We know from years of trauma research that our bodies and minds “perceive danger” in different ways. As a result, it’s reasonable to expect that not everyone responding to the personal, emotional and professional threats of COVID will react in the same way. Individual perception and how people process trauma has much to do with not only their current state of healing but also past events. We know that when our employees perceive emotional or physical danger, they may alternate between fight or flight mode (when their sympathetic system is on overdrive), shutdown mode (when their parasympathetic system stops working due to the threat), or connection (when they can stay present and peacefully process the situation). Many trauma responses, however, are automatic, as the body responds to real or perceived threats based upon a variety of factors.
As leaders at Zepf Center, a not-for-profit organization in Toledo, Ohio, we have tried to take this “shared knowledge” of trauma to help guide our interactions with others during the COVID-19 crisis. It has helped us to understand that many staff may respond in ways that display flight, fight, or shutdown mode. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are intentionally attempting any of the above, but their natural trauma response to the triggers and safety issues related to COVID-19 may cause them to struggle to work through their “natural automated” response and in time come to a place where they can find peace and meaningful connection to move forward with their work. Our training in Sanctuary Principles has helped to guide these responses, as well as create planned action steps to implement trauma-informed practices that not only keep everyone physically safe but emotionally safe as well.
Bessel Van Der Kolk, world-renowned trauma expert and author of the book The Body Keeps the Score, recently gave his tips for dealing with the current situation in the world. In a YouTube video, he stated, “We are all living under a traumatic cloud right now…so the only thing you can control is your reactions.” He kept his suggestions simple for patients or staff to implement to respond to today’s uncertainty.
- Get enough sleep. Your body needs regulation right now. Do what you can to keep things on a pattern.
- Stick to a schedule. Everything all around us is out of our control. Do what you can to have a small part of your world under your control to bring back normalcy and predictability to your life. Create a routine for each day so that you are not encouraging the unpredictability of trauma. Even if your life feels boring, this will help you significantly.
- Move your body. Our bodies are freezing due to real or perceived trauma and increased helplessness. The best thing you can do for your mind and body each day is to keep it moving and to help your body feel powerful. Allow your body to do things that remind it that you are in control.
Zepf Center is working on our certification to become a Sanctuary Program. The training and investment in the organizational culture has helped our leaders to remember the importance of trauma-informed practices, not only with our patients but also within the walls of our workplace. Here are some practices that we have implemented, with sanctuary principles in mind, that have helped us to maintain a safe workplace during the global pandemic of COVID-19.
- Physical safety. Efforts on this front have included spraying facilities with a barrier to prevent the spread of bacteria, being aggressive in obtaining PPE, and being proactive about establishing strategies to prevent virus spread.
- Emotional safety. We practice community meetings often, where staff checks in to each session by communicating the current state of how they are feeling. We understand that feeling may vary greatly from day to day right now or may be hard to describe.
- Safety plans. As part of the sanctuary model, staff has been encouraged to create and execute safety plans—activities they can complete at home or at work to help them self-sooth instead of having an unsafe or toxic response to stress. Making a written list of activities we can do helps to be prepared to manage stress or difficult emotions by facilitating a sense of control in the present moment.
- Leaders role-modeling vulnerability, which leads to emotional and psychological safety. I’ve tried to be intentionally vulnerable with employees, instead of hiding behind an “emotional mask,” by letting them know that I have fears about working through this pandemic sometimes, just like they do. I try to admit my mistakes and shortcomings openly so that others feel safe enough to do so as well. When we all realize our humanity during a crisis, I believe it brings us closer together and not further apart. Fear and challenges are expected, but can be overcome together.
- Transparent and open communication. We have used the democratic method of making decisions by exploring ideas with all levels of agency staff. We try to use open communication when we listen to concerns related to safety, fears, or ideas about working during the COVID pandemic, with conversations held in the format of live workplace chats and weekly network updates for staff.
- Be intentional and socially responsible by providing support and connection. We had to quickly identify gaps and opportunities for provision of HR services, our chief human resources officer Ursula Barerra-Richards says. This required some level of honestly acknowledging we didn’t have the answers, but were open to finding the resources. “We have responsibilities for this entire agency, and if we fear making mistakes, we will not be able to lead authentically and inspirationally,” Barerra-Richards says. “Ultimately, our ability to support and connect executives, to managers, to frontline staff rested on our ability to make moves that haven’t been made before.”
- Find ways to have fun where appropriate. Even though the threat of COVID-19 is a serious one, we realize that it’s important to have some lightheartedness and fun in the workplace where appropriate. From time to time, part of finding balance is purposefully incorporating humor into an otherwise serious and difficult workday.
- Stay true to a mission, optimism and hope. This is the backbone of everything we do. “At the end of the day, we know that we will make leadership mistakes through this crisis because we are human, Zepf CEO Deb Flores says. “COVID-19 is something none of us have ever faced in our lifetimes, and there was no rulebook before the virus hit. We hope to remain humble enough to admit that we will continue to navigate these unchartered waters together, doing the very best we can, and always keeping the best interest of our patients and staff in mind at all times.”
Lisa Richardson is the chief operations officer for the Zepf Center in Toledo, Ohio.