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Overcoming recession trauma in your workforce

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With more than 19,000 jobs lost in the past year, house closures up 30 per cent and suicide rate projections nearly doubling, the Alberta workforce is struggling with some heavy stress.

 While those who have been laid off are going through their own struggles, don’t underestimate the workplace trauma experienced by those still employed.

 Trauma is an emotional response to a deeply distressing or disturbing experience, as something that happens unexpectedly, swiftly, and is physically threatening, like a hostage crisis or a car accident.

 Although the recession is not cataclysmic, a recession can create an environment that chips away at workers’ sense of security, self-worth, health, and well-being. And ultimately their engagement.

 The brain experiences the workplace first and foremost as a social system. When people feel betrayed or unrecognized, they experience it as a neural impulse, as powerful or painful as a blow to the head. Most people who work in companies rationalize or temper their reactions. But they also limit their commitment and engagement. They become “purely transactional employees”.

 Organizational trauma typically has the following qualities:

1. A breakdown in communication.

2. A breakdown in trust.

3. A breakdown in productivity.

4. Workers feel powerless.

5. Workers feel hopeless.

6. A shake-up in roles and responsibilities happens.

7. Workers will feel a loss.

Trauma leads to decline

Often companies that go through major change don’t get the results they sought.

According to analyst David Sirota, who has studied the issue of layoffs during recessionary periods, only about a third of companies that downsize gain in increased productivity and profits over a subsequent three to five year period.

These companies also under-perform the stock market over that time. Why the failure? A poll by Leadership IQ might provide a clue.

According to that study, 74 per cent of employees who kept their job amidst a corporate layoff say their own productivity has declined since the layoff. And 69 per cent say the quality of their company’s product or service has declined since the layoffs. Likewise, many mergers and acquisitions are doomed to failure.

Physical and emotional response to trauma

The cause of this failure generally comes down to the state of mind of employees. It is the employees, after all, who make or break a company’s success. All of this can seriously impact morale and job performance.

Physical: headaches, neck or back pain, chest pain, stomach aches, lack of energy, a change of appetite, difficulties with sleep, restlessness, shaky feelings and panic attacks.

Emotional: irritability, anger, rage, a heightened level of suspicion, losing trust in those previously trusted, anxiety, feelings of hopelessness, denial and feelings of futility for the future.

Cognitive: blaming others; negative, magnified, catastrophic thinking; poor attention, concentration and memory; and difficulty making decisions or solving problems.

Behavioral: withdrawal, avoidance, emotional outbursts, suspiciousness, and an increase in alcohol or drug consumption, pacing and immobilization.

Build up your resilience

The single best way to both prevent and respond to these events, is to help everyone build up their resilience. Resilience is the “process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or even significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors.”

“It means ‘bouncing back’ from difficult experiences.”

Here are the ten ways that individuals can build resilience to trauma: 

1.Make connections.

2.Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems.

3.Accept that change is a part of living.

4.Move toward your goals.

5.Take decisive actions.

6.Look for opportunities for self-discovery.

7.Nurture a positive view of yourself.

8.Keep things in perspective.

9.Maintain a hopeful outlook.

10.Take care of yourself.

This list is offered for individuals, but it is easily translated to an organizational level.

Five steps to limit workplace trauma:


Build trust and short-circuit the rumor machine by being transparent. Give employees frequent, detailed information about the changes affecting your organization. Keep lines of communication primed, both across groups and up the chain of command, by encouraging daily communications of all kinds. According to Jeanie Daniel Duck, a former senior partner of the Boston Consulting Group and author of The Change Monster: The Human Forces That Fuel or Foil Corporate Transformation and Change, the most powerful thing a manager can do is: “interpret what’s going on for people and explain what it means for them in specific, concrete terms.”


Clarify or re-clarify organizational goals, mission and values. If those things have changed, be sure employees understand how that change affects them and their role. Create peace of mind for workers by communicating strong goals for the organization that can mark a return to stability and ensure future predictability.


Involve employees in decision-making. Revive their self-esteem and optimism by setting clear, achievable objectives and offering the proper tools to achieve results. When employees exert effort, offer them positive feedback that reassures them they are appreciated, and rebuilds their confidence in themselves and the organization.


The most fundamental need people have in times of change or crisis is always the same: support, from one another and from authority figures. Give your employees ways to emotionally connect with each other and with leaders. Encourage them to build a broad social network of bonds throughout the organization. A broader support system will help sustain them even if some of those lines are re-wired or severed.


Do not act blindly. Be sure you are, as David Sirota calls it, “managing by fact”. Obtain the adequate tools to measure your culture and monitor the relationships that sustain it. Make sure you understand where your strengths and weaknesses are, who your influencers are, and how your company communicates. This will help you respond swiftly and accurately in the event of crisis.


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