Tips for Working Through Workplace Trauma

People often speak about events at the workplace using language related to trauma, such as being “scarred” by a negative experience, dealing with “bullying” from co-workers or bosses, and describing a company culture as “toxic.” Yet, until recently, addressing the effects of workplace trauma was not something most employers considered.

It’s certainly something that employees desire. A 2022 employee survey from Seattle-based employee engagement experts TINYPulse by Limeade found that more than half (54.8%) reported experiencing a work-related traumatic event. The survey defined trauma as an event that negatively affected the person’s wellbeing for a month or more.

Those who experienced trauma also voiced a need for employee support programs. Such programs can help employees who may engage in their own self-imposed version of “victim blaming.”

Minda Harts, a workplace equity subject matter expert, author and professor of public service at New York University, talked about this issue in relation to her own workplace trauma during a recent DiversityInc Women of Color and Their Allies (WOCA) event.

“I started to get panic attacks, anxiety, hair loss, and I thought something was wrong with me, not the environment,” Harts said. “And once I was able to take a step back, and say, actually, something is wrong with the people and the culture – I realized that I needed to talk to someone.”

What Is Workplace Trauma?

Trauma is typically something people associate with dramatic life events: the death of a loved one, a bad medical diagnosis, a car accident, physical assault or a natural disaster. However, many experiences can inflict trauma, including those in the workplace.

With employees spending 40 hours a week or more focused on work, it’s sometimes difficult for employees to separate personal issues from professional ones. They often look first at their personal lives or think something is wrong with themselves when experiencing the symptoms of trauma. But what happens in the office, from social interactions with peers to treatment from “higher-ups,” can inflict trauma. The conduits for workplace trauma include:

  • Racism
  • Harassment and bullying
  • Poor work-life balance
  • Job insecurity
  • Overwork
  • Conflicts with co-workers
  • Unfair treatment (such as getting passed over for a promotion given to a less qualified candidate)

Workplace trauma impacts people from all ethnic and racial backgrounds. In the TINYPulse survey, biracial people reported the most instances of workplace trauma ((58.8%), followed by white or European people (58%). But close to half of all racial groups reported workplace trauma, including workers who are Hispanic or Latino (53.3%), Black or African people (49%), and Asian or Pacific Islanders (48.6%).

The Impact of Workplace Trauma

As noted by executive career coach Elizabeth Pearson writing for Entrepreneur, the impact of workplace trauma starts with denial. Employees don’t recognize the injury, instead distracting themselves to ignore trauma symptoms and distancing themselves from emotions and thoughts about what happened.

Common symptoms of trauma include a feeling of numbness, trouble sleeping and concentrating, an inability to maintain a routine, feeling pressure to overwork, anxiety, panic attacks and even depression. Some may also exhibit unwarranted outbursts of anger or aggression

Michelle K Duffy, the Vernon Heath Chair of Work and Organizations in the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, echoed Harts’ comments in an interview with the BBC. Victims of workplace trauma, she said, tend to blame themselves. “Without a structural change, without the workplace recognizing [the harm], it’s hard to move through that [violation]. People are really hard on themselves.”

Work quality suffers, as well. Workplace trauma victims have difficulty maintaining appropriate work behavior. They also have higher levels of absenteeism, lower levels of productivity and are more likely to experience burnout. They’re also more likely to quit their job.

One of the impacts that can be hard to detect is sometimes subtle changes in how a trauma victim interprets interactions at work, according to TinyPulse. For example, they frequently isolate themselves more, have fewer social and cultural connections with workmates, and experience more conflicts with both co-workers and supervisors.

How Trauma Victims Can Help Themselves

In her presentation at the WOCA event, Harts provided advice for those who, like her, have experienced workplace trauma. They include knowing that you don’t have to respond or defend yourself immediately, acknowledging what occurred, documenting the occurrence to avoid questioning whether the abuse actually happened, and redistributing the energy and affirming yourself.

Pearson writes that workplace trauma victims can take a series of steps to help them overcome what they have experienced.

Make yourself the priority. Now is the time for “urgent action” when it comes to self-care. This includes ensuring periods of downtime between work obligations, getting out into nature, taking breaks away from the office computer, making time to regularly do something you enjoy, and ensuring you get at least six to eight hours of sleep.

Identify trauma source. In addition to the reasons listed above, other specific incidents that can lead to trauma include an employer announcing layoffs, workplace violence or criminal activity in the community, the death of a colleague, and a natural disaster impacting the workplace.

Establish boundaries. Take regular breaks during work. Establish a strong barrier between work and personal life. Take up activities that help you stay calm, including listening to relaxing music during work or taking time each day to meditate.

Take time off. If it’s possible, sometimes the best solution is to take time off from work on an extended leave or sabbatical.

What Companies Can Do to Support Workplace Trauma Victims

Employees can recover from workplace trauma if companies create the right environment and establish needed support structures. That starts with recognizing that workplace trauma is a real issue that is growing, especially following the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic and the turbulent economic times that have followed.

In addition to the research, interviews and lectures on the topic readily available online, business leaders can also read firsthand accounts of workplace trauma and its impact on social media.

Experts told the BBC that the real key to supporting workers who deal with workplace trauma is further acceptance of the importance of mental health support in the workplace. It’s not only the right thing to do for their employees, said Dr. Shaili Jain, a physician and trauma researcher at Stanford University, but also necessary for businesses “to maintain their profitability and their productivity. It is a massive call for employers to take action, definitely on a policy and governmental level.”

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