We're All Coping With So Many Collective Traumas At Work Right Now

Enduring a pandemic, racism, violence, misogyny, the erosion of rights and mass death is taking a cascading toll on American workers.
There's a name for all this: Cascading collective trauma.
mathisworks via Getty Images
There's a name for all this: Cascading collective trauma.

If you feel like you are at the breaking point right now at your job, you are not alone.

Americans are coping with what is known as “cascading collective trauma,” as termed by Roxane Cohen Silver, a University of California at Irvine psychologist who has researched trauma for decades.

In an article published in the journal Nature Human Behavior, Silver and her co-authors described how the pandemic has added a new kind of layer to our cascading collective traumas, which they define as “chronic events with an ambiguous endpoint. We do not know how bad things will get, nor when recovery can truly begin.”

“Individuals must grapple with intense direct exposure to cascading events (for example, personal illness or loss, social isolation, economic loss, violent policing), with varying and sometimes conflicting policies dictating public response,” they added.

Each one comes with a toll on your psyche and effects how well you can do your job.

“The impact feels greater each time, because we have lower and lower capacity to deal, because we haven’t had enough time to recover from the last thing,” said psychotherapist Esther Boykin, who likens it to catching a cold and then getting an allergic reaction, plus an infection on top of that.

We may be weathering the same storm of traumas, but we’re all on different boats.

Trauma shows up in our bodies, and it can affect us in unseen ways.

Silver, along with other researchers, has studied how residents in the Northeast responded to successive traumatic events like 9/11, Superstorm Sandy, the Sandy Hook shooting and the Boston Marathon bombing. She found that increased exposure to a trauma could increase emotional distress responses like hyper-vigilance, feeling “on edge,” trouble sleeping and emotional numbness in subsequent tragedies.

But now with traumas happening on an almost-daily basis, Silver is not sure how we are processing it. “We are really being rapidly bombarded with these kinds of challenges. We may see something different now. I don’t know,” she said. “I do know that emotional exhaustion is a response that we are seeing in our data, that I’m hearing anecdotally that many people are reporting that they have just reached their limit. They can’t listen to the news anymore.”

That’s why Silver advises employers to be flexible in these times, and be understanding that people cannot always be bringing their “A-game” right now. Often traumas unfold as we are at work, making colleagues our most immediate possible support systems. And on the flip side, people may not share the more personal traumas they experience outside the office but are effected nonetheless.

“There may be a number of challenges in the background that we may not see, because people may not share their individual challenges with their co-workers, but the emotional consequences of the individual challenges may still be there,” she said.

“One of the best ways we can intervene with the effects of cascading trauma is creating space for more rest,” Boykin said, noting that rest is not just about more naps or a vacation, but also could mean detoxing from news for a while, or volunteering and reconnecting with people.

Flexibility could also mean managers creating space for people to gather and support each other when something traumatic goes down during office hours ― and also giving them the clear option to opt out, Boykin said. Ideally, managers should be thinking about this before the next crisis hits. It means not just creating a plan, “but to be collaborative in creating that plan,” she said. “To genuinely ask the people who work for you to create ways for them to even anonymously share when things happen that are traumatic, what kind of resources do you need available to you at work?”

For Nancy Hanks, an Atlanta-based partner at a management consultant organization, cascading collective trauma included the death of her mother a year into the pandemic. “I was already dealing with my own personal grief, but then when you have police-involved shootings, and mass shootings, it can feel like a compounding of grief,” she said.

As a Black woman, Hanks said the white supremacist attack on a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, deeply affected her, and as a former educator, the Uvalde, Texas school shooting “kind of broke” her.

Her grief manifested as more fatigue, trouble sleeping and feeling more irritable and cynical during the work day, she said.

What stands out in Hanks’ memory in terms of meaningful support is when her colleagues and supervisor not only offered the option to cancel an engagement, but they were also proactive about offering their help. They sent texts like “Hey, just double-checking, you know I can take this... It’s your call, but I’m happy to do it.”

“It’s one thing to cancel, but it’s another thing for someone to pick up weight when we all feel pinched for time and capacity. It feels really gracious to me,” Hanks said.

“We are all experiencing these storms. We’re in it together, but depending on how you are situated...it can feel vastly different.”

- Management consultant partner Nancy Hanks

Part of being more flexible with each other means not assuming how colleagues are handling these collective traumas. Hanks, who is single and was quarantined alone during the pandemic, said one co-worker told her that people without child-rearing responsibilities should have to work more.

“It feels like you know nothing about what is happening in my life or what this experience is like [when you are] assuming ‘Oh, you must have capacity,” Hanks said. “When my mother died, no one questioned that… But in that [pandemic] situation, it was more like ‘Hmm, must be pretty sweet for her.’”

To explain the nuances of how trauma impacts everyone, Hanks tells her team at work that they are in the “same storm, different boats.”

“We are all experiencing these storms,” she said. “We’re in it together, but depending on how you are situated, whether that’s your identity, your background, your socioeconomic status, your mental health, physical health, caretaker responsibilities, it can feel vastly different.”

Hanks said the collective traumas have made her a more somber, quieter and more empathetic manager. “There’s a different lens that I bring to the work...I’m one of thousands of people that are trying to individually grieve and collectively grieve.”

“I’m not out of it,” she said. “I’m leading with a bit of a broken heart. It’s challenging some archetypes we have of leadership always having to be strong, courageous, or all-knowing. Especially in a world where charisma can be everything, I can’t fake that. I don’t have it. I haven’t had it for a whole year. Glimmers of it come out — I’m still me — but it would be a lot to get in front of people every day and act like I’ve got the stamina to laugh. I miss my mom terribly every day.”

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