At the start of a new year, it's customary to set some resolutions aimed at self-improvement or development. Such goals inevitably push us outside our comfort zone, stretching us to “up our game.” But after two years of intense disruption brought on by the global coronavirus pandemic, consciously placing more stress on ourselves might not be in our best interest. An alternative is to take a more mindful approach to what the pandemic has imposed on us and seek to understand what good can come from this traumatic event. This can also allow us to help others in the workplace to do so too.
But how can anything good come from millions of deaths and unprecedented economic instability? Dr. Richard G. Tedeschi, a professor of psychology emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, believes the answer lies in understanding and promoting posttraumatic growth.
What Is Posttraumatic Growth?
Posttraumatic growth is an established phenomenon in psychology, one that Dr. Tedeschi has spent many years studying. In his article “Growth After Trauma” for Harvard Business Review, he explains how extremely negative experiences such as wars, bereavement, and serious illnesses can spur positive change. Suffering can deepen our relationships, allow us to uncover the depths of our personal strength, and lead us to explore new possibilities. Ultimately, we may be left with a far greater appreciation for life. So, despite experiencing personal tragedy and the collective trauma of our organizations and communities, we each stand to emerge stronger and better for the coronavirus outbreak.
How Can Posttraumatic Growth Be Facilitated?
Dr. Tedeschi says posttraumatic growth will often happen naturally, that is, without formal intervention. However, there are five ways to facilitate it:
Coming to terms with any trauma involves educating ourselves on the manner and extent to which it shatters our core beliefs. Sometimes, these beliefs aren’t even conscious, so we may have to dig deep to comprehend how our worldview has been disrupted. Then, we have to rebuild our belief system to accommodate the new information we have. For example, many of us believed our modern healthcare systems were resilient enough to protect us under any circumstances. Now, we know that all the brightest minds and money in the world were powerless in the face of the coronavirus when it first appeared.
It can be frightening, confusing, and even painful when our assumptions are disputed. But it can also catalyze a series of extremely beneficial questions, including “Why did this happen?” and “How should I respond?”
Many people have resolved to live healthier lives and spend more time with loved ones due to the pandemic, while some organizations have discovered new competencies and better ways of working.
2. Emotional Regulation
Learning requires a particular mindset; feelings of guilt, anger, and anxiety hamper the learning process and so must be managed. Practicing mindfulness can be invaluable, because to regulate emotion, it must first be recognized and acknowledged.
Physical exercise and meditation can allow you to observe emotions better as they occur. In the workplace, encourage such practices within your organization and create an atmosphere where people can communicate freely. Rather than focusing on negatives, encourage yourself and your team members to concentrate on the resources still at hand, best-case scenarios, and occasions where obstacles have been successfully overcome.
As the adage goes, a trouble shared is a trouble halved—communication helps counter feelings of isolation and allows team members to leverage their collective emotional strength. Disclosure is about sharing what’s happened and how it’s affecting us personally and as an organization. Voicing our thoughts helps us make sense of trauma and promotes productive reflection.
When prompting others to engage in the process, it’s best not to ask intrusive questions that could be misunderstood as curiosity. Set the example by speaking openly about your own struggles and how you are dealing with uncertainty. Invite others to share their experiences, and be sure to listen attentively.
4. Narrative Development
The next step in the “sense-making” process of trauma acknowledgment and recovery is to create an authentic story of how the event has shaped and strengthened us. We can't change what's already happened, but we can write the future chapters in the stories of our lives. How has the pandemic caused you to reevaluate your priorities? What new opportunities has it presented? Dr. Tedeschi suggests looking to well-known leaders who have overcome hurdles like Oprah Winfrey and Nelson Mandela and companies that have risen stronger from crises such as Chrysler and Johnson & Johnson.
Lastly, Dr. Tedeschi shares how trauma survivors often benefit from work that helps victims of similar events. Being of service to others is a tangible way to turn a negative experience into something positive. And it doesn't need to be a grand gesture like starting a foundation—you can focus on small ways to provide relief, such as supporting small businesses or retraining teammates. Sometimes simply expressing gratitude and demonstrating empathy to others is enough.