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Trauma-informed Strategies to Support Credit Union Employees During the COVID-19 Pandemic

As staff begin returning to their places of employment, there are pressing questions about how to move forward and provide adequate support for employees in an environment impacted by trauma exposure. Prioritize these six trauma-informed approaches.

  • Hammad N'cho, PhD Executive Director at N’cho Behavioral Group

The spread of COVID-19 has significantly impacted the American lived experience. As of the end of July, over 4.5 million Americans have been infected with over 150,000 deaths. An escalating healthcare emergency with such widespread trauma exposure will inevitably have profound impacts on the mental health and emotional well-being of your workforce. 

Due to nationwide quarantining, these challenges have largely been navigated within employees’ own homes. Also, those staff deemed “essential” or otherwise working at branches, call centers or offices also endure the trauma of heightened transmission risks and possibly managing care for family members back at home. Credit union leaders are also making preparations and laying plans for the time when larger numbers of staff return to work. As stay-at-home orders expire and staff begin returning to their places of employment, there are pressing questions about how to move forward and provide adequate support for employees in an environment impacted by trauma exposure.

Whatever the situation of their staff (in office, remote, preparing to return to office), credit union leaders should anticipate some level of trauma exposure amongst their employees. A trauma-informed strategy for supporting staff could prove helpful in preparing your credit union to respond to new and evolving staff needs.

A trauma-informed management approach operates from the perspective that trauma exposure may be prevalent throughout a workforce. To facilitate healthy work environments, strategic return-to-office procedures must actively center on one guiding principle: avoid employee re-traumatization. A trauma-informed approach accomplishes this by prioritizing six specific areas: employee safety, trustworthiness and transparency, peer support, collaboration and mutuality, empowerment, voice and choice, and cultural, historical and gender issues. (Harris & Fallot, 2001).

1. Ensuring Credit Union Employee Safety

Navigating trauma exposure within an ongoing traumatic event presents unique challenges. In such a dynamic environment, addressing safety issues is essential. For credit union employees returning to work, safety concerns can be expected to focus on limiting virus spread within the workplace. A review of strategies for cleaning workspaces, social distancing of employees and enhancing hand sanitization, paired with robust policies for mask-wearing and sick leave can facilitate a sense of safety among coworkers.

Further, as credit union branches are inherently public-facing, procedures designed to limit customer-to-employee transmission is critical to a trauma-informed return-to-work policy. Credit union leadership should implement face mask protocols for entering branches as well as mitigation efforts for customers who fail to comply. Managing in-branch customer flow and building redundancy into staffing via staggered work shifts can also reduce exposure risks and provide employees with peace of mind. Lastly, as testing for COVID-19 becomes more available, credit unions may consider offering onsite employee testing services.

2. Enhancing Trustworthiness and Transparency

Exposure to traumatic events can produce elevated levels of anxiety and stress in the workplace. Ensuring that policies and procedures are communicated transparently and with empathy is essential in this context. To achieve this, protocols for returning to office must anticipate employee concerns, be easily understood, and made readily available to staff in advance of their return date. Create opportunities for staff to share feedback and show responsiveness to their suggestions and concerns.

3. Peer Support

Peer support programs are a proven approach to navigating challenging circumstances in and out of the workplace. The strength-based framework can help co-workers render aid to one another, share resources, and explore effective coping strategies. As we should also expect there will be employees returning to office after having recovered from COVID-19, peer support groups can facilitate emotional recovery and diminish workplace stigma. Also consider adding peer support groups for staff who face additional burdens such as those who face higher risks for complications from COVID-19, caregivers, and/or those living with higher-risk individuals.

4. Collaboration and Mutuality

Traumatic experiences often produce a sense of loss of agency and control over one’s life. Such feelings of powerlessness can be detrimental to emotional functioning and impair work performance. A trauma-informed approach addresses this by encouraging collaboration and mutuality between leadership and the workforce and affords employees involvement in the circumstances that impact their work lives. This might take the form of anonymous surveys and other opportunities for engagement that encourage feedback, facilitate dialogue, and build trust. Such an approach also prompts supervisors to conduct check-ins with their staff to assess organizational effectiveness in addressing employee needs, whether they are working remotely, in the office, or preparing to return to office.

5. Empowerment, Voice, and Choice

A trauma-informed employee support strategy seeks to empower staff by providing them with resources and agency within their workplace. An effective approach in this regard can be to initially focus on the resource needs of the least empowered members of the workforce. For example, do the least empowered members of your workforce have adequate access to healthcare? As COVID-19 renders an entire workplace as vulnerable as the most vulnerable person in it, review of healthcare afforded to employees at all levels is warranted. Another resource to provide for returning staff is readily available, culturally responsive counseling services. This can take the form of a referral list of mental health resources, donated hours from local therapists, or providers that are directly contracted by the credit union.

For those preparing to return to office, months of working at home likely revealed, perhaps unexpectedly, that presence at the office is not a necessary requirement for productivity. Providing employees with the ability to blend work from home and office, managed by a schedule of their own making, can provide a helpful level of choice, decision-making, and empowerment.

6. Cultural, Historical, and Gender Issues

A well-designed trauma-informed policy is responsive to the experiences of employees who have been uniquely impacted by the pandemic.

The full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic upon the American populace is still emerging. It has become apparent however, that the virus is having a disproportionate impact among certain groups. For example, African Americans represent approximately 12% of the US population but account for 24% of all COVID-19-related deaths. They are, in other words, dying at twice their share of the population. In another example, while quarantining at home is beneficial for stopping viral spread, it also confines some individuals to homes impacted by intimate partner violence and child abuse.

A well-designed trauma-informed policy is responsive to the experiences of employees who have been uniquely impacted by the pandemic. Creating spaces organized specifically for staff from underrepresented groups, for example, can effectively encourage peer support. Similarly, self-led ally groups can be educational and action-oriented, while removing the burden for staff from underrepresented groups to lead in these spaces. Participants from both groups could be invited to participate in focus groups tasked with generating inclusive policy recommendations.

In conclusion, keep in mind that the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed employees to a host of traumatic experiences, and ongoing uncertainty can also be a source of stress. In such an environment, an inclusive leadership approach must be empathic to the unique needs of staff and thoughtful about how to address those needs. A trauma-informed approach can provide the guidance necessary to lead during a time of trauma and ongoing uncertainty.