We are living in challenging times, fraught with anxiety and stress. Globally, we are faced with daily acts of terror, hate crimes, riots and protests, each having a long-lasting and damaging impact on the people around us and the communities we serve. Naturally, this is bound to blur the thin line dividing personal and professional lives.
So, how should your organization respond in the aftermath of difficult events? Will a note expressing solidarity suffice? Will giving a day off to an upset employee help? Maybe, but it should not stop there. Organizations should help their employees to channel their positive and negative emotions to build an honest and authentic work culture. We need to listen, acknowledge, and respond in ways that truly make a positive difference to their mental and emotional wellbeing.
With over two decades in human resources advocating for social justice and inclusion, I’m familiar with the impact that such events can have. I believe that repressing emotions like anxiety, anger or sorrow in the workplace is highly counterproductive. An effective approach is to lead with compassion and empathy. As individuals, or even as corporate citizens within an organization, we must ensure that the needs of those around us are recognized. Our people should have the freedom to bring their whole selves to work.
Below, I have shared some thoughts about disruption in the workplace from a talk I gave at the SXSW 2017 titled 'Leading Through World Trauma'. It was an interesting and timely panel where I got the opportunity to explain how empathy, not indifference, drives organizational productivity and efficiency. Like every other organizational endeavor, this too requires planning with a cool head.
There are three main ways I’ve observed this type of disruption in the workplace; the first step is to categorize your company’s circumstances and then design appropriate interventions. Here’s how I view this challenge objectively:
First: When socio-political upheavals enter the workspace
We live in an increasingly connected world where our lives are being influenced by events across the globe. Politics, which might seem like a subject far removed from our sphere of work, impacts us daily. We need to be respectful of each other's opinions and feelings, which might mean refraining from heated debates. However, if there are situations that cause employees grief and impact them at work, I believe we should find a way to discuss them.
The recent immigration ban in the US, for instance, has cast a dark shadow over the future of millions of talented individuals and their families. People come to work, but are not able to focus due to what is going on outside of the workplace. Naturally, they are anxious to know if their employers understand and support them.
What you can do: The process of healing begins with the simple act of acknowledgment. I can’t overemphasize the importance of acknowledging the impact that these injustices and events are having on our employees. Acknowledge the situation, provide a space where people can share and learn from each other, make sure your employees know the resources available to them and discuss ways to get involved. The first step is the most important one - acknowledging what’s going on and fast.
Second: Coping with hate crimes and terrorist attacks
In the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando in June 2016, people lost friends, family members, and loved ones. Numerous lost their lives. Others, their purpose for living. Their world was shattered for no fault of their own.
More recently, the Manchester Arena attack shocked us to the core. The Thoughtworks’ Manchester office is just a mile away from the site of the attack. What if the gunman had chosen to conduct his business during the day and not during the Ariana Grande concert in the evening? Perhaps the teenagers in the audience would have been spared. office-goers would have borne the brunt of the assault. Even our own colleagues ... I shudder to think of the possibilities. I’m also aware that our employees in the Manchester office are still trying to cope with the horror.
Reading or hearing about violence in the news is one thing. Experiencing it is another.
Grieving and emotionally distraught employees can take a day off, or two, or ten. Unfortunately, grief doesn’t descend with a proper schedule. There’s no guarantee that the number of days they’ve been given off is adequate for them to cope with their loss.
What you can do: At such times, organizations need to be mindful of their employees’ vulnerable mental state and modify their expectations of them. Maintaining a stoic silence will not help. Organizations should speak with their employees about appropriate ways to be supportive, and work on crafting solutions together. By simply acknowledging their grief and recognizing its enormity, organizations can help their employees cope with their distress better.
Third: Tackling the depressive hold of ongoing trauma
Ongoing trauma, such as the systemic and cultural oppression of minorities, is a different beast altogether. It lulls people into believing that their oppression is nothing out of the ordinary. While many accept their ‘fate’, those who protest, place themselves at risk of being labeled rebels, or threats, and fear being viciously silenced.
The African American community in the US, for instance, has been deeply impacted by the deadly shootings of people of color at the hands of law enforcement officials. Such issues are not necessarily about the individual incidents as much as about the systemic problems.
I, along with many others, particularly in the African American community, have had a tough time dealing with these incidents. You start to question how much more you can take. How long will these incidents continue to happen? Are you and your loved ones safe? Will you be next? You cannot deny the fact that such incidents disrupt workplace dynamics.
What you can do: It's important for organizations to figure out ways in which they can contribute to breaking down existing barriers that divide and discriminate. You can begin the initiative in your organization by creating safe spaces for people to have conversations and learn from each other. Next, help your employees get involved outside of your organization, perhaps with an NGO, to help bridge social and cultural rifts in the society. There is nothing more empowering than the ability to influence change. Why are organizations not more vocal about social issues?
There are a variety of reasons why a company may choose to ignore an incident or not make a public statement. Sometimes they are not familiar with the topic and are uncomfortable speaking out, or sometimes, the incident is considered too political, and commenting may cause a financial impact.
It is natural for businesses to be mindful of such possibilities. Sure, they must weigh their words before making a public statement. However, the risk of riling a few in power is less than the risk of passively endorsing injustice through one’s silence. Irrespective of how sensitive a situation, you can always take discreet, but meaningful steps to help soothe the pain.
Compassion is key.
As the Head of Diversity & Inclusion for Thoughtworks North America, it’s my responsibility to set the strategic vision around making Thoughtworks the most diverse and inclusive company in the IT industry. In the 18+ years that I’ve been here, I have learned that in the long term, a holistic approach is the winner.
You cannot expect an individual to dissociate their emotions from work. It is humanly impossible. What you can expect, is for that individual to recover faster with your help.
That is why, it is important that you convert your workplace into a source of strength and inspiration, by being compassionate. Doing so will help people gain the strength needed to cope, by being the pillar of support that your employees seek in their darkest hour of need. And that will help find a way to take your organization forward despite the challenges.
Tips for companies
In addition to making internal and public statements, employers can also show support by:
Making sure that employees understand the resources that are available to them for self-care.
Providing employees with the opportunity to express themselves in a safe environment.
Bringing in an outside facilitator if required. The goal should be to provide a safe environment for people to express themselves and learn at the same time.
Guiding employees to become agents of change rather than victims of circumstance through protests, donations, volunteering, etc.
Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.