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What One University Learned About Pandemic Trauma and Its Work Force

What One University Learned About Pandemic Trauma and Its Work Force

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Sarah Brown

February 15, 2022

When the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee surveyed its employees last year about how the pandemic was affecting them, the results were alarming: Among the 631 university employees who responded, 73 percent reported having one symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the pandemic. Nearly 40 percent reported having three or more symptoms.

That’s not what you’d expect from people who generally have stable jobs and health insurance, said James (Dimitri) Topitzes, a professor of social work at UW-Milwaukee and co-founder and director of clinical services at the Institute for Child and Family Well-Being.

“For many people, the pandemic is not just an irritant,” Topitzes said. “It really destabilized folks.”

Those were among the findings that Topitzes and Adam Jussel, the dean of students, shared from a 2021 study of how faculty and staff members were coping with Covid and how the university could better support its roughly 6,700 employees. Most survey respondents were white women; 69 percent were staff members, 26 percent were faculty members, and 5 percent were student employees. Topitzes and Jussel soon hope to publish their work in a peer-reviewed journal.

According to the study, people who were younger, had caregiving responsibilities, experienced social isolation, or lost loved ones to Covid-19 were more likely to report symptoms of PTSD. “As stress accumulates, it can start to overwhelm coping skills and move into the terrain of traumatic stress,” Topitzes said.

Some of the findings were a mixed bag: While 30 percent of respondents said they weren’t optimistic about their careers or the future, 35 percent said their lives had improved during the pandemic.

Topitzes and Jussel, along with their co-authors, found that several strategies appeared to reduce the risk of PTSD symptoms. Some of them weren’t surprising: spending time outdoors, with pets, and with family or friends. But one was: working emerged as a successful coping mechanism.

Even though work was often a stressor for people over the past two years, it could also be a de-stressor — especially when the work was meaningful and involved social connection.

People didn’t want to be just answering emails and pushing papers, Topitzes said; they wanted to be taking on passion projects and collaborating with colleagues. Work also provided some human interaction at a time when people were feeling isolated, and offered people an opportunity to serve others, which research has shown to be beneficial for those experiencing trauma, Topitzes said.

Some university employees complained in the survey about increased workloads, resulting in large part from pandemic-era financial turmoil, furloughs, and hiring freezes. In the immediate term, there’s not much the university can do about staffing shortages.

But if managers cut back busywork and meetings and instead gave employees more creative outlets, that could help reduce frustration and avoid burnout, Topitzes said.

Jussel pointed to the cross-departmental campus-response teams that have formed during the pandemic, which have improved institutional communication and encouraged collaboration, as a potential model for the future.

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