Hidden Personal Consequences of Unemployment and an Uncertain Future

My intimate experience with job loss and uncertainty and how utilizing a culture of connection and empathy can minimize the potential health consequences associated with trauma.

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Photo by Nathan Cowley for Pexels
Photo by Nathan Cowley for Pexels

At the time of this writing, over 38 million American’s have filed unemployment claims1 bringing our countries unemployment rate to a staggering 14.7%2 as a result of the ongoing Covid19 worldwide pandemic.  The rate of unemployment grew rapidly in the month of April 2020, exploding by 10.3% in that month alone2.  Given the reaction by Federal, State, and Local governments to help curtail the spread of the virus, the vast majority of American job loss was through no fault of their own.   Such unexpected occurrences can yield dangerous and possibly severe impacts on health given the stress-filled toll of an uncertain future.  Having a considerable amount of personal experience in this area, I cherish the opportunity to share with you some of the hardships I have endured with the hopes of drawing attention to the likelihood that many others may be experiencing them now or in the future .  Most importantly, I wish to provide some insight in regards to interventions that I could have used to help minimize the effects of the mental, emotional, and physical struggles I faced during my darkest days of uncertainty.

Unforeseen job loss establishes the understanding that our livelihood and wellbeing are not always in our control.  One of the most influential circumstances that I have experienced (both personally and professionally) took place on a Thursday in 2016. On this particular morning my commute was a bit longer than normal given my responsibility in downtown Detroit that day.  I received a text message from my direct supervisor asking if I would meet with her at a specific location after I had completed my assigned task.  Given the nature of my position, meeting in this fashion was not uncommon so it aroused no suspicion in the moment.  I will never forget what came next.

My supervisor brought me into an office where I was greeted by the director of the department I worked for. We gathered around a table where I was then notified of my termination. The most unique component of this chain of events was a complete lack of explanation when I asked for one. Three consecutive times.  The on boarding paperwork that I agreed to when I accepted this job recognized this position as “at-will” meaning “…employees without a written employment contract generally can be fired for good cause, bad cause, or no cause at all…”3 as long as that reason is not illegal (such as; race, sexual orientation, etc.).   This traumatic and unforeseen experience (unbeknownst to me at the time) fundamentally changed who I was and who I would become.

Two and a half years and over one thousand job applications came and went before I was able to obtain another fulltime position.  One of the most difficult lessons I learned from this experience was how life gets put on hold when insufficient money is coming in. A length of time read as words on paper (or screen) provides little justice to the true nature of the time that passes. For that reason, I offer this context: in the two and a half years that I spent unemployed, financially crippled, and living off of my parents’ overwhelming generosity, a childhood friend of mine got engaged to his girlfriend, moved in with her, got married, got her pregnant, had a child, and built a new house. While my buddy spent those days making progress, mine were spent as if I hit the pause button on life: filling out job applications, sending emails, making phone calls, and setting up meetings with the hopes of obtaining employment one grueling and monotonous day after another.

I mentioned earlier the toll an uncertain future can take on our overall wellbeing.  Given my aforementioned experience, I am a perfect example of the potential cost associated with longstanding unemployment and uncertainty.  Taking into account the 38 million Americans who are currently dealing with an uncertain future, the prospect of similar outcomes to my own is of serious concern and should not be taken lightly.  Below you will find the most severe ramifications from my bout with prolonged uncertainty.

Stress: The most powerful, prominent, and immediate feeling related to uncertainty is stress.  The source of the stress in such a circumstance, in my opinion, stems from the helplessness and lack of control over the situation.  Every hour of every day is filled with reminders of your current circumstance; the price of food at the grocery store, the cost of fuel for a vehicle, the cost of an electric bill, your ability to go out and enjoy life, among many other previously thoughtless routines, require additional thought and concern for the future which represents an abrupt change from a life of secure employment.  The longer the chronic stress of uncertainty persists the more damage it does to our overall wellbeing (an affliction that has come to be known as allostatic load4 5).

The physiological processes of stress are numerous and complex, however; the role it plays in our health is crucial. “Good” short-term stress, such as weight lifting or long runs, can be beneficial to our health due to the protective nature of the body’s response to it. “Bad” stress, however, is our focus given the relentless protracted nature of psychological stress related to uncertainty.

Stress can be generally defined as anything that disrupts homeostasis (physiological balance) or thinking that you will be thrown out of homeostasis6.  The constant uneasy and uncomfortable feelings (“bad” stress) related to an uncertain future recruit specialized areas of the brain, specifically the amygdala (known as the fear center) along with the hypothalamus7. This is important because these two areas of the brain are largely responsible for the release of hormones, neurotransmitters, and glucocorticoids, including but not limited to, epinephrine (also known as adrenaline), norepinephrine, and cortisol7.  You are most likely familiar with these substances because they participate in the well-known “Flight or Flight” response.  In general, fight or flight rapidly mobilizes energy into circulation from storage sites in the body for the purpose of survival7.  In order for that to take place, during stress-filled situations, long term building projects – growth, tissue repair, and reproduction – are delayed until after the crisis7. Therefore, it stands to reason that a chronically activated stress response can yield a perilous outcome. The Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky appropriately says in his book Behave that if you “…chronically activate the stress response for reasons of psychological stress, your health suffers…we get sick from activating the stress response too often, too long, and for purely psychological reasons”8.

The detriment to our health is rooted in inflammation.  Inflammation can be experienced acutely on a short-term basis, like when we experience a small cut to our finger and our immune system sends cells to the site to help fight any possible infection.  We can also experience what is known as chronic inflammation which is understood to be systemic due to the extended immune response.  Fight or flight is heavily associated with chronic inflammation for multiple reasons; one example is the role of cortisol. This substance is heavily involved in our body’s inflammatory response. Prolonged stress (akin to the unexpected uncertainty of job loss) can lead to high levels of cortisol which alters the effectiveness of the substance to regulate both the inflammatory and immune response because that prolonged stress minimizes tissue sensitivity to cortisol9.  Generally speaking, chronic inflammation has been associated with many chronic diseases, including but not limited to: cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative disease, cancer, and diabetes to name a few.      

The most exhausting component of prolonged bouts of stress (hence, fight or flight) that I experienced were the continuous nights of inefficient and nonrestorative sleep, leading to fatigue-filled days, which makes productivity extra difficult.  This side effect makes perfect sense as it relates to fight or flight because the mechanisms involved in that process make us much more alert and ready to defend ourselves from harm, even though the only threat I was dealing with during those times was the uncertainty of my future.  I fear there are many people in our country (and around the globe) who are currently dealing with similar issues.   

There are many beneficial coping strategies for the routine daily stress experienced by the average American. These strategies include meditation and exercise, among others.  In times of prolonged and extreme stress, the willingness to indulge in more extreme forms of stress relief amplifies due to the overwhelming desire to feel good, which can put us at risk for addiction. The Covid19 crisis has found many Americans unemployed, uncertain, and isolated due to government-implemented stay at home orders.  Performing a simple Google search will provide a long list of articles written about the struggles of addiction during this pandemic from all corners of the country10.   Luckily, during my most stressful periods I did not attempt to use any drugs; however, I did develop multiple habitual adverse health behaviors as coping mechanisms while struggling to find work and worrying about my future. 

Fear and Anxiety: Fear and anxiety disorders affect 18% of the population in the U.S. in any given year, which is more than twice the number who suffer from depression and costs roughly $40 billion annually11 12 13.  I share this with you because, given my experience, the fear and anxiety that compounded over my two and a half years of rejection became two of the main ingredients contributing to the paralyzing nature of my daily life. 

I first learned that, at any given time, we are all a product of three constantly interacting entities: our genes, our experiences, and the environments in which we interact, through Robert Sapolsky’s book Behave14.  Subsequent reading has supported this idea being a consensus among the scientific community. Another highly respected neuroscientist, Joseph LeDoux, tells us in his book Anxious that “It is now widely recognized that individual experience affects the way genetic programming is expressed, leading to the lack of a clear boundary between what is innate and what is learned”15 Fear then, especially as it relates to rejection among our uncertain circumstances, is likely directly related to learning.  “Fear conditioning is an example of associative learning, a process by which the brain forms memories about the relationship between events”15.

Let me provide some context using my experience.  I was unexpectedly let go from a job, which caused a significant amount of discomfort and stress related to an uncertain future and feelings of inadequacy. Pair that stress and discomfort with the continuous rejection I subsequently endured, and the fear that I learned to associate with work, job applications, future opportunities, etc. can certainly be understood. 

The hippocampus, specifically, is the part of the brain that stores memories related to personal experiences16 and pairs with the amygdala, which again is known as the “fear center” of the brain, during times of fear to associate that experience with fear for future recall17.  The fascinating thing about fear or threat, and our responses to it, is that it manifests itself both consciously (behavior such as avoidance) and unconsciously (increased heart rate, perspiration, etc.).  Learned fear is no different.  A person can undergo threat conditioning by pairing a benign stimulus (like that of the process of applying for a job) with a pain causing agent such as a mild electric shock (or continuous rejection)18.  Additionally, many studies have indicated that the human brain can process threat significance without being aware of the trigger stimulus itself19. Meaning that after fear conditioning has been successfully completed, threat processing does not require consciousness to bring about the involuntary autonomic nervous system responses stated above19.  Additionally, the sheer process of experiencing the benign stimulus (like applying to a job) can illicit the conscious and unconscious reaction without even experiencing the negative outcome (rejection).  That conditioned fear that became an overwhelming part of my daily life gave way to crippling anxiety, which Freud describes as “a state of expecting danger or preparing for it, and of dreading it, even though the actual source of harm may be unknown20”. We will discuss why past traumas such as these are important later on.

Loneliness: The late John Cacioppo, referring to the outcome of his own multi-year study of older adults in Cook County, Illinois, listed the top three factors that predicted changes in happiness over a three year period in his book Loneliness21 22. The number two factor was household income, which certainly makes sense given our discussion thus far related to the association between an unexpected lack of income, an uncertain future, and the stress that accompanies them.  The number one factor that he listed as predicting happiness is social connections.  Given my struggles, the influence that unexpected job loss and uncertainty have on both of these happiness factors is understandable. 

Money, as the cliché describes it, is the root of all evil. Regardless of whether or not this is true, there is no argument that money provides the opportunity to have all of our basic needs met. Without it, quality of life deteriorates and one’s ability to connect socially diminishes the longer financial struggles persist.  This “double whammy”, if you will, paired with the stress, fear, and uncertainty described above provides the perfect framework for feelings associated with the experience known as loneliness.

Most people, me included at one point, infer loneliness to mean isolation or being physically alone. However, “according to psychologists, loneliness is not merely isolation or an individual’s “perception of being alone and isolated,” but rather the “inability to find meaning in one’s life.” Sociologists sometimes describe the concept as “a subjective, negative feeling related to deficient social relations,” or the “feeling of disconnectedness from a community of meaning””23 24.   Understanding that loneliness is a feeling as opposed to a physical state provides the ability to, based on the above definition, link unexpected job loss, an uncertain future and its accompanying stressors (along with money troubles and its associated consequences) to feelings of loneliness.

John Cacioppo is known as “Dr. Loneliness” or the “Godfather of loneliness” due to his pioneering work in the field of loneliness research. The treasure trove of literature he left us has motivated many other academics to follow in his footsteps in addition to providing us with the opportunity to share his findings and collectively help intervene on this growing trend. 

Multiple researchers, including Cacioppo, have identified three dimensions of loneliness. Vivek Murthy, in his new book titled Together, does a great job of explaining these three separate dimensions. “Intimate, or emotional, loneliness is the longing for a close confidante or intimate partner – someone with whom you share a deep mutual bond of affection and trust. Relational, or social, loneliness is the yearning for quality friendships and social companionship and support. Collective loneliness is the hunger for a network or community of people who share your sense of purpose and interests”25 26 27 28.  The struggle associated with the Covid19 crisis that forced us into isolation as a life-saving measure, paired with the future professional uncertainty, has undoubtedly created an uptick in at least one (if not all three) dimensions of loneliness for our citizens, an uptick from an already significant 61% of Americans who are dealing with feelings of loneliness as surveyed by the health corporation Cigna29.  

Personally, I have had an intimate relationship with loneliness for the better part of my life. Mass amounts of rejection (socially, romantically, professionally, etc.) over the course of multiple years have injected the roots of loneliness so deep that my daily life experiences and mental outlook distinctly coincide with the signs and symptoms of loneliness outlined by John Cacioppo himself. Those signs and symptoms of protracted loneliness include30:

  • Impaired self-regulation (mental and physiological balance)
  • Distorted social cognition
  • Less likely to acknowledge others perspectives
  • Less able to evaluate others intentions, which can make us socially awkward
  • Fear makes it easier to blame others, makes us desperate to please, and sometimes causes us to play the victim which can lead to the rejection we fear
  • More likely to be distrustful of others
  • Increased likelihood we apply defensive perceptions to neutral or benign situations
  • Disrupts ability to accurately interpret social signals
  • Less accurate interpretation of facial expressions

After consuming this list, if you are like me, you gather that protracted loneliness is a vicious cycle and inevitably played a role in my being rejected in the ways that I have. To take it one step further, considering the ways in which loneliness manifests itself, it likely played a role in each subsequent rejection. 

Given the previous discussion about fear conditioning and the role fear plays in loneliness, fear extinction is one of the requirements of breaking the cycle of loneliness.  The physiological processes of extinguishing learned fear and anxiety are complex (processes that obviously include the amygdala and hippocampus), however, in the most general terms it requires continuous positive exposure in order to learn that a once-fearful stimulus is no longer fearful31.  For me, that process has been difficult given the long-term impact of loneliness (as described by Cacioppo) and the countless failures that have piled up to bolster and reaffirm my fears, continuing the cycle of loneliness.  I take comfort in knowing that the crisis related to Covid19 will not be anywhere near as long as my struggle with this affliction, therefore; the vast majority of people who have lost their jobs and are stricken with panic due to uncertainty will not experience such depths and will extinguish their fear sooner as opposed to later and break their cycle of loneliness.

Depression: In 2017, the World Health Organization estimated that approximately 322 million people – more than four percent of the global population – were currently living with depression32. This particular burden is characterized by profound sadness, fatigue, altered sleep and appetite, and feelings of guilt or low self-worth33. Do these symptoms sound familiar?  The sum of my personal experiences we have already discussed most certainly contributed to depression being the end result. Make no mistake, however, that each individual affliction strengthens the effects of the others. 

Like everything else in terms of health, our genes play a major role in how we react to circumstances by putting us at an increased or decreased susceptibility.  Specifically, twin studies have estimated that approximately 40% of the variation in the population’s risk of depression is attributable to genetic variation34. Environmental exposures, such as early life trauma, parenting styles, socioeconomic status, among others can certainly play a contributing role35.   Which brings us back to the earlier point that our genes interact with our environment and our circumstances to make us who we are. Rejection, unexpected job loss, uncertainty, and financial insecurity through no fault of our own, therefore, can make depression a very legitimate likelihood for our friends, family members, and fellow Americans during this trying time. I am optimistic that the vast majority of new depression cases due to the Covid19 crisis will be strictly situational and therefore be remedied by a hopeful return to “normal”. 

Given the significant number of existing depression cases, and the suspected increase as a side effect of Covid19, how do we fix it? How can we provide relief for the people suffering?  The answers to these questions remain complex and uncertain given the extreme variability in the ways in which each individual experiences depression, however, the influence of medication has risen to the top. Many people have seen benefits by taking these medications (myself included), and yet I wonder if they are truly as effective as advertised or if we are overlooking a possible drugless remedy hiding in plain sight.

The book Lost Connections by Johann Hari is a wonderful book about the power of social connections. In it, he provides a thought provoking anecdote about the efficacy of antidepressants through the work of Dr. Irving Kirsch, the Associate Director of the Program in Placebo Studies and a lecturer in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

The Hamilton Scale is a measurement tool used by clinicians, scientists, and researchers alike to determine an individual’s depression severity.   The tool itself was created by a scientist named Max Hamilton and ranges from zero to fifty one (zero represents no recognizable depression and fifty one represents extreme, paralyzing, debilitating experiences with the affliction). 

A small section of the pages that Hari uses to describe the work of Kirsch’s quest to unearth the true findings of “Big Pharma’s” antidepressant clinical trials; he notes how improving sleep patterns can yield a six point drop in Hamilton Scale scorings. The research performed by Dr. Kirsch and his team ultimately determined that antidepressants were shown to have a positive impact on consumer’s feelings and did decrease their Hamilton Scores – by 1.8 points36 37.  

The improvement in depression symptoms (provided by antidepressants) shown in Dr. Kirsch’s work is less than one third of the benefits that improved sleep patterns provided to depression sufferers.  Given the extraordinary numbers of prescriptions that are written for these types of drugs, why would the improvement turnout to be so modest? This finding lends credibility to the argument that the placebo effect is a significant factor in the benefits of antidepressants as well as the influence our experiences and environments have on the negative symptoms related to our depression.  If there was one place where the average person spent 90,000 hours of their lives, should it be utilized as an excellent opportunity to manipulate the experiences and environments that are so influential in the onset of depression?  That is my hope.

Our Impact on Others:  It is so crucial that we recognize the influence we can have on the life and wellbeing of others through the choices we make. It is easy to get caught up in our own lives, families, goals, jobs, etc. that we forget the power our daily interactions and choices have on the lives of others. No one is ever going to be perfect so expecting perfection is unrealistic. However, take it from a routinely rejected, lonely, and scared individual that you and your actions are both seen and felt. Minimal acts of kindness can be truly life changing while seemingly mundane acts of passive aggression can be viewed as cruel attacks on our humanity, given the delicate nature of our existence.   Dale Carnegie perfectly describes the influence of seemingly ordinary acts yielding extraordinary results when he said:

“Your smile is a messenger of your good will. Your smile brightens the lives of all who see it. To someone who has seen a dozen people frown, scowl, or turn their faces away, your smile is like the sun breaking through the clouds.  Especially when that someone is under pressure from his bosses, his customers, his teachers, or parents or children, a smile can help him realize that all is not hopeless – that there is joy in the world”38.

One of the biggest lessons I learned from the time I have spent unemployed and searching for work is that we spend our lives preparing to be granted opportunities by others. Therefore as individuals we possess the power to grant opportunities to others.  This phenomenon takes place in every facet of our lives; friendships, romantic partners, and jobs all require someone else taking a chance on us and giving us an opportunity by believing that we can succeed in whatever position they have entrusted us with – accepting all of us for our positive characteristics along with all the inevitable weaknesses and shortcomings. 

This bidirectional component of interpersonal relationships represents the innate requirement and desire we all have embedded in our DNA for human connection.  From a neuroscience perspective, our willingness to bond socially provides us with “warm and fuzzy” feelings along with those individuals that we bond with (i.e. the smile as stated above).  

We previously discussed the roles of the amygdala, hypothalamus, and hippocampus and their influence on the release of hormones, neurotransmitters, and glucocorticoids during such negative experiences as stress, anxiety, fear, and depression.  The “warm and fuzzy” feelings associated with social bonding and social connections require the influence of these components as well.  The most well-known influence on the feel-good mechanism of social connection is a hormone (which communicates among organ systems) and neurotransmitter (signaling within the brain and autonomic nervous system) that arises from the pituitary gland (right beneath the hypothalamus) called oxytocin39.  Parts of the brain that are influenced by oxytocin include the amygdala, the hypothalamus, and areas of the brain stem that control blood pressure, pulse, awareness, movement, and feeling40.  When healthy connections are established with one another, the oxytocin that is released inhibits the amygdala by suppressing any existing fear and anxiety41.  The pleasurable and calming feelings that are associated with that minimized fear and anxiety allow for a positive feedback loop, deepening the connections and eliciting more prosocial behavior.  How do these healthy, feel-good social connections form? Well, research shows a heavy contribution by the foundation of any successful relationship: trust42. 

The role that oxytocin plays in the pleasurable feelings felt by individuals and the positive feedback loops among large social groups is especially important in a workplace setting. Hormones seldom act outside the context of the individual and his or her own environment43, it depends heavily on circumstances – who you are, your environment, and who the other people are.  In a workplace setting leadership creates, promotes, and models the environment in which a culture operates.  Therefore, the way in which the most influential individuals act in a workplace setting sets the tone for the way in which all of their subordinates ultimately act, feel, and work towards management and coworkers. (People have been shown to mimic others movements and behaviors, even subconsciously. Mimicry has been shown to release dopamine, another reward oriented neurotransmitter released by the hypothalamus, due to its ability to create an “Us-ness” among the participants.44) A positive workplace culture rooted in trust, safety, security, and connection can eventually create that oxytocin infused satisfying feedback loop, opening up a world of beneficial possibilities for both the employees (from top to bottom) and the business that employs them.

Importance of Communication: During a time such as this, where we are “social distancing” and isolated from one another, it is even more important for us to talk, chat, and see each other through whatever means necessary.  This is crucial across all spectrums of relationships; friends, family, coworkers, supervisors, and subordinates.  You might be asking; why is it so important?  The answer to that is multifaceted, however, two of the most influential reasons I would like to discuss include social support (Us versus Them) as well as the role that subconscious nonverbal communication plays in accurately conversing with one another. 

I mentioned above the relationship between mimicry and dopamine and how the combination of the two can create an “us-ness” among the participants.  In times such as these where we are spending so much time apart from our friends, family, and coworkers that the simple act of maintaining connection and providing social support will also strengthen that feeling of “us-ness” that is important to cementing the trust so critical to strong relationships.  It is essential to remind those people closest to us how much they matter.  The American philosopher John Dewey once said that “the deepest urge in human nature is the desire to be important”.

This is especially vital from a workplace and employment perspective. The human mind has a tendency to categorize people into groups (the aforementioned Us vs Them). This mentality is geared toward people who may be different than us in some way, whether its race, gender, age, nationality, culture, religion, socioeconomic status, or even supervisor and subordinate. The ability and willingness of coworkers, supervisors, and upper level management to sustain or develop personal connections with each other, maintaining positivity and reassurance, will allow the group to strengthen the feelings of “Us” among the full gamut of employees that will benefit the business in the long run, especially if the existence of reciprocal altruism continues and strengthens when everyone returns to work. Dale Carnegie says in his book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, “You want approval of those with whom you come in contact. You want recognition of your true worth. You want a feeling that you are important in your little world45.” 

It is really easy in the fast-paced world in which we currently operate to focus only on ourselves and our laundry list of daily responsibilities and commitments, so much so that we forget to recognize the difficulties others are experiencing. In both our personal and professional relationships it is ok to tell people you care about them, wish them well, and provide help and support when they need it. The best way to do that is in person, where they can see, hear, and feel your emotional sincerity. At a time when being together provides an increased health risk, I highly recommend videochat due to the ability to see and hear that it provides to the participants. To quote directly from Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone,

“Computer mediated communication, now and for the foreseeable future, masks the enormous amount of nonverbal communication that takes place during even the most casual face to face encounter. Eye contact, gestures (both intentional and unintentional), nods, a faint furrowing of the brow, body language, seating arrangements, even hesitation measured in milliseconds – none of this mass of information that we ordinarily process almost without thinking in face-to-face encounters is captured in text46.”

“Psychological Safety” When We Return To Work: Looking back on my multiple unfortunate professional experiences, I have never felt as if my mental health was a priority. I never felt it was safe to be myself nor was I confident that my employment was secure.  I was scared every hour of every day.  Admittedly, these feelings were undoubtedly due to the history of personal and professional rejection (and accompanying health consequences) I had experienced throughout my life. However, it made me aware of the excruciating side effects related to toxic workplace cultures, in addition to the incredible opportunity businesses around the world have to manipulate their cultures to put employee wellbeing (mental health specifically) at the forefront as a means to generate a healthy and connected workforce to take a business’s success to the next level.

Psychological safety, according to Harvard Professor Amy Edmunson, is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes47.  This is hugely important because having this belief and understanding within a workplace setting can mostly extinguish daily fears and anxieties, such as questions of job security, questions of trust, and questions of value, among many others.  Providing a workplace culture and environment where everyone feels safe can allow each employee to be their true selves by engaging with the workplace and being the healthiest and most productive employees they can be.

The Physical Is Not Enough: The employee wellness field that I was first introduced to was rooted almost entirely in the physical dimension of wellness. Admittedly, I worked in that space completely oblivious to the other dimensions even as I struggled mightily with my own mental health within the workplace setting.  Eventually, significantly later than I would like to admit, it dawned on me that no amount of step challenges or broccoli consumption were going to minimize the fear, disconnection, and altogether hopelessness I was feeling both personally and professionally.  This is when I realized that ONLY the physical was not enough.  To provide some context to the limits of physical fitness on overall health I would like to share an excerpt from the book With the Old Breed by E.B. Sledge. The memoir outlines his experiences as a marine fighting on the front lines of two of the bloodiest battles of World War II, Peliliu and Okinawa, and is widely considered to be among the best war books ever written.  He describes in excruciating detail the countless physical horrors he experienced throughout his service in these conflicts. In the passage I share below, he is describing the lasting impact his commanding officer, Andrew Haldane, had on him and his fellow soldiers after they lost him to an enemy bullet. 

 “Capt. Andy Haldane wasn’t an idol. He was human. But he commanded our individual destinies under the most trying conditions with the utmost compassion. We knew he could never be replaced. He was the finest Marine officer I ever knew. The loss of many close friends grieved me deeply on Peleliu and Okinawa. But to all of us the loss of our company commander at Peleliu was like losing a parent we depended upon for security – not our physical security, because we knew that was a commodity beyond our reach in combat, but our mental security.”48

In the most physically demanding situation any human could ever find themselves in, the influence of good leadership and compassion can be the difference between hope and hopelessness, courage and fear, success and failure, and ultimately life and death.  The workplace is not a battlefield but the ability and opportunity to lead with similar values as Captain Haldane is not only extensive but possible, if only we make the commitment to do so.

Providing a “Trauma – Informed” Workplace: In terms of providing a psychologically safe environment where employees feel empowered to be their true selves and lend input, ideas, and creativity to projects, quite possibly the most vital component is providing a trauma informed workplace. In very general terms, a trauma-informed workplace means creating a culture of safety, empowerment, healing, and acceptance that many, if not all, adults have experienced trauma in some capacity in their past, are currently dealing with it, or may deal with it in the future (based on the Trauma Informed Care Model49). I first learned about being trauma-informed from my friend Dr. Debra Lafler50. She is the Employee Wellness & EAP Manager for Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services, and she opened my eyes to the power inherent to the understanding among our leadership and coworkers of the crucial need for acceptance and providing a safe place for one another. Given the above discussion surrounding my experiences with rejection, loneliness, and their accompanying side effects, I truly feel my circumstances could have been dramatically different had I been in a setting where this was a priority.

Why would the creation of a trauma-informed workplace environment that accepts the existence of past (and possible future) trauma be so beneficial for businesses?  The list, as you would expect, is lengthy, however; our “warm and fuzzy” friend oxytocin climbs to the top of that list. Creating this trauma informed workplace allows additional strengthening of the “Us-ness” that we spoke about above. Feeling as if we are accepted, supported, understood and that our superiors have empathy and compassion for their employees minimizes fear and brings everyone closer together. Research by “Carsten De Dreu showed that oxytocin makes men more cooperative with in-group members, but not out-group members, especially when fear of out-group members is high51.”  An increased feeling of pleasure, calm, and safety paired with increased cooperation is a best-case scenario that sees both employees and the business benefit in the long run.

In Conclusion: Even though the news stories have transitioned back to covering tragic events, I was seeing so many good stories of people valuing each other, sharing hope, sharing appreciation for our medical professionals, and volunteering and donating throughout this Covid19 crisis. The actor John Krasinski even started his YouTube show, “Some Good News”, chronicling all of the tremendous stories of compassion, support, empathy, and love that have taken place all around the globe. These beautiful anecdotes of positivity left me teary eyed on more than one occasion.  I was struck by how much I was moved by it and its juxtaposition to how desensitized we all have become (myself included) to the daily atrocities that are reported on a minute to minute basis. There is no secret now that this entire document has been geared towards the critical influence that human connection (or lack thereof) has on all of us (and, specifically, the profound impact it has had on me).  I have heard uttered throughout this crisis, “We are all in this together”, the evidence displayed supports the argument that empathy makes up the foundation of human existence, it is engrained in our DNA, if only we can more routinely fight the cultural norms that see us focusing on ourselves and accept each other for who we are, support each other, and help one another achieve the common goals of safety, security, health, survival and prosperity.

I hope humanity’s experience with Covid19 allows positive actions to become even more of the norm when we get back to our ordinary lifestyles and work environments. I would like to leave you with a quote from Vivek Murthy, which appropriately sums up my hope for our future:

“Building a more connected society is about returning to who we were ultimately designed to be—beings who are connected to and need one another. We evolved over thousands of years to rely on each other. Strong social connections were essential to our survival. So when we experience connection, it feels like home. It feels good. If we are committed to designing our lives—technology, layout of cities, the nature of work, schools and communities—to foster a stronger connection, then I believe we can create a more connected world which is less divided and healthier.” – Dr. Vivek Murthy, the 19th U.S. Surgeon General52


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