Processing Mass Trauma in the Workplace

A graphic shows an illustration of a human brain and the silhouette of of a person, surrounded by words describing grief and trauma.

Unfortunately, it seems that every day in the news, we see and hear about traumatic events. With access to 24-hour news cycles and an increasingly global society, it’s only natural that many of these traumas hit close to home.


Over the last few years, many people have started to marvel at how we’re all expected to witness horrors daily and then trudge on to be productive at work. At a minimum, it can cause us to feel distracted, stressed, and overwhelmed, and at worst, the impact can be much more severe. For some people, this constant bombardment may retrigger their own traumas or touch their lives directly.


So, what do we do as professionals in the human services fields? How do we support each other and our teams so we can continue to offer compassionate, empathetic care and support to our clients? What is the key to processing mass trauma in the workplace while still carrying on with the work that is so critical to support us in healing through all that we are collectively experiencing?


Recognizing Grief When Coping with Traumatic Events

We’re likely all too aware of the recent mass traumas that we’ve processed collectively in the last few years. Unfortunately, each time we see harmed by acts of violence, it can be extremely difficult to process, especially when there are parallels to our own lives and/or work.


When we hear of other people experiencing trauma, it’s natural that we feel a sense of fear, anger, and loss. Our simple definition of trauma is a moment or moments of powerlessness. It’s important to acknowledge those feelings, especially if we’re working in fields where we may be holding space for others to process their own trauma.


If we find that we’re struggling with processing mass trauma, we can recognize and honor the grief that we’re experiencing. Grief is a process—it’s not something we experience once and then move on. It’s ongoing.


Many times, when we experience grief, we may feel all the pain and trauma of our collective past losses as well. So in that sense, each time we experience grief, it may be different and, in some ways, more intense with each encounter.


We must allow ourselves to move within the grieving space with awareness, intention, and effort. It’s not about turning the grief off or “stopping it,” but instead finding activities that we can engage in to help us move within our grief in a healthy way. It’s especially critical when we may be experiencing collective grief alongside others who are feeling complex emotions too­­––such as those we serve.


Only recently have people started to understand the importance of expressing and honoring feelings when processing traumatic events. For almost all of history, we’ve been told to carry on and suck it up. Still, by not processing what we’ve experienced, we may repeat cycles and carry that collective grief and generational trauma throughout our lives.


Focusing on Team Wellness in Response to Mass Trauma

From a workplace perspective, there are plenty of benefits of including team wellness in our practice. A supportive, nurturing, and caring work environment is a place where people want to be. People want to know that they’re making a difference in their jobs and that their presence matters to what they’re doing—no matter the task. And when that is not present, people move on, as you well know from the great resignation.


In human services, this desire to help foster positive change in the world is a driving force. It’s the very reason why most people are drawn to careers in social work, education, healthcare, and other human service roles. But the same aspects that attract us to these careers can also be the most emotionally taxing. At times, it can feel like we’re Sisyphus, rolling the boulder up the hill only to have it roll back down and have it do it all over again.


Team wellness is crucial for reducing the incidence of burnout at our jobs. It helps to increase employee retention and improves job satisfaction too. When people feel good about what they’re doing and feel nurtured, respected, and cared for within the workplace environment, they can often succeed at even difficult and challenging tasks.


So what does wellbeingness mean in the workplace? Is it a focus on healthy living? Is it mental health?


Team wellness is holistic, catering to the whole person and the whole team. The team wellness and sharing circles that we model at Share are safe and nurturing environments where we hold space for each other—allowing people to explore and process their emotions and responses, whether to personal or mass traumas, in a supportive, respectful environment.


Helping people collectively process mass trauma in the workplace isn’t a “skill” or formula we can apply to a situation. It’s instead about learning to build connections with empathy and rapport so that when different situations arise, we have those wellbeing tools in place.


It’s also important to recognize that mass trauma has no one-size-fits-all response. What may be upsetting and retriggering for one person may not be felt as deeply by another. The news or the situation may more strongly impact one person in the environment because of something in their personal history or how they identify with those who experienced the trauma. There may be some situations that could feel stronger and more impactful for certain people.


When we hear of a mass trauma in the news or a tragic event, it might happen far away from us, but these events can still impact the people we’re working with without us even knowing or realizing the effect. We’re all connected somehow, somewhere, and through something. We may not know that someone on our team has a family member near the center of the tragedy or a friend who has been directly impacted by a similar event. They may not know that of us. We can only learn of these situations if we create the space and structure for our experiences to be shared with healthy and appropriate levels of vulnerability.


Using Guided Check-In Circles to Facilitate Team Wellness

One of the ways we work with teams to foster team wellness is to model and facilitate guided check-in circles. These circles are spaces where team members can openly talk and share as needed. It gives people a way to process what they might be experiencing in a safe way before they have to meet with the people that they serve.


These circles are sometimes called sharing circles. In most cases, they begin with grounding or mindfulness exercises to help everyone shift away from the day-to-day hustle-bustle. A check-in often follows mindfulness and recentering. Everyone is encouraged to be present in the circle, where they can express their thoughts and feelings.


People express their feelings openly after establishing their own agreements on what they need from one another to feel safe sharing. Everyone in the workplace wellbeing circle gets to share if they want to and only if they want to. Everyone gets to have a voice. As someone shares, everyone actively listens. Once they share, we thank them for their bravery in being vulnerable and open with the group. There is no “fixing”—only space holding. People talk about what’s coming up for them and how they’re processing the recent events and learning about themselves. When the session closes, we always check out with a moment to acknowledge and reinforce the safety and wellbeing of everyone in the sharing circle. The most common check-out comments from a check-in circle are refreshed, connected, hopeful, cleansed, learning, and the like.


Wellbeing circles allow teams to process traumatic events safely and to get the support of their fellow teammates. They also help increase the empathy and connection between the group. It can raise our awareness of the impact events are having on others and help us become more aware of situations like systemic oppression and the impact on those we work with.


We hear a lot about burnout, compassion fatigue, and vicarious traumatization in human service professions. There’s currently a shift away from fields like education and social services because people are feeling exhausted, depressed, and unsupported in these fields. Despair is setting in. We’ve been going through many traumatic experiences as a nation and around the globe, so the necessity for these professions is greater than ever. Thus, so is the demand on professionals. Hope is required to continue the journey of healing.


When people focus on their personal wellbeingness, they have more reserves “in the tank” to keep themselves going. They can give to those they serve because they’ve met their own needs and nurtured themselves. We can bring this sense of wellbeingness to our team by learning about creating spaces where everyone feels comfortable feeling and expressing their emotions.


Please reach out today if you want to learn more about helping your team connect and grow. We’re happy to share ways we can all create safer and more supportive communities.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *