The last 18 months have been tough on business and employees alike, but there are strategies that can help you bounce back in better shape than before. Understanding the post-traumatic growth framework is a great place to start.
It’s easy to sink into the doom and gloom surrounding the increasing COVID-19 cases and lockdown orders in Australia right now. However, the reality is that this will all be over soon, or at least close to normal again.
This prospect is exciting for many people, those who are looking to jump back into work, social life and the broader community with gusto, shedding the remnants of their lockdown self and slotting back into the swing of things. But there will also be plenty of people who are scarred by this experience. They will need extra support and time to readjust to life in the ‘real world’.
Employers can assist this process, for those who are ready, by introducing employees to a concept known as post-traumatic growth – the idea that innovation and creativity are often born from personal struggle.
Think of the musicians who record their best-selling album after a crushing heartbreak, or artists such as Frida Kahlo, whose best artistic work was created following a tragic bus accident that left her bedridden for months.
Dr Richard Tedeschi and professor Lawrence Calhoun coined the term post-traumatic growth in the mid-1990s. Tedeschi uses the metaphor of a seismic earthquake to describe it – the trauma shakes everything up, cracks us open at our epicentre and shatters everything into tiny pieces.
“Just like an earthquake shatters the material infrastructure of a city and has to be rebuilt, our psychological infrastructure has to be rebuilt too – hopefully to a higher standard,” says Tedeschi.
A traumatic event is anything that “shocks our core beliefs” and overwhelms our ability to cope, he says.
Pippa Hague, change management expert and principal consultant at the NeuroPower Group, a behavioural consultancy firm, says, “It’s this notion that some things get stronger through disruption, pain and distress.”
“We’ve gone through this deep trauma [throughout COVID-19], but there have been certain businesses which seem to have thrived – either because they managed to pivot their products, or they’ve changed the story and how they deal with and respond to it,” she says.
Importantly, post-traumatic growth doesn’t deny the existence of trauma, and it’s not the same as resilience, which focuses on our ability to bounce back. It’s about what people do after they have bounced back.
How do we grow?
Throughout his decades of research, Tedeschi has identified five different ways negative situations can spur positive outcomes. He found they can cause us to:
- Explore new possibilities. Perhaps we take on a new role in an organisation, or think in different ways to open the business up to a new lucrative market.
- Recognise our personal strengths. Say an employee never imagined themselves working in a leadership role before. By giving them an opportunity to step up, you can help them to manage circumstances that might have seemed either impossible or overwhelming prior to their traumatic experience.
- Improve our relationships. Often when organisations face major disruption, structures change. They might become flatter, for instance, or perhaps silos are removed. The upshot of this is that it becomes easier to connect with new people at work, and when our relationships expand, and trust is embedded, innovative ideas can flow as a result.
- Gain a greater appreciation for life. People often refocus on the little things they may have previously overlooked. They might value their colleagues more than before or enjoy aspects of their work in a new way.
- We experience spiritual growth. This point is about the meaning and purpose we derive from our work. Our values often shift in the wake of trauma, so it’s important to get a read on employees’ new needs and expectations, so your organisation can respond accordingly.
How to facilitate post-traumatic growth at work
If you want to facilitate post-traumatic growth on an organisational level, you can start by developing what Tedeschi refers to as “expert companions” in your workplace. These are people who encourage introspection, curiosity and active listening.
“These don’t have to be psychologists. They could be managers or HR. It’s someone who is a listener and learner first, rather than someone who comes at people with assumptions or advice. They let people tell their own story.
“HR professionals will play a huge role in helping managers redesign work in a way that allows creativity to flow.” – Pippa Hague principal consultant, NeuroPower Group
“Time is very precious to people in the workplace, especially leaders. But they need to learn how to at least give the impression they’ve got all the time in the world when broaching this topic,” he says.
“Ask open questions about their struggles in the aftermath of trauma – such as, ‘What part of this might be a struggle for you? How have you started to think differently? How have you been changed by all this?’ People talk more expansively when you show that you’re doing more than checking a box.”
To start the process, Tedeschi says the first step is to educate yourself about the trauma and let it sink in.
For example, in an article for Harvard Business Review, Tedeschi says: “Before the pandemic, many of us thought we were safe from the types of diseases that endangered people in the past… and that our social and economic systems were resilient enough to weather all storms. That wasn’t true.” And we all had to come to terms with this.
Next, he says to try to reframe your thinking so negative emotions don’t prevail. For instance, instead of feeling upset about having to be in lockdown, you could think about all the great resources your organisation has to operate remotely. Psychologists can help to provide bespoke reframing tips for individuals.
The next important step is communicating your trauma to someone you trust – this is where the expert companions come in handy. Tedeschi says disclosure helps you get a clearer sense of the short-to-long term impacts on both our professional and personal lives.
After you’ve come to terms with the trauma, reframed it and disclosed it, you can start developing a new narrative around it, he says.
In the HBR piece, Tedeschi shared the example of an executive who was fired over sexual harassment allegations. After this he was in a serious car accident with his wife. She was okay, but he was in a coma for a month. When he woke up, his new narrative was along these lines: “Many would think it was this accident that put my life in jeopardy. But I was already in great danger. I was causing pain to others, ruining my career and heading for a life without my wife or children. The accident forced me to stop, created time for reflection and showed me what love really is.”
It’s very common for people who’ve undergone trauma of any kind to develop a new narrative for themselves.
Finally, Tedeschi says we’re more likely to thrive in the wake of a traumatic event when we find work that serves others. Think of all the people who have set up non-profits to honour loved ones they’ve lost. Employers could consider some pro-bono or charity work that they can facilitate to give staff a sense of purpose beyond their day-to-day work.
Inviting in new shoots
Assuming your organisation is ready to start thinking of creative ways to put the lessons of the pandemic to good use (and remembering that not everyone will be), one of the first things you need to do is create mental space for people to be creative, says Hague.
This doesn’t just mean encouraging employees to take breaks or engage in deep thinking before taking on strategic work; it’s about designing work in a way that allows them to do that.
Consider, for example, 3M, the company that brought us the Post-It note and Scotch tape. These inventions came from what 3M calls its ‘15 per cent culture’ – a process it has been running for 70 years which allows employees to spend 15 per cent of their time developing big ideas outside of their day-to-day responsibilities.
It’s believed Twitter and Gmail were also created from similar policies.
“It’s not 15 per cent to go and do what you want,” says Hague. “It’s spending 15 per cent of your time thinking about how you can improve the business. It’s got to be purposeful.”
NeuroPower has its own version of a 15 per cent policy, the ‘slow working day’ which happens once a month.
“On this day we try not to have any client-facing work on. It’s an opportunity for us to catch up on research papers or sit, read and think about where we’re going as a business.
“We’ve been running this experiment since COVID-19 because we were all getting Zoom gloom and mental stress. We were trying to deliver complex programs for our clients, but our own team was struggling. So we did a big internal reset and said, ‘How do we want to structure ourselves as a business? What’s important to us?’”
“Just like an earthquake shatters the material infrastructure of a city and has to be rebuilt, our psychological infrastructure has to be rebuilt too – hopefully to a higher standard.” – Dr Richard Tedeschi
This slow-thinking time spawned a new business arm for the NeuroPower group.
Acknowledging that a lot of businesses wouldn’t hire full-time workers during the pandemic and instead relied on the contingent workforce to plug gaps, Hague and her colleagues founded a program called Change as Usual, which supports and upskills contractors working in change management.
“The program is based on the idea that we give each other a sense of community. All of that important interconnectivity you get as a traditional employee, you don’t necessarily get as a solo practitioner, so we wanted to bring people together and develop a psychological support network for them.”
Not only is it important to allow employees the mental space to let post-traumatic growth take off, but Hague believes the physical environment you’re in is equally important.
“HR professionals will play a huge role in helping managers redesign work in a way that allows creativity to flow,” she says.
Of course, part of that will occur virtually by extension of our current circumstances, but Hague says we shouldn’t be too quick to disregard in-person connection points when it comes to working on big-picture business plans.
“When there’s a whole bunch of activity around value creation – idea generation and being able to spark off each other – we need to be able to innovate. We need to bounce ideas around. It’s hard to do that stuff virtually.
“There’s something around coming together as a group and scribbling down ideas. You can talk over each other and build on each other’s ideas.”
To lean into the benefits of post-traumatic growth, employers need to be intentional about facilitating opportunities for employees to connect and share their stories with one another. That’s one of the best ways to ensure it can take root.
A longer version of this article appeared in the August 2021 edition of HRM magazine.
Before post-traumatic growth comes resilience. Give your team this foundational tool by booking a spot in AHRI’s short course.