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HR needs to defuse a time bomb of organisational trauma

Don't ignore the ticking time bomb of organisational trauma

When people ask what HR professionals do at work, have you ever described yourself as a bomb disposal expert? It may sound dramatic, but not only do we have to identify and defuse bombs, we are also the ones seen to be arming them.

HR has undertaken a seismic shift from transactional to transformational in many organisations.

Less ‘hire and fire’ and more of a strategic change partner. Our role in supporting organisations to be agile and responsive to seemingly unending change is key.  
People look to us to support them through sudden and unexpected change. Yet the experiences of our employees are less than ideal when it comes to the reality of change.

At a time when organisations aspire to maximum agility and flexibility, we also see that sick leave is at a 10-year high. 

Work-related stress leading to employee physical pain

Mental health issues and chronic conditions cost an estimated £43 billion annually from the UK economy, through lost working days and out-of-pocket medical costs as well as salary loss for the individuals concerned.  
This goes alongside people searching for extra sources of income and in many cases accepting additional jobs, affecting their physical and psychological wellbeing even further.   

Recently, we – an organisational design (OD) practitioner and an osteopath – became curious about the similarities in the day-to-day experiences shared by our clients, despite huge differences in our professions.

Three million people unable to work due to back pain

People tell us their stories of physical and psychological pain. They talk of sleepless nights and sore shoulders. We hear about headaches and panic attacks.  
On further exploration, it turns out that going through a significant change at work, such as redundancy, reorganisation or other unexpected events, can have the same impact and similar symptoms as being involved in a car crash. 

Worryingly, the people who shared their experiences of sudden change also described the poor support offered by the organisation in response and how that itself exacerbated the emotional distress and frustration they were feeling.  

The profound toll on wellbeing caused by the organisation was made worse through a lack of communication, transparency and support.  

Traditional employee assistance programmes have gone some way in offering more than interview skills training, with the better ones encompassing mental health resources, but they still fall short of a ‘whole human’ package of help. 

HR is stuck between a rock and a hard place, both leading change initiatives and supporting people affected by them.  
We suggest practitioners take a leaf from other professions who are becoming more trauma-informed in their approach.

Supporting employees who have experienced trauma

This includes having a basic understanding of trauma and how best to recognise and respond to it.

People trust us to know how to care for them and we should continue to find ways to help with the problems they’re experiencing due to changes we’re implementing. 

Otherwise, we’re all ignoring a ticking time bomb of organisational trauma and will have nobody to blame but ourselves when it goes off. Defusing it means acknowledging what’s happening and our play part in it.  
We can respond by widening our approach not just to the treatment of physical and psychological trauma, but in how we might mitigate it in the first place.  
Extending our role to include prevention as well as cure might help to lay more solid foundations when it comes to supporting employees, reduce costs and therefore a financial burden on both organisations and wider society,  and keep efficiency high.  
This may require HR to undertake new or different types of training needed to respond compassionately and creatively to the needs of our people, but we’ve never shied away from a challenge before, and we can step up to this one too. 

By Paul Taylor-Pitt, OD consultant, coach and writer; and Tomaso Cairoli, osteopath, personal trainer and massage therapist