Overcoming workplace trauma and restoring your mental health

I often joke that I have PTSD from some of my previous assignments, but if I’m honest with myself, there is some truth to it.

Of course it’s not as extreme as for example, for war veterans or victims of abuse – but I genuinely believe that you can leave a work experience feeling scarred. The negative experience and consequences you carry with you can feel traumatic and affect your behaviour in your new workplace and with colleagues, which of course, you don’t want. So today on the blog, I want to tackle the topic of workplace trauma.

Workplace trauma is not a topic that I feel is addressed a lot, although a quick Google search did reveal some interesting articles and resources such as:

To be clear when I talk about workplace trauma in the context of this blog, I am not talking about:

  • Witnessing death at the workplace
  • Witnessing a horrific accident
  • Being the victim of a robbery or a physical attack on your workplace

I am talking more about being the victim of psychological abuse.

What is psychological abuse at work?

If I think back to my own experiences, here is what that might look like:

  • Being bullied by a colleague
  • Having your trust broken
  • Being repeatedly given a too high workload that is not manageable for one person
  • Having unrealistic expectations placed upon you
  • Being micro-managed
  • Living in permanent fear of making a mistake and being reprimanded for it
  • Working in a high pressure environment with unrealistic deadlines
  • And much more…

The list could go on but by now I hope you get the idea… The fact is, a lot of mental health problems associated with work such as burnout, are also related to psychological abuse. And these can come with their load of trauma.

While these sound like large and scary terms, I do not use them lightly and I really encourage us to think not only about their prevalence in the workplace, but also about the impact they have. As we open the dialogue around mental health at work, this will be an important next step to address.

How does workplace trauma manifest itself?

There’s a reason why burnout is still widely feared and seen as a monumental event. While some people may be able to bounce back by themselves, others remain deeply scarred. It can take months to recover, clawing yourself back from a place where you lack self-confidence and are terrified at the thought of reintegrating the workplace.

The Centre for Anxiety Disorders defines trauma as:

… a psychological, emotional response to an event or an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing. When loosely applied, this trauma definition can refer to something upsetting, 

Centre for Anxiety Disorders

From my experience, workplace trauma can mean that you are “jittery” about work in the sense that you may distrust people easily, or be afraid of reliving certain events that were stressful to you although you’re in a completely different environment. This could manifest itself in different ways, for example:

  • You think you have to behave the way you used to in every new situation. So if previously you had to be super tough and agressive, you feel the need to replicate this behaviour even though your new work environment clearly isn’t like that
  • You distrust your colleagues, feel they have your worst intentions at heart, are waiting for their next move that will spite you
  • You’re terrified that previous situations (for example high pressure, intense deadlines, heavy workload) will repeat themselves in your new place of work/new team
  • You expect certain negative behaviours, be it at a company, team or individual level
  • You’re in disbelief that people can actually display behaviours opposite to the negative ones you’ve witnessed before
  • You still relive some of the events that upset you (flashbacks), for example dreaming about them or thinking about them
  • You still get angry or upset about the past events
  • You don’t yet have the emotional distance with past events

None of this is necessarily a problem per se. On the one hand I think it’s quite normal to experience symptoms of trauma, and on the other hand it’s part of your natural healing process to feel jittery for a while. The question is, what can we do about it and how can we manage it better?

How to address workplace trauma

As an individual

As individuals having experienced workplace trauma, we need time to work through it. It will be different for each one of us but talking about it is an important way of working through the issues and helping you gradually get over it. You may want to ask a professional for help, or talking to a friend or loved one might be enough.

If possible, don’t switch quickly from one job to the next particularly if you are coming out of a toxic workplace or negative experience. Take the time to rest and recover , creating headspace for yourself and emotional distance from previous experiences.

As usual, being in touch with yourself – or having self-awareness – will help as you will be more aware of what triggers you, and hopefully have developed coping mechanisms for those situations.

Most of all, remember that it takes time so it’s normal for it to feel quite raw in certain situations, but over time it will subside and you will be able to move on, creating new more positive experiences.

As employers

Employers can help make a difference on several levels, starting by creating work environments that are conducive to good mental health. It’s important to pay close attention to the company culture, on a broad level but also per team. Are the company values represented, do people feel generally satisfied in their jobs and is the atmosphere positive? Or are there pockets of negativity?

There are several ways employers can take the pulse for example by running engagement surveys, but also by ensuring they regularly check-in with departments and teams. When running an engagement survey, it’s important to act upon the results to show that you are genuinely listening and not just running the exercise for the sake of it.

Meanwhile, managers can also provide great input to their managers and higher up through the organization. With the ear to the ground and often being closer to the day to day than Senior Management, they will be sure to have a good idea of how people are feeling.

Last but not least, by being open to having conversations on mental health, employers can help people feel comfortable talking about past experiences and sharing any concerns they might have.

Conclusion

As we continue to break the stigma around mental health and increase the number of conversations around, more training should be offered – as Mental Health First Aid are doing in the UK for example. This can help individuals recognize signs and support others who are in need.

People should be encourage to discuss this with healthcare professionals, and the definition of trauma or PTSD should be revised to include workplace trauma.

Together, we can help change the landscape and conversations around mental health!

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