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Identifying and Addressing Moral Injury at Work

Part 2: Organizations should prevent moral injury. But people are not helpless.

Key points

  • The best way to prevent moral injury is to ensure transparent and ethical organizational operations.
  • Re-establishing trust between organizations and employees, as well as organizations and the community, requires a systemic, radical transparency.
  • Individuals can fight moral injury with personal purpose.
Canva. Unknown, edited by L.Praslova
A plant growing roots.
Source: Canva. Unknown, edited by L.Praslova

Prevention is the best medicine. Amends are the second best.

The lack of attention to moral injury and misinterpretation of it as "burnout" results in ineffective ways of addressing the problem. Because many reduce "burnout" to an individual response to demands exceeding resources, person-focused "burnout interventions" suggest "resilience development" via wellness apps and training, or "stress management" via mindfulness and yoga, or, in the best-case scenario, time off. However, yoga will not help a doctor who is prevented by insurance regulations from prescribing a life-saving treatment or a teacher ordered to use seclusion and restraint on crying children. Likewise, a wellness app will not help a recruiter instructed to ignore applicants with "too much experience" or with non-Anglo names. If anything, these individual-focused "solutions" to systemic problems only add to moral injury.

Negative reactions to morally injurious situations are not the result of an employee's "resilience deficiency." These are normal reactions to systemic ethical violations—and unless these violations are corrected, organizations and entire industries will continue losing talent and public trust. Fixing faulty systems to prevent further damage should be the focus of intervention, along with supporting injured—but not "faulty"—individuals.

How can one prevent moral injury at work?

The best way to prevent moral injury is to ensure transparent and ethical organizational operations. I suggest that organizations:

1) Track moral injury along with employee satisfaction, burnout, engagement, and other key indicators of organizational health. Careful analysis of this data (when ethically and statistically possible, by units) should inform action in support of employee well-being, as well as organizational ethics.

2) Adopt trauma-informed organizational practices.

3) Provide multiple ways in which employees can voice their concerns effectively and in an environment of psychological safety and ensure transparent follow-up on ethical concerns.

4) Make ethical considerations one of the key elements of hiring, promotion, and leadership training.

How can one address moral injury at work?

Where moral injury has occurred, re-establishment of trust between organizations and employees and organizations and the community will require a systemic, unambiguous, radical transparency.

1) Organizations may need to make amends to the community and provide and transparently execute detailed plans for addressing prior ethical violations.

2) Whenever possible, allowing employees who suffered the moral injury to actively participate in the restorative process will also help these individuals to rebuild their sense of self-respect.

3) Recovery from moral injury is a complex one. In addition to seeing justice restored, individuals are likely to need psychological and spiritual support for meaning-making and, whenever possible, facilitating post-traumatic growth.

Unfortunately, not all employees who suffered a moral injury will see justice restored in the same organizations where the injury has occurred. And they may come across injurious situations in multiple organizations. Nevertheless, these individuals are not doomed.

How to focus on purpose—even if we experienced moral injury:

Very early in my career, I had a "Henry" experience of discovering a range of misconduct in a charitable organization. Despite reporting, problems were never addressed—in fact, the honest leaders were fired, and the bullying embezzler was given more power. For self-preservation, I learned to separate an organization's cause from individuals' misdeeds. Not being involved in unethical behavior allowed me to feel that I could still contribute to the cause and serve people directly despite the problematic leadership. And yet, when I left, I was determined to make my next job "just a job," without the emotional and values-based investment and the risk of heartbreak. Being morally injured and engaged is a recipe for pain, like walking on a broken leg.

But humans are generally not wired for a disconnect; we are wired to seek meaning in what we do, and in a few years, I abandoned the "just a job" mindset. Through other cycles of trust, betrayal, and injury, I arrived at a personal formula of focusing on the direct impact I make even if organizations execute their missions imperfectly while doing all I can to improve those organizations as an industrial-organizational psychologist. Individuals and organizations are flawed, but we can commit to the process of daily bettering—being and doing better.

As workplaces experience a "humanity revolution," it is crucial to understand the moral injury role in employee experience and its impact on employee retention, organizational reputation, and other outcomes. Honest and ethical organizations benefit everyone and might just be an answer to the Great Resignation—especially when it is, in fact, a Great Disillusionment.

Source: Uki_71/Pixabay

Author's note: Individuals or organizations interested in participating in the next phase of my research project on workplace moral injury and disillusionment can sign up here.

This post also appeared on Fast Company.

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