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It's Over. It's Not over.

In July 2023 I wrote this piece for the guest blog of Amy Brugh Consulting. I am reposting it on our blog as we mark the fourth anniversary of the pandemic and the impact it continues to have on our lives.

“Crispy,” “exhausted,” “disconnected,” “raw,”  “reactive,” “grieving,” “numb,” “fatigued,” “soured,” and “burnt-out”

The pandemic has been declared over, and we are back to ‘business as usual’, but the above words are frequently used by people when I asked them what they are noticing at work post-pandemic. 

I’ve been asking this question of friends, colleagues, and clients because I’m noticing people and organizations are not back to ‘normal’, but at the same time there is a desire to just move on.  It seems there isn’t the interest, time, or energy to talk about what has happened to us during these past few years. 

But what happens if we don’t deal with the fear, loss, grief, mental health challenges, and massive amount of transition that arose from the pandemic.  For some of us, the tidal wave of COVID just brushed at the shores of our lives, and for others, it was decimating. For a large part, these differences were based on the basis of identity, health status, and class. Existing racial disparities were expanded further.  Those who had a financial cushion or without pre-existing health conditions had a vastly different experience than those who didn’t.  Despite our different experiences, we were all changed by these past few years.

Trauma experts explain that unresolved trauma and unremitting stress causes a heightened state of activation to help us handle current stress and detect future threats.  This state of activation intensifies the fight/flight/freeze/flock/fawn response.  And after a sustained period of being in this state, fatigue also sets in. Our bodies aren’t designed to stay in high gear for long periods of time.  

What does this dynamic look like in organizations?  

Someone who might have in the past been able to deal with a conflict from a place of compassion and connection, may now be more likely to respond with avoidance, aggression, appeasing, or stonewalling. 

Someone who in the past could deal with a high level of stress with relative ease, may now get overwhelmed more quickly. 

A team that in the past easily adapted to changes, may be more resistant and skeptical to suggestions.

There tends to be a decrease in the trust in leaders, and a lower tolerance for human mistakes.

These are self protective responses, but cause increased conflict and decreased organizational cohesion. When we are experiencing ongoing stress or have/are experiencing trauma, our brains are less likely to be able to discern nuance, and feel less able to tolerate uncertainty.  

Organizational leaders are not trained as therapists or healers. In school and on the job, organizational leaders learn about managing budgets, strategic planning, communications, fundraising, and human resource management. Adding the role of mental health caretaker to the already challenging task of leadership feels unrealistic, ethically questionable, if not impossible.  The task of trauma healing ‘should’ sit with the therapists and other healing professionals in the community.

Yet, therapists and healers tend to work with people individually, and what we went through was a collective experience.  There are not enough individual therapists to process what we have been through.  In the past, there has been a clearer line between what happens at work vs. personal time, and healing would usually be put in the ‘personal time’ category.

But we can’t wait for healing to happen at the personal level, and much of the work is collective in nature. Organizations have an important role to play. 

What does this look like?

Those who study trauma healing understand that one path to recalibrating after a difficult event(s) is by making meaning, and by having compassion for ourselves and each other after we have an overwhelming experience.  Doing this work collectively re-orients us to how we relate to the stress we went through. Processing what has happened helps integrate these experiences so we are either less likely to be acting from a place of activation or noticing our responses more quickly and resetting.  This also helps reduce depression, anxiety, and burnout.  

Creating spaces of community support will help us metabolize the experience of the pandemic and the massive changes that it kicked off.  When I mentioned this recently, a friend had a typical Minnesotan reply of “how does griping help with anything?”  What I am talking about is not griping, but naming, honoring, and processing. 

Just as a memorial service provides a time for individuals to mourn a loved one, other ritualized spaces of meaning-making give groups a chance to experience their emotions as they reflect on their loss.  These spaces help us acknowledge what has changed, articulate what has been learned, make meaning of the experience, and discern ways to move forward, integrating what what has been learned. 

Leaders may not have the capacity to hold these spaces, but there are many in the community who do.  Giving colleagues a collective space to process the past three years will mean both allowing our colleagues to show up more fully in the present, but also will add resilience for the future stresses that will continue to throw us off course as we experience climate change, political instability, and other disruptions to life as it was. 

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