Chief of Staff, Director of Communications & Operations
Though burnout and trauma exposure have different causes and symptoms – and require different interventions and remedies – it’s well established that both are highly toxic to the wellbeing, resilience, and health of employees.
Particularly concerning is that those “helpers” working in demanding environments – our physicians and nurses, social workers, humanitarian aid workers, armed forces, and emergency responders – suffer from burnout and trauma exposure way more than those in other occupations.
Yet, why aren’t they speaking out more about their wounded brains, emotional exhaustion, physical symptoms, and relationship disruptions?
Why aren’t leaders acutely tuned in to the alarming fact that many of these heroic professionals are suffering from mental states dominated by fear, depression and anxiety way too often?
It’s because the vast majority of employees don’t consider it “safe” in their workplace cultures to talk about their symptoms and suffering, as they may risk being misunderstood as weak or having attitude issues. Yet, research from Gallup and others proves how employees feel every day at work directly impacts their performance and engagement.
So, how do organizations understand the complex causes and effects of burnout as well as trauma exposures and triggers in their specific environments? They ask employees – including leaders – to share their true feelings.
The results are typically very enlightening. Case in point: Greenleaf designed and conducted a global resilience assessment for a humanitarian-aid client that got to the heart of how employees truly felt. Here is just a very small sampling of some of the feedback they shared with us:
- “There is a pervasive feeling or vibe of anxiety due to the high pace of work. Everything’s a crisis or an emergency, and this is chronically destructive. It’s toxic.”
- “The pressure cooker visibly makes people act in unusual and inappropriate ways: shouting in meetings, talking out loud to themselves, walking in circles, and so on.”
- “The main issue is the heavy workload and long working hours. 10-14 hours a day, 6-7 days a week, 60+ hours a week. There is limited ability to detach from the work, and a shortage of staff to manage the workload.”
- “Lack of gratitude and appreciation among senior managers and irritable managers with aggressive expectations.”
- “People get ‘crispy’ after being here too long. This leads to damaged relationships.”
- “The HR system has not a clue about life in the field.”
- “I feel as though I’m on my own.”
So what is this aid organization doing? Implementing change that mitigates chronic stress, burnout, and trauma exposure in sustainable ways. Sustainability can only happen with solutions that are evidence-based, integrative, and tailored to the particular workplace environment. To get that evidence, it’s critical to ask the right questions using methods that enable employees to honestly, safely, and confidentially share their feelings.
For the client study mentioned above, Greenleaf developed and deployed a multi-level, mixed-methods study using qualitative and quantitative methodologies. We conducted qualitative in-person interviews and focus groups with about 175 people in numerous countries along with a quantitative email survey to several thousand employees. Equally important, we used trauma-informed principles throughout the project, including the science-based education of management as well as the design and wording of surveys and discussion guides, to protect the interview subjects.
In addition to a high number of traumatic exposures, which is to be expected in the humanitarian aid field, Greenleaf also uncovered stress-exacerbating organizational issues related to policies, leadership, labor relations, training, and human capital management. The assessment insights informed our recommendations for new policy frameworks, including authority structures, duty-of-care obligations, and stress-responsive job responsibilities for managers. It also uncovered the critical needs to expand stress-responsive organizational and professional development as well as allocate budget for stress mitigation and staff care programs.
It’s not unusual for wellbeing assessments to uncover numerous areas in need of improvements. But, don’t let that stop your organization from seeking employees’ truths and insights. The good news is you don’t have to tackle everything all at once. It’s absolutely possible and preferable to design and unfold evidence-based, tailored wellbeing solutions that enable measurable improvements in the short term and over time – in a phased approach that is realistic and viable for the organization. The worst possible approach? Doing nothing at all about your employees’ suffering and its impact on the mission.