What is moral injury?
Moral injury is a response from the pressure applied from superiors or peers to make people participate in or witness behaviours that are a contradiction to one’s moral beliefs. These behaviours have the potential to harm others psychically, mentally, socially and economically. The experience of moral injury is a form of trauma and is known as the “wounding of the soul”.
The first time this phenomenon was looked into was the study of army veterans who have witnessed atrocities at war. Lately, this study has been conducted in a multitude of environments. It has been found that moral injury also applies in social work, health care settings, and educational settings such as schools.
While some people walk away from their jobs or careers due to a lack of career progression, work life balance, or pay. Some employees may walk away from opportunities due to a wounded conscience as they may have participated or witnessed some things that are against their morals.
Like PTSD, moral injury is classed as a psychological trauma, and both can have physiological outcomes. The area in which social pain is processed in the brain happens to be the same place physical pain is processed. This in turn damages the victim’s sense of trust.
There are lasting effects of moral injury which can include feelings of anger, disgust, shame, grief, anxiety, and guilt. These could develop into feeling physically ill.
Moral injury can occur both intentionally and unintentionally. Here are a few things that can be done to avoid this:
As a leader, try to make time to have conversations with your employees about their beliefs and perceptions on what is both unfair or fair, and how changes or advancements in the business will affect employees e.g. diversity and inclusion efforts. Being aware of your teams’ values allows you to know how they judge your decisions.
Make sure tasks given to employees are properly resourced. A leader may impose moral injuries to a team member by applying pressure to commit to something that they are not prepared for. Often times leaving employees feeling they have been set up to fail. Providing employees with enough training, time, and budget will reduce the likelihood of inflicting moral injury.
If you are in a position where you have caused a team member harm, you should work to make amends. Start off by apologising and showing empathy by actively listening. Try not to defend yourself if you acted unintentionally, instead ask the victim how you could restore trust between each other, and what you could do differently.
Strengthen your teams’ values instead of placing them in situations where they are forced to compromise them. Doing this will allow you to leave a lasting impact on those you lead.