A large portion of the working population will experience workplace trauma at some point in their career. Yet the topic is so rarely discussed in the workplace. When was the last time somebody asked if you if you were coping with negative knock-on effects from a previous role? Probably never.
When thinking about workplace trauma, you may jump straight to professions where traumatic incidents happen regularly – the military, emergency services, etc. – however it is not limited to risky professions at all.
People in your office may joke about being ‘scarred’ by a previous role, but these comments are usually flippant, touching on a topic quickly without going into detail. It could just be a joke, and they have not suffered from any long-lasting trauma… or it could be an indication of something bigger. A deeply held negative belief about themselves that they just cannot shake, for example.
What is workplace trauma?
There is no single definition of what workplace trauma is, other than it is an event or series of events that occurred in the workplace that has caused lasting trauma to a worker.
The most common causes of workplace trauma are harassment, bullying, or ‘breadcrumbing’ – where a manager will string along an employee for months, and even years, with a promised promotion or pay rise that they never intend on giving.
Lay-off announcements alsorank highly in the list of causes of trauma in the workplace, and yet rarely is support provided following these. Severe workplace trauma can also stem from industrial accidents or violence in the workplace, especially when no support was provided to employees after the fact.
“I lost a close friend and colleague when, due to a lack of maintenance, an incident caused her death at work. The company I worked for offered no counselling or support afterwards, and for years I tore myself apart with survivors’ guilt – pulling down the shutters was usually my job.” – Anon
Certain groups are also more likely to be victims of workplace trauma. People of colour, disabled workers, neurodiverse workers, and those who experience mental health disorders are more likely to experience discrimination, harassment, and bullying in the workplace. And these experiences are more likely to cause lasting harm to these groups of people.
The symptoms of workplace trauma are like those of other mental traumas, and include (from Entrepreneur.com):
· Feeling numb
· Trouble sleeping
· Trouble concentrating
· Inability to maintain a regular routine
· Feeling constant pressure to overwork
· Digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
· Anxiety, panic attacks and depression
· Relationship issues such as withdrawal from friends or family
· Unprompted bursts of anger or aggression
Untreated stress and anxiety can also lead to other, physical ailments that someone may not have suffered otherwise.
How does workplace trauma affect an employee personally?
Sometimes, workplace trauma can begin affecting the employee outside of work. Especially if it is the result of bullying, harassment, or discrimination.
“I was being told that I wasn’t good enough so often, that I began to believe it. I was always trying to do better at work, and was being told that it was never good enough. So eventually I decided that I wasn’t good enough… for anything. I became incredibly depressed and thought I was nothing but a disappointment, not only at work but to my friends and family too. I pulled away from everyone and cut myself off.” - Anon
Often, after experiencing a traumatic event, those feelings can resurface with no warning. They could walk past something that triggers a memory, and within a millisecond are back in the moment the distress occurred. They’re feeling the pain, anger, and upset all over again.
Workplace trauma can seep into your personal life, even if it started as ‘just a work thing’. If you are led to believe that you are unlikable at work, for example, it can crop up in other social situations. You’ll automatically think that nobody likes you, so may withdraw from your social life, friend group, or family.
It can also lead to other mental health disorders, most commonly depression or anxiety - or both. It can debilitate a person and even lead to hospitalisation… or worse.
How does workplace trauma affect an employee at work?
Just because someone leaves a role that has caused them trauma does not mean that they are healed. The memory and effects remain, and like with all trauma, they may need proper support to overcome it.
“I have a very negative reaction to the phrase ’have you got a minute?’. To most people that phrase means nothing, but for years and years that phrase for me was always followed by being dragged into the manager’s office and being emotionally destroyed. I would have to sit there and be belittled and yelled at for tiny things, such as not smiling enough when I was on my period and in agony. I’ve been away from that role for 4 years now and still tense up when I hear it.” - Anon
You may believe that because the trauma wasn’t acquired at your business the employee will be fine. Another misconception. If anything, they are likely to be more on alert, always thinking about it and worrying if the same issues will arise in their new environment. They may struggle to reach their full potential, instead playing it safe out of fear.
A traumatised worker may also feel the need to overcompensate for their perceived faults and shortcomings, pushing themselves to work too hard and take on too many tasks, ultimately leading to burnout.
It is worth noting that it may appear out of the blue. The incident could have been some time in the past, and the employee has not shown any indication of needing help. But a trigger event can cause those feelings to come flooding back, initiating a mental health crisis.
How can workplace trauma affect your business?
A human being can only exist in a heightened sense of anxiety for so long before it takes its toll, so if a worker is dealing with trauma and not supported it is likely to lead to mental health issues. This would likely influence the productivity of the entire team, especially if long-term sickness leave is required.
An unsupported employee may also have certain responses that have a negative impact on your business. They could react poorly to certain situations, with the potential to create strife within the workforce, or even with clients and customers.
“I was bullied in one workplace, and despite leaving, I found that the defensiveness that I had put in place to protect myself was causing me big issues in my new workplace. I was getting into petty arguments with colleagues because I always felt I was under attack.” - Anon
In some cases, a person’s ‘fight or flight’ response may even be triggered, causing them to make a rash decision to quit out of fear they were going to get fired anyway. This not only has a negative impact on their career, but also to your business, as you now have to go through the costly process of re-hiring their position.
How can businesses support employees with workplace trauma?
Even if your employee didn’t suffer the trauma at your business, there are steps you can take to help them recover. The first one should be ensuring that your employees – all of them – have access to robust mental health support. The most common way of doing this is by providing an Employee Assistance Programme, and encouraging its use.
Fostering a culture of supportiveness around mental health can reduce the stigma that surrounds discussing it at work. If an employee is struggling, they are much more likely to ask for help if they feel that they are in a safe environment.
Training line managers to spot and compassionately respond to early signs of mental trauma is another way of early intervention and support. Bonus points if these line managers are comfortable and open enough to talk about their own mental health. Publicly demonstrating that mental health is not a barrier to success within your business may ease the anxieties around asking for help.
Additional benefits such as private healthcare are also extremely useful. Yes, they are expensive. However, with the current pressures on the NHS here in the UK, and a constant stream of reports highlighting years’-long waiting lists, providing access to reduced cost healthcare may assist with early intervention and stop any difficulties – physical or mental – from causing more damage.
If you cannot justify the expensive of full healthcare there are mental health only options, such as spill.chat, giving employees access to mental health support and therapy, as well as training for managers and business leaders.
It is important to remember that everyone is different; an event that one person may shrug off may cause extreme upset to another person, affecting the way they behave and think for years to come. Just because you don’t see an event as ‘traumatic’ does not mean that it hasn’t impacted someone else.
Sometimes trauma recovery can take many years, and recovery of any sort is rarely linear. Providing long-term support and keeping communication open and honest will benefit both the employee and your business.
If you are struggling with workplace trauma, there are lots of fantastic people out there who want to help. We’ve included some links we feel that you or your employer may find useful below.
If you're being harassed or bullied at work – Citizens Advice
How to support staff who are dealing with a mental health problem - Mind
Work-related stress and how to manage it – Health & Safety Executive (HSE)
Managing traumatic events in the workplace – EAP Association
Where to get urgent help for mental health – NHS England
Mental health help and support services – Time to Change
NOTE: All Anonymous quotes in this blog are true stories from our network of clients, candidates, and personal friendships. These quotes may have been edited for clarity, but their content remains the same.
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