Trauma Informed Workplace: Opening After Being in Isolation for COVID-19

Trauma Training Dr Barclay(pictured: DuHope team in Trauma Training with Dr. Beverly Barclay)

by Jamie Boiles, Director of DuHope 

After 45 days of a very strict lockdown in Rwanda, DuHope will once again be opening its doors. Countries have chosen different methods of protecting against COVID-19. Rwanda came in very quick and very swift with 17 confirmed cases and shut down the entire country. They began testing, tracing and catching cases of the virus, isolating and treating patients with a sense of urgency out of concern for their people. 

Over the duration of countrywide mandatory isolation, regulations became stricter culminating with required face masks and a digital system of requesting permission to leave our houses even for necessary items (grocery shopping, pharmacy trips, etc). Travel is still restricted from city to city, but as of 4 May 2020, we will be entering a trial period of 15 days of what feels like freedom.

When we left work on Friday 20 March, we assumed we would be coming back on the following Monday, but were notified Saturday of the countrywide lockdown. There was a feeling of grief and anxiety that quickly set in by saying, “Have a good weekend” only to learn we were going to be absent from each other for an extended, unknown period of time. 

Deadlines came and went. Creativity began to stir within our Rwanda team on how to sell things online and using motorcycle delivery guys to get our products to people. If they can’t come to us, we will figure out how to go to them. Likewise, in the US Emily, Sales and Brand Manager, began hosting online parties to replace the income we had planned on for the launch of our Spring line through in-person pop-up shops. 

Then monotony set in, the capacity within our minds began to shut down for simple tasks, much less creativity. Questions about the future overwhelmed some, creating anxiety about what would happen once this is over, or just the idea of not knowing when this would come to an end. People began expressing the desire to get back to “normal”, but acknowledging it won’t be the “old normal”, but maybe a “new normal”. 

Given 3 days notice to re-open our office, we have a lot to consider to resume operations after an abrupt shutdown both professionally and personally. We are going into this thinking everyone will have been traumatized by the last 45 days, so it will be important to keep in mind the symptoms of trauma and how those will manifest in everyone. 

Everyone will not be used to working full days, so there will be a level of physical exhaustion we will need to keep in mind. The mental fatigue will mount as our staff starts to complete what used to be a simple task, but has turned into a full-on problem solving task. We will expend energy to navigate the new reality of how to accomplish seemingly simple tasks. Frustration will begin to creep in as navigating this new reality becomes overwhelming. 

We have decided not to use the word “normal”. Everyone will be grieving what life was like 45 days ago, but emphasizing the difference of old normal and new normal will compound the grief. 

We are going to start the first day back to work with a planning and debriefing meeting. A time to come back together and reorient ourselves with each other and discover how to put on real clothes again! We will grieve the plans we missed, the moments we missed sharing together, and the month of work that was lost. The next item will be resetting deadlines. It is important to take into consideration a longer timeline of accomplishing tasks due to new processes and also mental exhaustion. 

We have a new reality to deal with so it’s almost like we are walking into a new culture and have to handle the new ways of doing things. I can correlate this to moving from the US to Rwanda. I knew I needed to get paper for the printer, but I had to relearn the process for buying paper. When moving abroad, my colleague told me to think about stress on a 1-10 scale. In my home culture, I would wake up at a 1 and have 9 degrees of stress before explosion, in contrast to waking up in a new culture, I would be at a 6 or 7 and have a smaller capacity for stress. Trauma acts in the same way of limiting the ability to function when triggered. 

For the next few weeks, we are going to be operating as if everyone is at a 6-7 stress level with less capacity for decision making. Our Operations Director will be focused on helping the staff problem solve and resolve issues around our new reality. We will have one person designated to COVID protocols; making sure everyone is wearing face masks, social distancing, washing hands, and properly sanitizing the environment. We will be shortening our working days to help with the stress of exhaustion and burnout. Also, with all businesses opening up simultaneously, there will be things that will need to be done that weren’t considered “essential”, but have been neglected. Staff will feel the pressure of taking care of those things and trying to get into the new reality, while being on a higher level of stress.

A trauma informed workplace isn’t just concerned with getting back to work, but ensuring that its people are able to perform at their best.