In University Restructures, is Trauma too Strong a Word?

Organisational Trauma: 

  1. When a group of employees/colleagues’ self-defence mechanisms are overwhelmed and feelings of helplessness emerge in the collective. (Hormann & Vivan, 2005)
  2. A set of responses to one or more events that reach beyond the organisation’s ability to handle the situation adaptively, which culminates in dysfunctional patterns of behaviour. (Burke, 2012)

Universities have a societal reputation for being hubs of objectivity; sanctuaries in which to live the life of the mind. Yet during my fieldwork at a highly corporatised university in 2016, I often found myself caught off guard by the intensity of emotions I saw displayed at work. Fear, anger, deep hurt and feelings of shame and resentment were not uncommon themes emerging throughout my fieldnotes and interviews. 

Often, these emotions were directly or indirectly related to a major restructure the university had undertaken two years before my fieldwork began. Many staff had either taken “a package” and left, or had felt that their employment at the university was threatened, and that this threat remained through to the present. Still a near-daily topic of discussion amongst my participants, I came to think of it as The Restructure, always in capital letters. Over time, I wondered if perhaps the emotions and reactions I was observing were not isolated to individuals. They looked to me more like a trauma response at a collective level. So, I set about trying to figure out if this kind of collective trauma had been observed in the literature, and if so, did it match what I was seeing?

The reactions of survivors

But first, I approached Linda*, one of the professional managers at my fieldsite who had a Master degree in Organisational Psychology, to question her about the level of emotional response I was observing. I asked whether she also found the intensity of emotion surprising, and whether she thought it could be some form of workplace trauma that I was witnessing. Linda responded:

I’ve definitely seen staff members who’ve been here a long time, or at least as long as me, who seem to be reacting with more of a trauma reaction of, you know… because each time something bad happens, the reaction time can be shorter, and the intensity of your reaction can be stronger. People may get very angry, very quickly, about any change; or you’ll see those who may be quite numb to it as well, who are just kind of like, ‘Here it comes again,’ you know, or ‘I can’t care, otherwise it’s too tough’. I’ve heard staff members just say, you know, flat out, ‘The Execs don’t respect us, there is no value in us, we are not valued as human beings’.

In an exploration of the effects of repeated waves of organisational downsizing, Moore, Grunberg, and Greenberg (2006) undertook research that supported Linda’s suppositions. They claimed that exposure to repeated restructures and ongoing fear of being laid off while also dealing with the grief of losing one’s social network caused incrementally more harmful effects on employees’ mental and physical wellbeing. 

In the case of my fieldsite, minor restructures were ubiquitous and their ubiquity had contributed to a perpetual discourse around, as some of my participants described it, “forming, storming, reforming and storming some more”. However, The Restructure in 2014 had been a breaking point. It changed not only the staffing profile of the university but also catalysed changes to the way that academic work was conceived. These changes seemed to have created a toxic and self-perpetuating cacophony of gossip and rumour. 

Dealing with trauma through gossip and rumour

Thomas*: In other places, you have friends at work, and there are friends outside work. Here, you mostly just have friends at work. If things are going well, then that tends to be really good, you work with your friends, it’s great. If things are going bad, while there is a support mechanism there, it can very often be an almost self-perpetuating — because people just sit there and give each other the bad news! They just repeat the bad news over more and more beers.
Jodie: Like an echo?
Thomas: [nods vigorously] And what was actually a little bit of bad news, by the end of the night is a disaster.

Often during organisational change, communication from the top down is lacking or vague, leading to an increase in gossip, as “rumours circulate wildly in the vacuum, further increasing confusion” (Amundson, Borgen, Jordan, & Erlebach, 2004, p. 262). As Thomas describes above, this kind of discourse can easily become amplified when social networks are tight, as is often the case in academic communities. 

There was a pervasive view on campus during my fieldwork that academic staff were deeply discontented with the university as an employer. This related particularly to the neoliberal audit culture that had intensified on campus following The Restructure, and which saw academics measured against Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) over which they often had no control. 

One academic, Neville*, literally leapt towards me the first time he saw me on campus in person, after seeing my photograph and project profiled in the staff newsletter, eager to talk about the injustice of the KPIs in the newly introduced workload model.

The academic staff at [this university] are just so unhappy. There are now 14 KPIs — 14 KPIs! — for staff to meet, not just the GTS [Good Teaching Score] but also an overall satisfaction score that includes satisfaction with infrastructure, IT, WIFI, and other things that the academic staff can’t control. And, we also have to achieve a GTS of 85 (out of 100) or higher. Which is okay if you have a really popular course, but if you teach a difficult course, the students resent how difficult it is, so they give you a low mark because they’re pretty sure they are going to get a low mark for the course. It’s completely unreasonable to base people’s performance around the hasty opinions of resentful teenagers. So, it’s no wonder people don’t love working here anymore. I mean, they used to, we used to all love it here, but now, well, things have changed a lot. I don’t think I’m going to stay.

Similarly to Thomas’s assessment above, I would argue that the unhappy academics were creating and adding to what I described in my thesis as affective swirls of discontent, and that they were doing this as a means of bonding, or collective self-comforting. Anthropologist Nigel Thrift (2004), in discussing spatial affect, might argue that these swirls gather momentum, affecting the moods and feelings of others as they circulate. As they get translated into different, perhaps more durable contexts — such as via technologies like online chat and email — the affect begins to bed down into the objects (such as emails, or policies), as well as into the humans, strengthening the network and the feelings of discontent further. This is where collective trauma may become an apt description.

Trauma can become an automated negative response

At the university campus that was my fieldsite, I would argue that fear and trauma flowed and lingered. The emotions “circulate[d] among bodies, and between bodies and their environments” as Dragojlovic & Broom (2018) have described it. 

It is apparently not uncommon for trauma sufferers to have pervasively negative views of the world and events occurring around them. The kinds of reactions I observed throughout my fieldwork suggested staff had reached a point where they could no longer hear good news, constantly felt “under threat”, like they were “in a pressure cooker”. Although the immediate emergency had passed, the psychological effects of The Restructure continued.

But is it trauma? Really?

Some readers may be concerned with the use of the term trauma to discuss the quotidian experiences of academics. But I would argue that neoliberal universities do see real crises of the type described by Sara Ahmed’s (2017) definition: “when what you come up against threatens to be too much, threatens a life, or a dream, or a hope” (p. 187). Elsewhere, I’ve written about the much publicised death of Dr Malcolm Anderson, a lecturer who felt so overwhelmed by his academic workload that he made it the focus of his suicide note, left for his university employers. There was a similarly devastating event at my fieldsite that I won’t go into. 

But I do want to say this… we don’t necessarily get to choose what traumatises us. We don’t get to say “this doesn’t fit my criteria of being traumatic, because trauma happens during war, or terror attacks, not in everyday situations at work”. Unfortunately, the brain doesn’t work that way. According to trauma experts, “when confronted with a stressful event that surpasses the ability to cope, this experience may lead to trauma” (Hasa and Brunet-Thornton, 2017). I may as well add, “whether you like it or not” to that definition. And the thing about organisational trauma is that it is often likely to be complex trauma, meaning that it builds up over time until you reach a breaking point, rather than occurring via a single event. Everyone reaches their breaking point at different times, depending on what else they have going on in their lives, and in their histories. 

What next?

So to my estimation, and based on both the literature and my observations of my fieldsite, the answer is yes: a collective trauma response to workplace restructures is possible, and even logical under certain circumstances. 

The next question, however, is “What can universities do about it?” Hasa and Bruent-Thornton (2017) suggest that “it is essential for leaders to acknowledge the distressing nature [of complex organisational trauma] and to obtain awareness and insight into the reality of the situation to mitigate emotional as well as functional consequences”. Those consequences may be to individuals, but they will usually impact organisational performance, also. So, considering how ubiquitous corporate restructuring has become under the neoliberal university model, it really does seem to be in universities’ best interest to look into the idea of post-restructure organisational trauma as a possibility… and start seeking ways to help employees, collectively, cope.

This post draws from the content of Jodie’s PhD Dissertation: ‘Marketing Authenticities at an International Branch Campus in Vietnam‘.

*All names used in this blog post are pseudonyms.

[Feature Image from the Library of Congress archives, titled: ‘War Production Board Administrative Division “flexible” master organization chart of the WPB on which the offices and lines of authority are designated by movable tabs for organizational changes’]

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