Three years ago, our world fundamentally changed. As individuals, and as a collective society, we spent the best part of two+ years dealing with a significant trauma event. Last week, the WHO Emergency Health Committee officially downgraded Covid-19 from its Global Emergency Status, thereby signalling the official end of the pandemic. And while the event itself may be over, its social and behavioural effects certainly are not. However, most of us are in denial.
The Covid-19 Pandemic affected nearly all aspects of our society. From losing loved ones, businesses and school closures, hospital over-crowding, economic downturns, widespread social isolation, to the disruption of every aspect of our daily lives, the experience has left deep emotional and psychological wounds.
This article discusses the nature of trauma, particularly repressed trauma, PTSD, and likely societal and consumer behaviours that we will see play out for years. Most of you reading will tune out right about now. “Nope. Not going to read another article on Covid and the pandemic. No thanks. We’re passed that. Moved on. Not interested”.
Indeed. I hear you. We all do. Welcome to disassociation, repression, and unresolved trauma. The very fact that you didn’t feel like reading this is why you probably should. It is how our collective society feels, and within those behaviours and emotions are new future challenges for all brands and businesses. Let’s start off by looking at the nature of trauma and PTSD.
What is Trauma?
What defines a ‘traumatic event’ varies in the psychology literature. But general consensus is any event that causes a threat to our safety and potentially places our lives (or the lives of others) at risk. They are generally life-threatening events, acts of violence and war, sexual violation, natural disasters, and emotional abuse to name a few. You can be affected by experiencing or simply witnessing such an event. It can be a once-off or some traumas occur over time. A global pandemic certain ticks the life-threatening event box, and becomes even more traumatic when you add in the emotional and psychological distress of social isolation and disruption.
Most people who go through trauma, with the passing of time, and good self-care, usually recover well. The normal healing process restores the body from emergency mode, the internal alarms are turned off and the body resets itself to its equilibrium, usually within a month of such an event. However, our event came in waves, repeating the trauma, vaccine uncertainty stretched out ahead of us like a moving target. We were kept in ‘emergency mode’ for quite some time. But still, many have recovered well.
What Triggers PTSD?
Others after a traumatic event develop PTSD and suffer emotional, physical, psychological and behavioural problems. There are many factors that influence the probability of PTSD namely inherited mental health risks, features of your established personality, previous experienced trauma, age, your social support system and the way your brain regulates chemicals and hormones in response to stress. The same trauma event can result in PTSD for one and not for another.
Some PTSD symptoms can take years to manifest and generally interfere with an individual’s ability to function normally day-to-day. The four common macro symptoms are definitely worth exploring in terms of customer experience and employee relationships.
1. Intrusive Memories
Often post-trauma distressing, recurrent and unwanted memories occur, in both waking (conscious) and dream-state (unconscious). These flashbacks force the individual to relive the trauma and result in negative emotional response. Some of our healthcare workers in the front-line certainly have reported such behaviours, but for society as a whole, this does not seem to be an overly active part of our PTSD manifestations right now.
2. Negative Changes in Thinking and Mood
PTSD often presents as having negative thoughts about self, about others and a general hopelessness about the future. Close relationships are affected, you may feel detached, emotionally numb, have difficulty experiencing positive emotions and maybe have a lack of interest in activities you previously enjoyed. Looking at the current labour issues and the Great Resignation through this lens, and we see evidence of this globally. Day-to-day life may be back to normal but many are not the same people they were before. In fact, few of us are.
3. Changes in Physical or Emotional Reactions
Common ones are trouble sleeping, trouble concentrating, sudden anger or irritability, or always being on guard for danger. Sleep hygiene and habits were significantly altered for many people’s lives during sheltering and lockdown and we are now experiencing a longer-term habit shift around sleep, routines and productivity. While working from home has now become a norm, leaders are still struggling to get productivity back to where it once was. Tiredness and fatigue are being experienced by many at a global scale. Some blame long-covid, others blame re-adjusting to a new order in terms of ways of working. Some realise it is a mild symptom of their PTSD.
Lastly, we have the one that, as a global collective, we are masters at. Pandemic, what pandemic? Avoidance is a classic example of PTSD where the individual avoids thinking or talking (or sometimes even acknowledging) the traumatic event and avoids places, activities or people who remind them of the trauma. We move on, repress all emotions and memories associated with the event and act as if nothing happened. This is the big one.
Avoidance, repressed memory and trauma, is a fascinating area of study. Surprisingly it is a little divisive. Some researchers firmly believe in unconscious memory repression as a survival response, a defense mechanism, the human brain burying the trauma deep beyond the reach of the conscious mind in order to function. Freud was a big believer in repressed memory and trauma. The classic example recently were the survivors of clerical child abuse, some of who only recalled their own abuse decades after the event when it was triggered by others coming forward and going public.
Other scientists disagree and claim that it is more a conscious repression, that we ‘choose’ to repress a memory in order to function, and it is this second aspect, conscious memory repression, which we see global evidence of today relating to the pandemic. It is evident in the way we are leading our teams and the way we are treating customers.
It is evident everywhere. Even in the client briefs I have received over the last 12 months, there often appears a ‘please don’t refer to covid or the pandemic’ line, the consensus being that ‘we want the keynote to inspire, to face the future and not to remind us all what we went through’.
We are all Suffering
So, are we all going through PTSD? Well, yes, probably. Are we all coping with it? Some are, some less so. PTSD also increases the likelihood of other mental health problems like anxiety, depression, substance reliance/abuse and suicidal thoughts and actions. Data certainly points to these all being up significantly in our post-pandemic world. There is a serious crisis in terms of matching the demand and the service provision for mental health intervention globally. So yes, this is likely very real.
So, what does all this mean for us as brands and businesses? Well to me, there are three main points here.
1. Don’t Trigger the Trauma
A trigger is anything that reconnects the individual to the traumatic event. It can be a sound, a smell, some visual, a feeling, a place. A car back-firing can immediately result in a combat veteran going into flashback.
For all customer service facing businesses, at its simplest, this means removing the yellow and black covid notices, floor stickers, hand hygiene notices, sanitizer machines and mask wearing posters. Many restaurants have kept QR menu interactions, hotels still are using sanitization notices, and many customer facing counters have kept the perplex screens. If I were you, and you feel it is safe to do so, I would remove all visual triggers of ‘that time’. Customers do not want reminding and you are potentially damaging the brand interaction by having a negative memory interwoven with your customer experience.
Many small business websites haven’t been updated since the pandemic years, also making them look irrelevant and out-of-touch. Don’t trigger the trauma.
2. Don’t be a ‘Pandemic Brand’
This is a really interesting one. There was a huge opportunity for brands to connect with customers during the covid years. People were vulnerable, lonely, eager for connection of any type. Any brand that stepped into the ‘community and belonging’ space formed solid bonds of attachment for the future. Or did they?
In conversation with a friend about a home delivery meal subscription service, she claimed that she had changed provider recently, simply because “seeing their brand and logo on the box every week just kept reminding me of those days”. These were days when there were large queues for supermarkets, people were worried about socially mixing, meal preparation was hard with a family of 4 trapped inside every day. For her, that brands logo and product offering had been mixed up inside all that negative emotion and sentiment.
So have a think about repositioning post pandemic, maybe even re-branding if you feel it is necessary. A visual refresh of your brand and corporate identity might be just the distance you need to put between your current customer and their negative experiences of that past.
3. Support, Connect and Care
This last one is why Customer Experience (CX) and the Employee Experience (EX) have become of even more strategic importance over the last few years.
Recovery from trauma relies on strong social support networks and creating a safe, nurturing space. If we accept that our customers are doing their best, getting on with life but carrying residual PTSD, then it just makes good commercial sense to be there for them right now.
If a customer is angry, complains, is irate, demanding or simply a little uncertain, treat them as you would a tired child. Be generous in your response. This is the time to show genuine support, to care about your customer beyond the transaction, to focus on the relationship of the future. The pandemic is over but the emotional and psychological impacts are not.
Maybe your brand was great during those pandemic years but now you’re back to normal, back to the old ways. Don’t be the runner who slows down as they approach the finishing tape to suddenly lose the race.
Similarly, from an EX perspective, we all need to up our EX strategy and investment. Our employees are in similar need of belonging and support and if we want to maximise productivity, we have to be there to assist in their recovery.
One of the main issues with all of this is that it is unresolved trauma. That is what happens when you repress emotions or memories. They don’t go away. They lie there, repressed, unresolved and someday will likely affect your behaviour.
With customers they may present as irrational and disproportionate reactions, over expectant demands, a desire for more control along their customer journey and a reduction in brand loyalty.
With employees they may present in the lowering of productivity, an uncertainty of purpose, a dilution of creativity and innovation and difficulties in talent retention.
So as a society, are we still waiting for the full and final impact? In my opinion, yes, we are, absolutely.
All the signs are there. The avoidance, the repression, the PTSD emotional, psychological and behavioural signals. We are in the eye of the storm if anything. Everything seems calm but it might just be an illusion.
So instead of thinking “I’m glad that’s all over” perhaps have a think about what you would do if a close friend of yours needed your support and was going through trauma or PTSD today. How could you help? What support and kindness would you show? And then action that for your employees and your customers.
Ultimately, it is all about connections. Invest in more genuine, authentic and supportive connections and a solid relationship should follow.
Ken Hughes remains one of the top booked speakers on Customer Experience, Consumerism, and the Psychology of Relationship. Learn more about his keynotes and how he can inspire your team here.
Book Ken to speak your next event.
A blog to inspire and delight
Not yet signed up to receive the latest posts? Do it now!