Managing Mega-Threats in the Workplace 

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Norms for how Americans separate their personal and professional lives evolve from generation to generation. However, most of us maintain some degree of strictness in differentiating between what kinds of things we take into the workplace with us and what kinds of things we strive to leave at home. For many, “professionalism” requires a level of emotional restraint, particularly when strong emotions are provoked by incidents that are not directly related to our work lives.

In this article, I discuss mega-threats, occurrences that makes it challenging—or downright impossible—for many of us to “leave our feelings at home.” Specifically, I define mega-threats and explain why their adverse effects are more commonly experienced by members of underrepresented and traditionally marginalized groups, explain how the adverse effects of mega-threats show up in the workplace, and provide guidance for people leaders to alleviate the effects of mega-threats for those who experience them and their coworkers.

Defining Mega-Threats

The existence of mega-threats and their effects on workplace dynamics represent a relatively new area of scientific inquiry pioneered by a team led by Dr. Angelica Leigh, a professor at the Duke Fuqua School of Business. The team defines mega-threats as having three unique characteristics:

  • They are large-scale societal events that have profoundly negative outcomes for one or more victims.
  • The events receive significant attention in traditional media and on social media.
  • The events are intrinsically linked to the victims’ identities or one of the prominent narratives discussed in the media or on social media is that the victims were harmed because of their social identity.

The haunting central question behind the experience of a mega-threat is, “Am I next?” Because mega-threats are identity-related, those who share one or more identities with mega-threat victims may feel as if they are more likely to experience harm in a similar manner. The belief that one is more susceptible to harm or danger triggers the body’s threat response system. Far from being paranoid fantasies, these fight or flight type responses are a predictable outcome of constant confrontation with negative media narratives. Social media, in particular, plays an outsized role in creating a ceaseless media cycle for such narratives, reinforced by our likes, clicks, and shares.

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about these responses to mega-threats is that they are not “all in our heads.” Our threat responses are hardwired and controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, which regulates many of the automatic bodily functions that you don’t have to think about (e.g., heart rate, sweating, or digestion). If you think of the last time you were scared, startled, or faced a daunting challenge, you may remember a veritable buffet of physiological changes that took place—sweaty palms, a racing heart, goosebumps, or a rush of adrenaline. These automatic and unconscious threat responses are all part of the body’s preparation for increased physical activity that enable us to either fight a threat or flee the situation. This means mega-threats don’t just affect our thoughts and emotions—they are embodied. And for many, the experience of embodied threat when mega-threats occur does not end when we enter the workplace.

Spotting the Effects of Mega-Threats in the Workplace

Because our norms for professionalism typically require emotional restraint about topics that are not directly related to the workplace, individuals who are experiencing a state of embodied threat because of a mega-threat must actively manage these adverse effects while they are at work. The toll of managing negative thoughts, emotions, and physiological stress can be significant. Dr. Leigh’s research has documented common adverse effects.

Individuals experiencing adverse responses to mega-threats in the workplace may:

  • Be distracted and find it difficult to focus.
  • Feel isolated or like their coworkers do not understand their experience of the world.
  • Avoid conversation, interaction, and collaboration to conceal their emotions.
  • Be more susceptible to fatigue and the symptoms of burnout.
  • Have an acutely decreased sense of belonging and engagement in the workplace.

All these effects can create distress for the individuals who are experiencing them and are exacerbated when the identity that is connected to the mega-threat is not shared with the bulk of their coworkers. Unfortunately, the adverse effects described above may only be recognizable to coworkers, managers, and employers as reduced productivity.

Employers Can Help Alleviate the Adverse Effects of Mega Threats

I think it’s safe to say that all of us would welcome a world in which mega-threats do not occur. However, it’s probably equally safe to say that the elimination of mega-threats isn’t something that any one of us will accomplish in the short term. The best we can do is be prepared to manage the negative consequences of mega-threats when they occur in the workplace. Below are lists of things that individuals and people leaders can do to help prevent mega-threats from becoming a professional liability.

For Employees

  • Take mega-threats and their related psychological and physiological effects seriously. Acknowledge that the adverse effects that you experience are part of the normal functioning of your mind and body.
  • Rest and recover. Get clear about what kinds of activities or lack of activity delivers rest and recovery for you. Articulate this to your employer and be open to negotiating a temporary arrangement that works for you and the organization.
  • Find a safe person, place, or forum where you can discuss how mega-threats affect your work. Affinity groups both inside and outside of the workplace can be a helpful outlet.

For Employers

  • Take mega-threats and their related psychological and physiological effects seriously. Acknowledge that embodied threats are automatic and unconscious and not indicative of a lack of professionalism.
  • Encourage rest and recovery in all the forms that your employee may need. Some individuals find rest and recovery in scaling back work activities, others find rest and recovery in throwing themselves into routine, still others may find rest and recovery in tackling new or creative tasks. Work with employees to find a temporary solution for recharging the body and mind.
  • Cultivate a culture of psychological safety in which employees can openly discuss how mega-threats affect their work. Psychological safety is the belief held by members of a team that they can take risks, express ideas and concerns, speak up and ask questions, and admit mistakes—without fear of negative consequences.
  • Practice active listening and perspective-taking across cultures. If you do not share the identities of those experiencing mega-threats, it can be difficult to understand what they are going through. Where listening and perspective-taking leave gaps, you can look to empower affinity networks inside and outside of the workplace.

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