Addressing intergenerational trauma in the workplace: It’s not easy, but it’s worth it

People in pain can be distracted, demotivated, and uncooperative at work. We humans need to be allowed to experience our full range of emotions that cannot be switched on or off.

This is where the work begins.

Healing from intergenerational trauma must occur on a societal level but begins individually.¹ Trauma is carried across generations through unconscious cues and transgenerational transmissions through dreams, life lessons, stories, and actions taught by the family.² However, people who have not experienced trauma assume nothing out of the ordinary has happened to those around them. Sometimes, minimizing the experience of people hurting or avoiding topics they do not understand is easier because there is serious discomfort in peeling the underlying context of pain.

Yet part of the uncomfortable journey to overcoming trauma is processing what happened, feeling the full extent of it, and making sense of the entire experience.³

One way businesses can support a journey to wellness, thereby creating space for stronger, loyal, innovative, and productive employees, is by embedding a mindful culture, a disciplined accountability structure, and empowering team dynamics.

Businesses need to create an ecosystem that prioritizes psychological safety, welcoming everyone in the chain to think deeply about their own identity, purpose, and vision to better relate to their company's values and goals. Having a mindful culture can help reflect on past mistreatment with openness, acknowledge grief, suffering, and loss inflicted, and move to a future with better and more creative outcomes, both in their professional and personal lives. With this foundation, organizations can appreciate relational similarities within the team, recognize each individual’s unique strengths instead of highlighting each others’ differences.

Creating and fulfilling a structure that addresses deeper psychological needs is a grand challenge for leaders. The time and resources spent on these initiatives do not immediately translate to competitive advantage or return on investments. Institutions must remember this exercise is valuable and worth the time because “working on diverse teams produces better outcomes precisely because it’s harder.”⁴ It is possible to form an environment wherein people could do their best work and, at the same time, share their sorrow.⁵

Key decision-makers should use their influence and power in prompting the organizational infrastructure to reinforce and institutionalize compassionate acts,⁶ whether its issues on the lack of diversity in the workplace, rural or regional employment opportunities that lead to poverty, dispossession of land, or breakdown of tribal groups. A recent example is the events surrounding Rio Tinto and the Aboriginal site they blew up. Leaders who fail to include the insights and perspectives of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) in their operations journey, either internally or externally, can lead to costly mistakes and can set back investments by years.⁷

The executives’ mindset is crucial in making this change happen. Leaders must feel good about what they do to impact others genuinely.⁸ They should be a model for encouraging introspection, curiosity, active listening, and offering compassionate feedback.⁹ Top leadership must be held accountable by ensuring inclusion is a part of their performance measures, i.e., tying 10% of their bonuses to the company’s goals to ensure messaging is not a tokenistic public relations stunt.

Businesses cannot eliminate suffering, change the past, nor can they ask employees to leave their emotions at home. But they can promote a restorative process by elevating others’ voices, spurring positive change, and creating relationships with stakeholders outside their comfort zone. Organizational compassion can be contagious and inspiring, and employees reward and are loyal to companies that treat them humanely.¹⁰

1 and 3: Firestone, L. (2020). The Trauma of Racism. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/compassion-matters/202006/the-trauma-racism

2: Castelloe, M. (2019). How Trauma Is Carried Across Generations. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/the-me-in-we/201205/how-trauma-is-carried-across-generations

4: Rock, D., Grant, H., & Grey, J. (2016). Diverse Teams Feel Less Comfortable — and That’s Why They Perform Better. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/09/diverse-teams-feel-less-comfortable-and-thats-why-theyperform-better

5, 6, and 10: Dutton, J., Frost, P., Worline, M., Lilius, J., & Kanov, J. (2002). Leading in Times of Trauma. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2002/01/leading-in-times-of-trauma

7: Dorobantu, S., & Flemming, D. (2017). It’s Never Been More Important for Big Companies to Listen to Local Communities. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2017/11/its-never-been-more-important-for-bigcompanies-to-listen-to-local-communities

8: Creary, S., McDonnell, M., Ghai, S., & Scruggs, J. (2019). When and Why Diversity Improves Your Board’s Performance. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2019/03/when-and-why-diversity-improves-yourboards-performance

9: Tedeschi, R., (2020). Growth After Trauma. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2020/07/growth-after-trauma

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Phoebe Follosco

Grazing the intersection of business, sustainability, corporate governance, and journalism.