Undoing Workplace PTSD

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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Many of us can recall a job experience that was less than ideal. Maybe the hours were too long, or the benefits were lacking; perhaps your coworkers weren’t pleasant or the bathroom always smelled funny. The list of workplace grievances can go on and on, often serving as conversation pieces when the topic of workplace dissatisfaction arises. But what if your experience went beyond a retrospective eye-roll? What if your previous workplace was so damaging that your mental health suffered long after your resignation? As a manager, how would you feel knowing that you played a role in the psychological detriment of a person who was once a team member? How do leaders support new hires potentially coming from toxic, harmful workplaces? 

These questions are at the core of understanding workplace trauma and PTSD: the emotional, cognitive, and/or physical challenges experienced as a result of negative or abusive work experiences. While many people leave jobs under favorable or at least neutral terms, many leave with psychological damage that can negatively impact their mental health for years. We’ve started to learn more about this lately as more and more folks consider leaving toxic jobs. However, not everyone has the privilege or ability to leave one job in favor of a better one. In particular, those essential and front-line workers that were so heavily lauded at the start of the pandemic, only to continue receiving low wages while at the highest risk for contracting Covid-19, find themselves without that option.

Workplace trauma results from myriad factors but ultimately results from a lack of psychological safety. Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defined psychological safety as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” When employees don’t feel psychologically safe, they often need to “cover” or hide parts of themselves. For example, a person may hide that they have children at home out of fear that they will be passed over for projects that may require longer work hours. Or someone with a same-sex partner may hesitate to share information about their relationship if they feel their colleagues may treat them differently. 

In addition to hiding their authentic identities, traumatic workplaces can cause employees to suffer from imposter syndrome, increase their risk of stress-related illnesses, and experience burnout and/or work-related anxiety. Toxic work environments can also impact productivity and innovation as people may not feel comfortable taking risks out of fear that their ideas will be disregarded or ridiculed. As a result, those who can find other employment may quit, while those who remain become less invested in the success of an organization causing harm. 

Aside from the financial implications of employee turnover, leaders should consider the long-lasting impact they’re having on their teams. What are you sacrificing for the sake of the organization’s bottom line? As we’ve said, people make the magic happen at your company. And without those people, profits can suffer, but the culture also begins to shift. Negative workplace culture often results in overly competitive attitudes between colleagues, a lack of transparency from management to employees, and an overall climate of distrust. These effects don’t exist in isolation either, as folks who spend most of their day at work may find it challenging to put these feelings aside when they get home

With all this considered, the obvious question of “so what, now what?” begs to be answered. 

For Managers

  1. Take an honest look at your practices as a leader. What methods are you implementing to motivate your team? How do you react when an employee pushes back on initiatives or offers an alternative way of thinking? What support do you have for folks moving the needle despite a global pandemic, food and product shortages, international wartime, and continued racial unrest? How are folks showing up every day? A good leader not only notices when someone on their team is in need but preemptively puts measures in place to ensure that everyone knows and feels support, no matter the concern that arises.
  2. If you are hiring, understand that folks may be coming to you with lots of experience but could potentially have some previous workplace trauma as well. Examine your onboarding processes and how you are building trust with people from the day they start. Consider offering paid mental health days to allow employees to process current events and/or personal issues, or just step away from work for reasons you don’t need to know. 
  3. Anonymize feedback processes so employees can communicate their concerns without fear of retaliation.
  4. If you had a previous traumatic work experience, start working through it with a licensed therapist or mental health professional. Sometimes we replicate our experiences because we have normalized them. Recognizing potentially problematic practices and behaviors in ourselves can be the first step to creating a more positive culture for our teams. 

For employees

  1. If your current employer is abusive, dismissive, or just raggedy, consider updating your resume and looking elsewhere. No one should be subjected to physical, emotional, or psychologically harmful work conditions. 
  2. If you want to stay, determine if HR is a safe space to report mistreatment. There are laws to protect employees from discriminatory acts, retaliation, and abuse.
  3. Use your benefits. Most employers offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or health insurance covering therapy. Call your insurance provider to determine your coverage and locate a licensed therapist within your network. For BIPOC employees, there are resources to assist in finding therapists of color.  
  4. Practice self-care. Though the term is trending, the movement to care for ourselves isn’t without merit. While no amount of meditation, walks around the block, or yoga will change existing garbage systems, research shows that these and similar practices can help mitigate the effects of stress. Find what works for you, even if it takes trial and error.