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Trauma caused by the Ukraine-Russia war

How HR can minimise the trauma triggering effect of the war in Ukraine

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In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Valentina Hynes discusses the impact that trauma can have on peoples’ mental health and workplace productivity, and what HR professionals can do to support their staff in these troubling times.

17th Mar 2022
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Whilst this piece will discuss the very real issue of the traumatising nature of tragic events such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is important to emphasise that this is in no way comparable to the horrendous suffering being inflicted upon the residents of Ukraine, and their family and friends.

The majority of us are fortunate enough to not be directly linked to the war in Ukraine. That being said, the conflict there is still having some form of effect on almost everyone, with many people finding the events triggering and traumatising.

Unresolved or unprocessed trauma can negatively impact performance at work, and can sometimes even lead to conflict. It can also result in other symptoms, including: anger, fear, shame, confusion, numbness, irritability and difficulty concentrating.

For HR and People Managers, the war combined with two years of a pandemic, means that they are facing some of the toughest periods they have in a very long time.

Both events have impacted people to some degree, leaving HR scrambling to provide timely support within a constantly changing global landscape that affects everyone differently.

What is trauma?

Trauma is an intense emotional/psychological response to deeply distressing or disturbing events.

Whereas stress is usually a reaction to less dramatic life events such as deadlines, and is not always harmful, trauma deals with extreme circumstances and nearly always is.

Trauma can be a one time occurrence, but it can also be repeated, and its effects on us can be debilitating.

Mental health impact

Just like physical trauma is serious injury to the body, mental trauma can cause serious damage to the mind.

Trauma can lead to depression, anxiety, psychosis, and many more serious mental health issues.

Trauma can lead to depression, anxiety, psychosis, and many more serious mental health issues.

Moreover, trauma can actually be induced from second-hand events – meaning we do not need to witness an event first hand for it to traumatise us. This is known as vicarious or secondary trauma.

Unresolved or unprocessed trauma often leads to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Impact of trauma on engagement and productivity

Although Ukraine is not the only country currently experiencing some form of conflict, in many ways it is a much scarier and potentially traumatising war to UK residents.

This is because of the degree of news coverage that it is receiving, combined with the fact that it is occurring between two European countries and thus invoking memories of the two World Wars, as well as the threat of nuclear warfare.

Regardless of your background, this war has managed to trigger most of us in some way or another. Its impact on us and the empathy that we feel isn’t reserved just for Ukrainians and Russian citizens, but issues of racism have also emerged, following the news of the treatment of African and Asian refugees fleeing Ukraine.

From conflict, to absenteeism and presenteeism, trauma can create a variety of issues for HR professionals. So how can HR support their people and minimise the trauma triggering effect of the war in Ukraine?

The Happiness Framework

One of the ways in which you can support yourself and others through these traumatising times, is by utilising the Happiness Framework: Basic Needs, Autonomy, Mastery and Inclusion, from where we derive Purpose, Meaning, Positivity and Pleasure.

The Happiness Framework

Basic needs

Start with you, and then support others. You cannot pour from an empty cup.

Allow your nervous system and brain to relax. Permit yourself to limit your consumption of the news to avoid exposure to retraumatization.

Trauma prevents the nervous system from being able to regulate itself.  Exposure to constant coverage of events that remind one of trauma, places one at risk of retraumatization.

The first step to healing is recognising the validity of your injury.

Permit yourself to switch off the news or set very clear boundaries. If in the office, advocate to not have the television tuned to the news. Suggest music instead, which is a great way to soothe the mind, and to bond with your colleagues. 

Validation is also a basic human need that can be highly useful in combating trauma. Take time to recognise and acknowledge your fears, worries, and thoughts. Trying to push them away only worsens them, and undermines your efforts.

The first step to healing is recognising the validity of your injury.

Autonomy & Mastery

This means choice/freedom to self direct.

It is important to provide room for flexibility in the workplace. Like a pick and mix, provide an array of events that promote wellbeing, especially experiential ones, and give your people the choice to engage with the events they want to. 

In the same vein, present your people with self development opportunities – mastery is learning.

Learning a new skill you choose for yourself doesn’t only boost your confidence, it has an amazing bonus of distracting you from your fears, grounding you, and giving you hope. 

One of my fears, as it is for many, is that the current conflict will deteriorate into a 3rd World War. So, to manage my mental health, here are some actions I have taken to help feel in control:

  • Put together emergency bags containing very important documents (also scanned them), as well as medical first aid supplies, torchlights, toiletries, etc.
  • Made note of underground carparks in my local area.
  • Started martial arts.
  • Registered to learn Sign Language.

What can you do to promote autonomy and mastery for your people? Optional learning lunches are great; if you’re not already doing them, consider introducing them.

Inclusion

It has been unbelievable how racism has found room for expression, even in the midst of a war. But, stories out of Ukraine are telling of such experiences.

For many from BAMER communities, this has created a trauma very much similar to the feelings evoked in us with the George Floyd murder and Windrush scandal. Especially for anyone who has experienced immigration challenges and direct racism.

Is everyone made to feel truly welcome and accepted within the workplace, regardless of their identity? Or is ‘inclusion’ just something written in your newsletters and email signatures?

Is ‘inclusion’ just something written in your newsletters and email signatures?

Now is a great time to step up on your inclusion campaign.

Encourage communication, encourage volunteering, encourage informed donations, avoid sweeping statements, be as mindful of people with Russian connections as you are of those with Ukrainian connections.

Remember, the casualties of war aren’t those who begin a war, the casualties are everyday people who have to live with its impact, on both sides.

Finally, always encourage professional support. This means encouraging your Mental Health First Aiders and champions to signpost to the appropriate channels. Hub of Hope is a great resource for finding support. 

If you don’t have Mental Health First Aiders or champions, now is the time to begin training staff, as these roles are essential in fulfilling your wellbeing goals.

It is also important to consider what your approach is when it comes to wellbeing and mental health in the workplace. Is it time to consider adopting a holistic approach?

Always keep in mind that however bad current events are, they will pass. Take care of you. You matter. 

 

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