My pandemic experience: A call to managers
I was among the many people who experienced trauma during the pandemic. But it happened in a very unique way. During COVID-19, as a single woman I made three major decisions. I purchased a car, sold my home and purchased a new home. Although I had personal support at each step along the way, it was scary. I was frightened in ways that I could not articulate.
While settling in my new home and spending time unpacking and navigating for close-by grocery store, post office, church and bank, the pandemic created difficulties that would never otherwise be there. Moving around in new territory with my mask on, I felt anxious but had few opportunities to do anything about it. In fact, I didn’t realize I had been traumatized.
From my new home I tried to resume my normal profession under pandemic conditions. I started to counsel clients by phone and did a Zoom lecture. But something was missing, and I could not put my finger on it. The threatening virus did not allow us to gather with friends and family and, as a very outgoing person, I missed all of these relationships. I like to socialize, and that was not encouraged since safety concerns were essential because of the virus.
I am an extrovert, and I needed to connect with people. Once I sensed the source of my anxiety and trauma, I started to be my own career therapist. I began doing a lot of journaling. While reviewing my employment history, I realized that I loved being a salesperson in a retail store and was good at it. So, I reapplied for my previous position as a sales associate in a store where I had once worked. Surprisingly, getting rehired there saved my life and sanity.
At this store, I met some old friends who were also returning to work. My former boss was delighted that I would be joining the returning employees.
It was only as I started to work around friends and a caring manager, I could see that many of the issues that I was encountering were familiar. My situation sounded like any number of case studies of returning employees that I wrote about in my book titled “When Trauma Survivors Return to Work: Understanding Emotional Recovery.”
As I discussed in my book, I returned to the workplace as an employee who had a Traumatic Life Experience (TLE). A TLE employee is a person who has experienced a single unexpected emotionally and physically overwhelming and utterly unwelcome event, and who was returning to work. My personal TLE happened during a pandemic with rigid rules and social norms. But traumatic life experiences happen all the time.
For example, a recent story, carried in every newspaper and television newscast, described traumatized individuals who escaped or lost relatives in the condo building that collapsed in Surfside, Fla. Families lost their homes, loved ones and their belongings. Some even lost their children. These individuals will be unable to return to work as they normally would because they first have to process this loss and grief of the trauma. The recovery process can be prolonged when several individuals are traumatized by the same event.
In a situation such as this, what do organizations do when people want to return to work? An article in Innovation Delaware titled “Developing the Post-Covid Workforce,” told how Gov. John Carney signed an executive order authorizing the use of federal monies for new and expanded counseling and reprogramming for returning workers. This order created a safety net to provide training in various employment sectors, such as technology and healthcare, for individuals who lost their jobs during the pandemic and will be returning to work.
In my book, I illustrate the importance of interaction and dialogue for these employees returning to work. The most important thing is not to treat such returning employees as if they were perfectly emotionally healthy.
Here are some other helpful pointers:
• Managers and co-workers should “put out a welcome mat” for such traumatized survivors returning to work. A manager can create a safe haven for an employee just by their welcoming presence. Research shows that such employees returning to their jobs need a safety net and a secure work environment.
• There are two issues that are typically felt by a returning worker. One is emotional, the other financial. When I returned to the store where I worked, my boss was sensitive to both these issues. She spent time talking with me, going over my work schedule and telling me when I would receive my pay. Things had changed in the store environment. I had to learn a new computer system. This made me anxious and nervous. She spent time going over the system with me and assured me that she knew it might take some time to master it. That reduced my stress level.
• Lending a listening ear is the second thing managers and co-workers need to provide for a worker returning after a traumatic experience. Colleagues at the store shared their trauma stories with me, which made me feel that they had a sense of what I was going through. My manager listened to my trauma story more than once, and was concerned in meeting my needs.
• In some larger organizations, the corporate office may need to suggest ways to encourage dialogue with these returning employees.
At our store, the pandemic required creating a new environment. Plexiglass and masks at cash registers were a new challenge for me in dealing with customers. This required patience. The challenge for managers is to be sensitive to anxiety in employees who survived a trauma, and communicate their availability for discussion - also to show compassion when the return to work.
“Offer a helping hand” is the third important thing that managers and co-workers can do for a returning trauma survivor. These employees need to feel they belong. They want to cooperate with the team, and want to align with the goals of the organization. However, they cannot do this until they know that they are receiving support from their management team. Returning employees are concerned with two things - stability of their jobs and the paycheck they will receive. They want to know they can turn to someone if there is an issue to be discussed. Returning employees want to work hard and produce for their organization, but trust has to be established with them, a personal trust that can be provided only by immediate managers and co-workers.
When an organization acknowledges the above three needs and provides for them, such an organization will thrive. And their employees returning to work after a traumatic life experience will be committed to change and support.
I was a lucky returning trauma survivor because my manager and co-workers provided a welcoming mat, lent a listening ear, and offered me help and support all along the way. Now, I am doing the same for employees who have returned more recently, since I know how valuable and helpful it can be.