Leadership Spotlight: Trauma (“I’m fine!”)

Have you ever had someone ask you “How are you doing?” You might imagine yourself often responding with the phrase, “I’m fine.” But the reality might be quite different. Lyn Ketelsen MBA, RN, a 40-year health care veteran recently led a session on The Gratitude Group  about the trauma we as leaders and providers experience in our professional lives and how we have been culturized to suppress it.

The experiences amassed throughout our time as leaders in health care become inherently part of who we are as individuals and professionals. These experiences become our “war stories,” perhaps our badges of honor. We share our stories as a way to decompress and connect with one another. Ketelsen shares that these collected career stories are representative of our skills, our fears, and even valor, for all the things we have been through. They are badges or tokens perceived as won for handling things “other people cannot.”

Some of our experiences leave lasting marks on us as leaders. Our years of travel, those clients and employees you “deal with”, challenging projects that you work on, even unexpected external variables (COVID-19). Ketelsen characterized our time as leaders as periods where we are essentially running flat out on a treadmill. Then one day, you might choose to step off the treadmill. You might take a break you might try to retire. And in that moment, “you might not know how to breath while standing still.”

Our experiences as leaders that encompass our “war stories” can be in some ways likened to trauma. She goes on to note that typically when we think of trauma in health care we race to the worst cases imaginable. But, those stories and circumstances we recall and share with such great detail and vivid emotions- we remember them because these moments are imprinted on us. They have become part of our DNA and unless recognized for the emotionally charged moments they are, can scar us.

Many of us over the last year have experienced real trauma as a result of the pandemic- the type one kind.  According to Ketelsen, it’s the secondary trauma, the kind we may not recognize we are experiencing, that is the kind that can eat away at us over time from the inside out. Type 2 can be found in people who experience trauma as a result of their job and likely to experience it repeatedly. This kind of trauma has two possible outcomes:

  1. Compassion Satisfaction: fulfillment as a result of helping others who are experiencing type one trauma- where our calling is with our patients, families, employees we serve
  2. Compassion fatigue: emotional exhaustion, suppressing our own emotions while supporting others which leads to burnout, involves work stress, reduced capacity for empathy and lack of personal fulfillment.

Ketelsen shared those personal impacts from compassion fatigue can be physical health issues, lower quality of life, social isolation. Stress and trauma can also impact development of brain, nervous system, and immune system.

However personal strength can be found in weathering this type of trauma through acknowledgment and acceptance. We can find out strength by stepping back as leaders and remembering to care for ourselves during these challenging times. Elements of strength that can help us as we try and stand strong- lend to our well-being:

Think about where you put your focus? As humans we need  and crave balance across all 5 elements of strength, but we often ignore our spiritual and emotional elements

At the end of her sessions, Ketelsen shared a quote from Nelson Mandela “Our human compassion binds us with one to the other- not in pity, but as human beings who have learned how to turn our common suffering into HOPE for the future.”

As we reflect on the last year and half,  we have all experienced unprecedented human suffering, stress, and trauma whether it be personal or professional in nature- However, it is the beauty of the human condition that we can  rally around one another and support one another as we forge a path into the future. As leaders we must remember to care for ourselves to be able to continue to care for others.

Want to hear more from Lyn Ketelsen MBA, RN or other leaders in healthcare? Visit The Gratitude Group  to access recordings and resources.