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Ad Altius | Pandemic PTSD in Business is Real: Here’s What to Do About It

We hope you enjoy this exclusive article written by Thomas Brown, CEO of AD ALTIUS ADVISORS |

The COVID-19 pandemic has been the most traumatic global event in generations. When we consider the costs of this trauma, we rightly think first about those whom we’ve lost and those they left behind, perhaps followed by those whose livelihoods were taken away. In the business community, we might focus on the billions of dollars in value that were erased. All of these are real and tangible losses, and reflecting on them for very long can prompt an intense longing for it all to just come to an end. The good news is that pandemics do, in fact, end. But the trauma inflicted by this pandemic is negatively impacting businesses today, and many are struggling to get their employees to return to work. These problems will not easily go away, and the trauma will have residual effects that linger long after COVID-19 loosens its grip. Anyone who’s suffered a significant traumatic event will tell you the experience changed them profoundly, so we shouldn’t be surprised that vast segments of the global workforce will be suffer long-term alterations that impact business. Happily, there are proven methods to address these challenges. These methods hail from an unlikely source – clinical psychology –and because of the ongoing trauma from the pandemic, they have immediate relevance to businesses today.

Understanding the Pandemic’s Residual Impact

The pandemic’s costs in terms of human suffering and death have been immense, but the trauma extends beyond those who contracted the virus. COVID-19 has sickened many and killed millions, but every last person on the planet has experienced trauma from the pandemic. Many have lost sight of this reality, in part because we’ve gotten used to living with the pandemic, and also because of the partial resumption of activities in the vaccinated world. But we can’t afford to overlook the large-scale psychological impact of the losses we’ve suffered, for this is where the residual impact of the pandemic can do the most damage. It’s also where we can proactively prevent further losses in business and even create value.

I’ve referred to the pandemic as the Great Subtraction because it stripped away all that we held dear; it subtracted so many things we took for granted: It took away livelihoods, our freedom of movement, and indeed our very ability to interact with others. All of us had our world upended without warning, where our way of life was abruptly taken away without notice.

The rapidity with which these changes overwhelmed us resulted in an extreme collective anxiety, and the global population moved through successive stages of denial, disbelief, and incomprehension. The impact of this stress can’t be overstated. Consumption of mental health services has surged (thanks in part to telemedicine), and many turned to religion to make sense of the senselessness around them.

But managing stress varies significantly from person to person, and not everyone can cope effectively. Within any group of trauma victims, a certain number will develop significant anxiety disorders, whereas others will not. And so it will be with the COVID-19 pandemic, for there will be a predictable percentage of individuals who have lasting behavioral effects. This means we will experience a sense of global post-traumatic stress disorder in the business community which will limit and constrain those who fall victim to its clutches, with deleterious impact on the organizations they serve. But organizations that are able to rise above this PTSD will gain real competitive advantages that will enable their businesses to flourish.

PTSD in Business

PTSD is a serious clinical syndrome that affects individuals, and is part of a broader set of anxiety disorders. What differentiates PTSD is that it originates in a significant traumatic event. The pandemic certainly qualifies, and with an added twist: Unlike other large-scale traumas such as war or hurricanes, the pandemic does not have a discrete end point. There is no ceremonial armistice-signing, nor can we turn on the news and hear the reassuring announcement that the hurricane is now, officially, over. This is particularly true at the moment, as the Delta variant surges.

When applied to businesses, PTSD can be thought of as anxiety-based behaviors that persist long after the traumatic event has ended. The lack of any official “ending” of the trauma will assuredly produce global PTSD in the business community, and indeed we are already seeing its emergence. Across many sectors there are strong fundamentals and clear evidence of pent-up demand, yet there is a collective hesitancy to act. Opportunities the likes of which we’ve never seen have emerged, and while there is explicit acknowledgement of these once-in-a-lifetime possibilities, there is a real and lingering barrier of anxiety that prevents businesses, and individuals within them, from acting.

PTSD distorts the ability to gauge risk, contributing to hesitancy that goes beyond normal risk aversion. Individuals with PTSD sense danger where none exists, and this causes them to withdraw from normal life. The same is true for businesses and organizations. Our global PTSD will present itself at many levels, including:

  • Employees. Many are afraid to return to work, and those who do return will have fears that prevent them from fulfilling all their responsibilities.
  • Board of directors and shareholders. There has been a collective inertia in some quadrants, with boards and shareholders “waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
  • Organizations. Both of these have contributed to organizational sluggishness that retards innovation and hold back production and throughput. This is no small part is what contributes to our massive supply-chain disruptions.

What to Do About It: Solutions for Businesses

Luckily, PTSD is a well-understood disorder, with highly effective treatments for individuals who suffer from it. Many of our treatment advances were evolved in the wake of large-scale wars, when legions of war veterans presented with PTSD and other anxiety disorders. Both the U.S. and Europe reacted swiftly and admirably in helping their veterans, and how they responded can provide a blueprint for what businesses can do in the months ahead. More specifically, actionable learnings can be extracted from some of those treatments that evolved, and applied directly to business. Below are some of the most effective solutions we’ve implemented, and each is paired with a real-word example of how we’ve helped business utilize them.

1. Stress inoculation therapy is an action-and-experience-based treatment that involves recurrent exposure to low levels of stress-triggering events, followed by actions the individual takes despite the anxiety. Mechanically, it works by tangibly demonstrating that no harm is suffered from exposure to these events, even though they are stressful. This effectively re-wires the brain in its orientation to anxiety, enabling the individual to act in spite of their fear, and those fears accordingly recede over time.

Today, businesses have abundant stress-triggering events all around them: The massive opportunities that businesses are afraid to exploit are one example; another is getting employees to return to work. Instead of plunging headlong into these anxiety-triggering possibilities, start out by making a series of small bets, and do so in rapid cycle. This will enable you to actively experience the anxiety of making the bet, and also know through experience that no harm comes from them.

Example: A key example we implemented was a staggered return-to-work protocol for a business with 25,000 global employees, wherein workers met in small groups, first via Zoom to discuss the plan and express their worries and concerns, then in an off-site to safely socialized with their co-workers, then finally in their offices once per week for one month, then increasing to twice per week, and culminating in five days per week.

2. Cognitive processing therapy enables people to re-evaluate and change unhelpful beliefs about a trauma they’ve suffered. It can be seen as a clever way of shifting perspective, and a simplified example is moving from a feeling of being victimized and into a more empowered stand of “that which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”

This is an area for immediate action for businesses, for you can easily (and perhaps justifiably) lapse into a sustained lament over all that you’ve lost; but it will be far more powerful to focus on the fact that your business survives, and as such is now in a position to participate in what will be the greatest business renaissance the world has ever seen. Rather than persisting in a stunned state of “woe is me,” shift your thinking to a bold stand of “I survived, and now it’s time to act!”

Example: We’ve found the most effective way to utilize this solution is via the conduit of peer-leaders within the organization. These are the employees who may not have power of office or title, but nonetheless have the respect of their peers, who look to them for leadership. We’ve lead focus groups (via Zoom and in person) wherein senior management and these peer leaders share powerful “survivor” stories, then evolve them into narratives that they take forth to their peers. We often partner this solution with stress inoculation therapy.

3. Cognitive restructuring helps people make sense of painful memories. Often people will feel guilt or shame in the wake of a traumatic event, perhaps questioning why they survived while others perished. Cognitive restructuring can imbue their very survival with a sense of meaning; perhaps telling them they survived for a reason or even a higher purpose.

This can be applied to business by considering what higher obligations your organization has in the wake of the pandemic, and this can be a particularly powerful vector for social responsibility. Many industries have been eviscerated, and if your organization has survived, it may well be able to fulfill a higher purpose in the ecosystem where you operate.

This solution is particularly important for employees who have lost family members or loved ones to COVID-19. They require special attention, not only to meet their own need to feel secure and safe; but also because they can serve as powerful sources of inspiration for their peers

Example: We’ve used this solution with large and small businesses by forming intimate “survivor groups,” wherein all have lost someone. In these group settings, we draw heavily on the work of Viktor Frankl, who survived the most atrocious circumstances (Auschwitz), but lost his entire family, and ultimately found deep meaning and purpose from the experience. This solution has been one of the most powerful and efficient that we’ve found, for its participants then carry the message to their peers. Moreover, with one business where we’ve deployed this solution, several of the survivors have emerged as real leaders in the business, ascending to greater heights than their roles prior to the pandemic, and thereby providing a tangibly observable inspiration to others.

Bouncing Back

Ultimately, when trapped in anxieties that stem from a real trauma, businesses and individuals alike must learn to shift their perspective and act, despite their fears. For we can be assured that their competitors will… so it becomes a question of joining the staying in the game or being left behind.

Human beings are resilient as a species, and this is true not only for the healthy, strong and vibrant; but also those with serious afflictions (just ask anyone who’s worked in the post-surgical rehab unit of a hospital). The trauma inflicted by the pandemic is real, and its effects are far-reaching. But proven solutions are available; and as we’ve seen with real-world applications of these methods, they can help us cope with the after-effects of the pandemic. More than that, they can enable us to not only survive, but also to flourish.

Author:

  • Thomas Brown, CEO, AD ALTIUS ADVISORS

Compliments of Ad Altius Advisors – a member of the EACCNY.