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Workplace Trauma is Real (and We Need to Talk About It)

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We do not often think about the long-term implications of a short-term job when we discuss unhealthy workplaces. We do not consider the long-term impacts on who we are, how we view ourselves, and how we respond to the world around us that comes from working in a challenging environment.  

And nobody outright calls these experiences and feelings workplace trauma. Instead, we skirt the issue and say things like we are “working for a bad boss” or feeling “devalued and underestimated.”  Or worse minimize them for us and others.  

As businesses, to be successful, we need to be great at projects, processes, and people – and if you are not nailing the last one, the rest do not matter. And even more importantly, sometimes it is not that we get the “people” part right; it is that we do not get it wrong. 

What is Workplace Trauma? 

Trauma in the workplace is an employee’s physical or psychological response to a crisis or significantly toxic situation, a response that might impair daily activities. And there are a variety of factors that might contribute to workplace trauma, including racism, bullying, a lack of work-life balance, and a feeling of job instability. 

It can look like, but is not limited to: 

  • Acts of racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, and bigotry 
  • Bullying by team members and members of leadership 
  • Periods of acute stress caused by layoffs or sudden realignments of organizational structure 
  • Intentionally cruel acts 
  • Unresolved conflicts with co-workers 
  • Unrealistic work demands 
  • Value misalignment 
  • Lack of support, resources, and proper equipment 
  • Lack of autonomy and micromanagement 
  • Long hours, unreasonable workload, and no work-life separation 
  • Disrespected boundaries 
  • Natural disasters 
  • Death of a co-worker 
  • Serious injuries and accidents at work 
  • Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse 
  • Random acts of violence and terrorism 

The Impact of Workplace Trauma  

Workers experiencing incidences of trauma commonly have emotional, cognitive, and behavioral symptoms that impair their ability to do their jobs. They may experience restlessness, insomnia, anxiety, detachment, intrusive images, poor concentration, social disengagement, or hypervigilance.  

One study found that “within any given workgroup, approximately 15% of workers will exhibit symptom clusters of sufficient severity and duration to meet criteria for a diagnosis of acute stress disorder (ASD) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” This results in “… absenteeism, poor presenteeism (present at work but in a highly distracted state), task avoidance, increased conflicts, accidents or loss of motivation.” 

These anxiety, fear, sadness, and dissociative symptoms significantly impair cognitive functioning and work skills. With mental health reaching a dangerously high level due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, workers in the US are at risk of unprecedented traumatization of their team members. Some team members may become distressed at the simple thought of entering the workplace only to experience continued toxic treatment.  

Beyond the immediate impacts of worker disengagement on productivity, innovative thinking, and collaboration, there are other costs for businesses to be aware of due to workplace trauma. Employers may face an increase in disability claims, worker compensation claims, mental health claims, or legal liabilities. 

We have witnessed multiple occasions with clients where the effects of an unhealthy workplace or a toxic leader lingered not just for days, but months and even years. The ghosts of these experiences impact how people show up in conversations, navigating conflict, and their sense of confidence.  

Findings from Our Workplace Trauma Survey 

A few months ago, we asked our newsletter subscribers to share their own experiences with workplace trauma, and the responses were incredibly moving. The impacts go so far beyond the office walls, and as leaders, you are the stewards of your team members’ well-being while they are on the clock.  

Beyond the other items discussed in this article, I want to shine an essential spotlight on a recurring theme in the responses we captured. In the word cloud of all reactions, you will notice that positions of power come up the most often. Words like “manager,” “president,” “director,” and “boss” appeared 3x more than “colleague” or “coworker.”  

It is essential for anyone in a leadership role to take an active part in reflecting on what you may or may not be doing that contributes to a team member’s sense of safety and ability to bring their best self to work. For example, creating and the following structure is not something that comes easily to me, and it can cause a lot of stress if that is what someone needs to be successful.  

Examining how you show up with stress is a powerful place to start your reflection. We all have times when we do not show up at our best either consciously or unconsciously. Maybe it is getting short with someone because you are tired or frustrated, maybe it is feeling frantic and out of control, so you micromanage your team, or maybe it is feeling hurt and acting from a place of self-protection.  

A stressed brain cannot empathize or connect strongly with others.  

When Workplace Conflict Is Not Going Anywhere

Let us say you are in a challenging work situation and are unsure how to proceed. If your situation is not moving forward, you might observe a sustained unwillingness by others to:   

  • Be Curious. We need to take the time to diagnose the actual problem instead of settling for superficial answers. Curiosity requires us to consider other possibilities. The solution might not be resolved if somebody critical of the situation is unwilling to be curious.  
  • Make an effort. Sometimes conflict can be simple; other times, it can be more complicated, but regardless of the type, navigating a conflict requires a genuine desire to improve the situation, even if that requires improving something about yourself.  
  • Take ownership. In every situation, everyone involved plays a role in the outcome. We cannot move forward if we are unwilling to take ownership, or we are deferring ownership. It is important to note that if we limit ownership to a title and only the leader is responsible for taking ownership, we restrict the team and limit the possibilities.  
  • Collaborate. Successful relationships are built on mutual trust and respect. A balanced relationship must be give and take. When someone believes that they alone can fix it, the focus turns to them instead of creating a collaborative solution.   
  • Be willing to change. Solving problems requires us to take risks, get messy, tinker and experiment, and step into the unknown. This sometimes means our hypothesis will not be correct, but we might first have to be wrong to find out what is right.  

In my experience, when one of these obstacles is present, new elephants can emerge because of the actions and reactions of the people involved. Suppose we do not navigate these moments effectively. In that case, people can increase their avoidant behavior because of how a person (or people) on the team reacted, and we create breeding grounds for more elephants to emerge. 

Strategies to Navigate a Challenging Workplace Situation 

There can be great sadness that comes with realizing that the outcome you hoped for will not happen, and the situation is worse and not better. Much like processing the stages of grief, you can use strategies to come to terms with your situation and figure out the best way to move forward.  

Seek to understand the resistance—when applicable.  

Remember that understanding does not have to mean agreeing. Establishing that you are not searching for agreement can lower the heat of this exploration. . Look for the loss, and you are likely to uncover the point of resistance. Common patterns of loss are loss of power, control, and comfort/familiarity.  

One of my clients is a financial institution that has been around for several decades. They are on an innovation mission, but they have employees who have been a part of the company for twenty-five years and do not understand the need to collaborate with Financial Technology companies instead of doing what they have always done. The leaders were frustrated with the resistance, but all we had to do was ask, “What might these people be losing?” and the answer was clear. Whether these employees are conscious of their fear or not, it makes sense that they would be afraid that they will not be successful in this new work. Perhaps they worry they are not innovative or creative enough. Or that they might not have the ability to learn the new software being presented. In understanding the perception of loss, there is a clear path forward for resolution using training tools and increasing confidence and psychological safety.  

Sometimes imagining the other person’s possible losses is enough to give you an effective strategy. Sometimes you can have a conversation and ask, “What are you afraid you’re losing right now that maybe I’m not considering?” or “What concerns you most in this situation?” 

Accept the Reality Your Workplace Situation MAY Not Change 

It is essential to recognize that there may be times when you know a situation will not be dealt with in the way you find most productive. There are some ideas and values that are worth fighting for, and other times when you might say to yourself, “Yeah. You know what? I’m not going to die on the sword for this.”  

External factors can play a significant role in determining when you are willing to accept a situation with a stubborn problem and when you are not. You might be more inclined to tolerate a situation because you are taking care of a sick parent and do not have time to find a new job, or you are two years from retirement, or just had a baby, and it does not seem worth it to kick up dust. Maybe your skill set has you competing in a narrowed field, or you live in a small town, and there are few options. A client had a situation where they did not leave a job laden with elephants until they finished graduate school because they did not have the mental energy to work full time, go to school full time, and look for a job.  

There is a difference between acceptance and resignation. Accepting reality is not ignoring a situation. It is seeing what is in front of you, weighing the options, and saying, “I’m going to accept that this is what it is and find ways to keep moving forward in ways that don’t cost me.”   

In accepting reality, we recognize that there will always be things that are important to us that are not important to other people. That is just the truth. There are conversations you will be willing to have that may be too difficult for others.  

Only you know where you are comfortable compromising or accepting. Sometimes we may feel passionate about an issue, but if we allow ourselves to step back, we might say, “You know what? This is not worth it. I am not going to lose sleep over this. I must work with this person. I know that is just the way they are. They are not going to leave. I am not going to leave. I’m going to make the best of it.” And there are times when we may say, “I need to speak and stand with courage because this is too important. The consequences of staying quiet are far greater than speaking up.”  

Please make sure that you are not accepting a genuinely toxic situation or damaging your mental health if you have options for something different. If you must tolerate a situation like this because the time to change is not right yet, consider talking with a counselor or mental health professional to process the experience and safeguard your mental health until you get out.   

Choose Your Own Path and Leave a Toxic Workplace  

If finding a resolution is important enough to you, it is not happening, and you cannot see a way to make it happen, you have a choice. Marshall Goldsmith shares three paths in his book Triggers. He suggests that you can “Accept, Adjust, or Avoid.” Choosing your path could mean exploring different opportunities within your current situation, but it also can mean leaving.   

This is a scary one. Speaking from experience, it sucks to be put into a position where you feel strongly that something needs to be approached differently, but you do not have the support or power to help the change. It forces you to question what you believe or what you saw for yourself at the organization. It does not feel great to feel pushed out of a situation, and it is okay that you may have to mourn the fact that reality is different from what you desired.  

It is tricky because deciding to leave a workplace means stepping into uncertainty, but it is essential to realize your self-efficacy. Sometimes people feel their hands are tied because their fear of the unknown is greater than the pain, they are in. I have seen many who have underestimated their ability to rise and recover, and it is inspiring when they tap into their truth. 

Take Care of Yourself When Dealing with Toxic Workplaces

It is essential to make sure you are exploring options if you have them. However, if you have considered other possibilities and staying put is your best one, then you will have to find ways to take care of yourself. If you are in a toxic work environment or an unfulfilling place and do not have other options, that is tough and can be emotionally and psychologically draining. Here are some things that may help:  

Seek allies. It is important to find allies, whether they are inside or outside of work. This is critical because sometimes you need someone to hold space for you, to validate the way you feel, and to listen.  

Get your bucket filled elsewhere. Self-care is whatever you can do in your life to give yourself more positive energy. If work is not fulfilling you, find a hobby, spend time with friends, or volunteer so you can get your bucket filled elsewhere. Create your manual of care, whatever that looks like to stay connected to your true self.  

Seek help. Do you have access to a professional counselor or coach who can help you with what you are going through? Finding outside support can help you decompress and set up strategies for coping or taking action.  

Set boundaries. Find ways to limit the time you spend in the situation. Limit your work hours. Leave the office at lunch. Choose who you spend time with when possible.  

On a final note, I am not suggesting that self-care can remove the harm from working or being in a toxic or abusive situation. It will not. We talk on our team that no amount of life hacks or dinners made easier with rotisserie chicken will heal burnout or hurt. The hope is that you can find ways that work for you to rest, recover, and protect yourself until the situation evolves, and you can do what is best for you.   

What Leaders Can Do to Mitigate Workplace Trauma 

First and foremost: Do not assume that you are creating a safe environment; actively look for ways you might not be. Consider asking the people you support “What can I do new, more of, or differently to make your experience here even better?” 

You set the tone for your team member’s perceived safety with your actions (and inaction). If you are struggling to regulate your response to workplace stresses, you will not help your team members.  

Encourage your team members to be open and honest about their experiences at work and LISTEN TO THEM. Do not defend, explain, or justify. First just listen to them and see if you can see what is important to them. Ask questions like “Tell me more” or “I wasn’t aware of that can you help me understand when this happens?”  By creating a psychologically safe environment, transparency and open communication will occur and promote trust and empathy among team members, making them feel secure, seen, and less stressed.  

Rest is always needed and welcomed by team members suffering. Take the necessary steps to ensure team members have the time and space to rest and heal. Whether it is a personally traumatic event or a collective experience, time away from the workplace can help mitigate some of the damage workplace trauma can cause.  

Move from a control-focused mindset to one of collaboration. Your team members are the lifeblood of the company. At every opportunity, find ways to create a culture of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Look for those moments where you can move from transactional interactions to transformational conversations.  

Trauma in the workplace is real. The stress is real. The impact is real. The good thing is the solution is real, too. What role will you play in making it a little safer and a little less stressful for everyone in your world?  

 

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