Transit recovery requires addressing organizational trauma

My last post on addressing transit agencies’ labor ‘shortage’ got a bit of traction so, here is a follow-up focusing on the need for transit agencies to address the organizational trauma caused by COVID-19. Similar to other employers, in order to retain and recruit employees, transit agencies need to address the emotional impact of the pandemic on their workforce.

Clearly, the COVID pandemic has created immense stress in every community.  And the ongoing pandemic has an acute impact on people in jobs that cannot be done remotely and in sectors where the work itself must not stop. The healthcare sector is highly visible coping with both challenges, and every week I see new stories of devastating burn-out.

The majority of public transit work also can’t be done remote and can’t stop. In March 2020, we at the MBTA could not predict what was going to happen, but we knew that we needed to keep running no matter what. Agencies have adjusted service levels, accounting for ridership changes and often in response to employee availability, but have kept operating day in and day out of the pandemic. (These changes take considerable work in and of themselves.)

Many transit workers on the frontlines got sick and hundreds died of COVID. Frontline transit workers have had to accept daily risk and fear of exposing their loved ones. And, to protect themselves and other riders, they have to proactively enforce mask mandates and cope with anger from some members of the public. Agencies had to plan for uncertainty of revenue sources and the possibility of service cuts and layoffs. And staff had to come to terms with the impact cuts would have on riders and the workforce.  

Unfortunately, managing through crisis and trauma isn’t new to transit agencies. Just in the year before COVID-19, the MBTA had several major derailments (one impacting service for months), a bus operator fatality, and multiple people struck by trains. I used to say that working at T was like being on a crisis treadmill. During COVID, the other crises experienced by transit systems didn’t stop.

Transit employees are also first responders for passengers in crisis. Policy decisions, like the lack of affordable housing, mental health and drug treatment resources, and growing income inequality, are increasing passengers in need. These decisions, often outside a transit agency’s control, put increasing stress on agency staff to respond on top of their existing jobs.

All of this is layered on top of the everyday trauma of racism and all forms of oppression playing out in the workplace. And in the specific moment of 2020 the societal trauma of killings of Black people by the police and hate crimes against Asians.

By the time the calendar hit the middle of 2020, my emotional reserves from crisis were completely empty. For the rest of the year, I cried at work almost every day. And I was privileged to be working from the safety of my home, which offered the additional grace of being able to turn my camera off.

I left the T at the end of 2020 and it took me months to recover. I imagine that it is even more difficult to be two years into this pandemic with another surge underway. It is no wonder that many employees are at their breaking point or that it is hard to recruit.

Regardless of how long this pandemic lasts, transit agencies have work to do to recover beyond building back ridership and revenue sources. The collective trauma the agency experienced has to be acknowledged and addressed. And in the process, agencies should implement better strategies to deal with trauma in general.

Trauma impacts individuals, and also organizations, communities, countries, and right now the world. I find the concept of organizational trauma useful because it allows us to think about collective impacts and responses. Organizational trauma can start from single events or build over time and if not addressed it can become embedded in organizational culture.

Much of the writing on organizational trauma focuses on mission-driven nonprofits that serve people in need (e.g rape crisis centers). While some of the specific takeaways might not apply, there are parallels with the mission-driven nature of public transit agencies. Transit employees provide direct public service and their commitment to service can mean organizational crises become personal ones.     

Workplaces often provide individual responses to trauma like HR hotlines or therapy referrals. Transit agencies often have in-house teams to provide employee services and support. While necessary, these services don’t solve problems that are ingrained in organizational culture and management practices. Recovery from the current level of trauma requires institutional changes.  

After a major derailment in 2019 the MBTA Board (FMCB) hired an independent panel to review the safety practices and culture and make recommendations. At their kick-off meeting with the senior management team, the panel asked us what we thought we did well as a team. As we went around the room the most common answer was respond to crisis. This might be because we had so many, but at some point it becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophesy. When your identity as a leadership team is crisis response, who is focused on crisis prevention?    

Almost* no matter what happens on a given day, transit agencies have to start over the next day and try to do the same thing- run the schedule. There is not much time for reflection and when it happens it is often focused on technical changes to make. (COVID did make some transit agencies more adaptive as they figured out how to adjust service levels in response to crowding on a daily basis.)  

Even though the work is the same, the next day isn’t the same as the day before for the people running the schedule. People’s lives change, sometimes in acute ways. After the mass shooting at the VTA yard in San Jose in May 2021, a horrific trauma for their workforce, the acting GM Evelynn Tran said something that has stayed with me.  She said, “Some of us get training on what to do when there is an active shooter event, but not about the aftermath.” In my years at the MBTA, I did a few trainings on active shooter events and the simulation ended when the shooting stopped. But an event like that is only the beginning of trauma; I never had a training on what to do after a crisis. As a manager responding to personal and collective crisis at work, I relied on the training and experience I received as a volunteer at a rape crisis center years ago.

When organizations don’t train their managers to respond to crisis and the aftermath, that means the work isn’t always happening when it should, leaving employees unsupported. And it means that the people who are doing this work aren’t being recognized or compensated for their emotional labor. They are the ones who are counseling colleagues when someone had a particularly bad day and their manager doesn’t want to hear about it. They are the people who mentoring and training new employees, even though it isn’t in their job description or rewarded with pay raises and promotions. They are the managers who speak up for their team, but have no one to turn to. Often women and people of color are over-represented in the group shouldering the organizational trauma. Before COVID I used to joke that I held therapy office hours from 5 to 6pm. But I don’t think it is funny anymore.

This group of care-givers is providing an emotional buffer for the rest of the organization, allowing others to not feel the full impact and keeping the organization emotionally afloat. Not only is the labor not recognized, but the responsibilities aren’t spread evenly reinforcing gender and race-based inequities. This is unhealthy for the individuals and for the organization. In times of mass trauma, like COVID, this informal system can no longer carry the load. Ways to address trauma and crisis have to be built into the systems and structures of the organization.

One very practical example of a system impacting employees at a transit agency is scheduling. Transit agencies have the ability to create better work-life balance for their frontline employees by how they schedule shifts, off-days, and breaks. I heard from a few folks after my last post that people are quitting because of how work is being scheduled. Efficiency has to be balanced with employees’ needs. This balance can be thrown off in the name of cost-savings and need adjusting. But even if the scheduling practices haven’t changed, I think the balancing point needs to shift to account for the trauma and general exhaustion of the past two years. I found some helpful content on LinkedIn on retention and scheduling.    

Even after COVID has receded transit agencies will continue to face crises, and how they respond will determine if they are on a crisis treadmill. Resources and leadership attention have to be dedicated to preventing crisis and responding to the emotional aftermath of crises. Everyday management practices need to include sharing the emotional labor more equitably and prioritizing employee wellness in systems. They are probably pretty busy right about now, but there are experts in organizational trauma who can help.

Transit agencies are going to have to change to recover from the COVID pandemic. They need to change their service to better serve the public. Many will need new revenue sources. And transit agencies need to change their organizational culture to recruit and retain their workforce.  Many of these changes needed to happen before, COVID made the need more visible. COVID also showed that transit agencies can respond and change more quickly.

*For example, the VTA shutdown their light rail service for months after the mass shooting. A decision I supported, but for which they faced public push back and had a big impact on some passengers.