lately. Our nervous systems are more activated, making us more hyper-vigilant and reactive to unwanted or undesirable situations, (real or perceived) and causing our fight and flight mechanisms to go off. As we learn more about trauma, we begin to understand the behaviors that come along with it.
The Tackling Trauma Conference that Sara Wheelwright and I have organized in November will feature presentations on how trauma affects the workplace. The conference is for employers, supervisors and HR personnel, as well as those who are assisting and supporting individuals who have experienced trauma. Chief Cadmus Delorme, recipient of the Queen Elizabeth Jubilee medal, will speak on community trauma. Dr. Margaret McKinnon’s presentation is on The Impact of COVID-19 on Emergency and Health Care Workers – Trauma and PTSD as well as the TikTok Trauma Doctor, Dr. Christine Gibson, on Creating Safer Places, where her team facilitates trauma-informed spaces.
Recovery from trauma (and collective trauma) will require patience, compassion and understanding. It is going to take some time until we reach our baselines. It is essential that we increase our awareness and understanding of the ongoing struggles many are experiencing trying to adapt to the ‘new normal’ as we now attempt to co-exist with COVID. We need to explore what additional supports and workplace strategies can be implemented to reassure our employees that we hear them, we understand and acknowledge the challenge and that we will support them during this readjustment process. In order to re-regulate, we need to examine if our workplaces support mental and emotional well-being, or are we pushing employees to the point of collapse.
We need reassure our workforce that wellness is a priority.