Pausing to Acknowledge: Is There Election-Related Trauma in Your Workplace?

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Hard day / reynermedia

This presidential election appears be traumatizing segments of the public in a way that is almost unprecedented. Our workplaces are not excluded from this. Yesterday, NPQ received a number of notes from its community, expressing both general despair and gratitude for our presence, our being present. This made us stop and think—are our readers taking a pause to work through these feelings? It’s apparent that’s something we need to do, but why?

For some, part of the discourse of this election has felt like a general assault on their identities and the identities of those they are close to. The result is a combination of deep fear, anger and sadness that takes a moment to process. Some can mobilize immediately to get on with their work, but maybe part of your work is to make sure that your colleagues have some observed space to recalibrate.

Time magazine reports that messages to the Crisis Text Line doubled over the past 24 hours to 2000, with the majority coming from LGBT teens or their friends. According to the organization’s chief data scientist, they mainly expressed the perfectly reasonable fear that the policies that protected their rights would be eliminated. Meanwhile, the same was going on at Trans Lifeline, a crisis line for transgender people, which said it received 426 calls in a single night, breaking a previous record of 250. Here, too, the calls were from those who worried their freedoms would be removed by policy change at the federal and state level. In Kings County, Washington, the hotline reports that callers expressed confusion and a jumble of feelings—that they felt isolated and alone.

At a nursery in New York, parents received an advice sheet compiled by the National Association of School Psychologists for families that experience trauma. It contains advice for parents on self-care. At the school my grandchildren attend, parents were invited into the “maker-space” for the day “just to hang out” and decompress. organized protests yesterday in cities across the U.S. The New York Times reports that last night, “In New York, where protesters walked in the streets, disrupting traffic, Brandon Ramos, 21, said the election result ‘feels like a nightmare.’…‘I’m Latino,’ he said. ‘My entire family and neighborhood are depressed. I still haven’t comprehended it.’”

Many who turned out said they were fearful that Trump would follow through with his pledge to deport undocumented immigrants.

“I just felt waking up today that I was waking up to a whole new world, to a nightmare for my parents and people I care about and love,” said Tony, a 23-year-old line cook who declined to give his last name as he marched in Chicago, carrying his 6-year-old daughter on his shoulders.

“There’s so much heartache,” he said. “It’s a bad time to be a Muslim or an illegal citizen in this country.”

It is clearly more intense for some than for others. Perhaps one might be distraught imagining the results of years of human rights work disappearing, knowing and caring about the humans in question. But maybe instead you feel in immediate danger. The day before the election, Fast Company published an article by a staff member of RAINN (Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network). She writes that Trump’s openly misogynistic rhetoric was already retraumatizing their constituents.

Before election season kicked into high gear, I would typically find between five to eight visitors waiting in the queue when I began my shifts. Lately, it’s not unusual to see queues of 15 women or more—women who are willing to wait an hour or longer for someone to talk to, someone to tell them they’re not alone. On the weekend after the release of Donald Trump’s infamous…tape, visitors to the hotline increased 33 percent and traffic to RAINN’s website skyrocketed 45 percent.

She writes that this has turned this period into something of a protracted nightmare for survivors and that the trauma was likely to last well beyond the election itself. But she wrote that before Tuesday. What will it mean to all of these people that the ultimate place of honor has been awarded by our political system to this serial purveyor of disdain?

In AlterNet, Adrienne White, vice-president of finance for the National Center for Civil and Human Rights is quoted as saying, “When you ‘grab’ something, you tend to do it by force—you’re not asking for permission.”

I heard those words and then I started thinking about the woman he was talking about violating. Then that led me to [think about] my own violation…I started crying, and then I felt this helplessness. This man is just talking carelessly about grabbing somebody’s sexuality and it’s not right. I know it’s impacted me personally, deeply personally, and perhaps it’s impacting somebody else.

In the same article, Gail Wynn, a sex therapist and professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA explains, “Symptoms of PTSD result when a person has been frightened to the degree where they frequently have no words…They have no behavior, no response that they know of that they can use to stop whatever is happening, that is frightening them and terrorizing them. This is the body’s way of registering to an individual that whatever they’re experiencing is really beyond what the body can process. The body frequently goes back to those same symptoms and those same kinds of reactions with other experiences that may be similar to what they went through, or even where the same language might be used,” as in the case of Trump’s vivid descriptions of sexual assault. But women need not have experienced sexual assault to be horrified into a deep sadness at the widespread support of an aggressive and unembarrassed misogynist. It is like we are being ushered back into a past from which we escaped only with effort and pain

What makes Trump’s presidency all the more traumatic for some is the very fact that he was able to gain surprising—even shocking—support across all regions of the country, with the exception of major urban centers and select other areas. For immigrants and their families and friends whose children are worried that they will be split up or deported to a place they don’t know and is likely very dangerous, for the Muslims about whom he attempts to spread fear and loathing, for those living in Black communities Trump blithely describes as hotbeds of criminality, and for people with disabilities whom he has openly mocked, Trump’s public approbation has quite simply been a shock to our systems—the kind of shock that comes from real or impending injury. For many people, it resembles the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. (Lack of acceptance here may be an option.) Though we will move beyond that grief and into collective action if we handle ourselves properly, we may need to take a moment with our staffs and supporters to be there for them—to seethe, or sob, or rave in safety. Then, when we go out to act, a meeting of the eyes may be all it will take to recharge us.—Ruth McCambridge

  • Heidi Shaffer

    My heart goes out to the women who have been re-traumatized. Many women and men are experiencing shock and need to process. But what happens when the non-profit work environment is not “safe”? We can’t assume that we are one big voting block. Being in a battleground state that went to Trump, there are Trump supporters in our midst, including clients, and male and female colleagues. At our agency we do not openly discuss partisan politics because it can offend or exclude. However, there are clues. Several co-workers wore black yesterday, exchanged looks, and had quiet conversations in our offices. Although it feels “off-limits” to work through our feelings openly and as an agency, I hope we will think of ways to bond and share our grief, anger – and our strengths.

  • Kelly

    These are really important issues. And what a privilege that so many of us in the non-profit workforce expect to be able to count on our colleagues for emotional support and shared values.

    (In most workplaces, political views are expected to be at odds, and discussions are discouraged. Re: Heidi Shaffer’s comment.)

    The key difference here seems to be that it’s not about “our side losing” – politics as usual. Rather, it’s about the fear and trauma this candidate caused while stoking hatred and unrest, and the legitimate anxiety about personal safety and civil rights many of us are feeling.

    Finding safe ways to process that outside of work will be really important, particularly for those facing significant divisions among our teams – which are accustomed to working together toward a common goal based on an understanding of shared principles.

  • Amanda Benson

    My thesis was about helping museum employees return to workplace normalcy after natural disasters and how EAPs (employee assistance programs) are a way for employees to address their thoughts feelings in the work environment. This can also be applicable to and event that creates high stress and trauma in the workplace. When you have trauma in be workplace, you have decreased productivity and are at higher risk of employee turnover.

    I highly encourage employees to seek their HR department and ask if their organization has an EAP they can utilize. If they don’t, it’s worth asking employers if they can create a time and safe space where employees can come together to discuss these issues. These kinds of sessions don’t necessarily need a mental health professional to moderate the session but it is helpful. Just being able to verbalize your thoughts and feelings makes a world of difference.

  • Jethro

    Thank you for this post. I am grieving today although not immediately threatened. We are tough and we can get through 4 years but the Supreme Court has a long, long reach and our planet may not have that much time. I am wondering why we aren’t hearing more about the environment. A President who does not believe in climate change – what is there to say?

  • GrandMoffSilvey

    Yeah, middle America threw the biggest legal Molotov Cocktail into the system to tell all of you that “Middle America is HURTING”. No one puts a microphone in front of communities of 30k and below. Our communities are worried about the basics while everyone else is talking about so called “higher morals”. I just drove my motorcycle 1700 miles across Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona. And, it’s now up for sale. The only big city I hit was Kansas City. There are almost 10 million more government jobs then their are manufacturing jobs. I just watched my town loose one of its manufactures, then watched three restaurants and a game stop close up.

  • Lhest

    Grow up people! It’s an election! And what is everybody so threatened for? The middle class or the “silent majority” spoke at the polls. Next election do something during the election cycle. The government needs to decrease and state governments need to increase. The Affordable Care Act didn’t help me, I still can’t afford insurance, but now I’m penalized. We need to stop giving a participation trophy and go back to doing what you are supposed to do to excel or at least. Kids need to be taught that work is needed to get what you want and stop handing everything to them. SMH