I bet you had no idea that minor stressors piling on top of the major ones in your life can cause your body to overreact. This reaction leads to prolonged fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and feeling jumpy and “on edge”—and it’s a direct result of chronic overexposure to stress.
I bet you had no idea that events from your past can still have a significant impact on how you now feel at work. New research shows that people who experienced negative events early in life can still be negatively affected by those experiences decades later. The study shows that even if you think you’ve gotten over it, a bad event from your past can surface again when faced with new challenges or stressful situations.
I bet you had no idea that your physical and mental reactions to traumatic experiences were contributing to burnout. Well, they are.
Now you may be thinking, “My workplace has nothing to do with trauma!” But when we’re working long hours because our team is shorthanded or the workload hasn’t been balanced, we can feel like we’re drowning — so when a workmate says something cruel or our boss yells at us, it doesn’t really register because we’re already traumatized.
You might believe, “My workplace is far from the battlefield” but you’d be wrong. There are actually some surprising similarities between traumatic experiences and burnout. It goes beyond the work itself, with feelings of isolation, loneliness, and a sense of powerlessness affecting your mental health. In fact, symptoms of post-traumatic stress include avoidance of certain people or places, flashbacks to a traumatic event, nightmares, an inability to express emotions, anxiety or irritability.
Trauma is often a result of a sudden event that causes overwhelming fear, helplessness or horror. Over time, psychological trauma can cause mental as well as physical illness. Three-fifths of Americans have suffered a traumatic event at some point in their lives, according to the National Center for PTSD.
Those are shocking statistics, and they’re why it’s so important to understand the relationship between trauma, burnout, and mental health. That’s what we’ll explore in this article.
Previously, we covered the other 6 themes that can lead to burnout. In case you missed them, here they are again:
We’ve all been there: you’re at your desk, working hard, and then someone comes over and starts yelling at you. Maybe they’re just having a bad day—but maybe they’ve been doing this to other people too.
And then it happens again. And again. And then one day you realize that the yelling is happening more often than not, and you’re starting to feel like no one cares about what you’re doing or why you’re doing it. You don’t know who to talk to about it because everyone seems oblivious to the problem or even encourages it.
The next thing you know, it’s 4am and your eyes hurt from staring at your computer so long—and your boss is still yelling at you!
Workplace violence is any type of behavior that threatens or harms an employee’s health or safety while they’re at work. This includes physical assault, threats of violence, sexual harassment (we’ll cover that separately), cyberbullying, stalking and other types of abuse. It takes many different forms, including verbal and physical abuse and it affects millions of people every year.
It’s important to know how to identify when an employee might be experiencing workplace violence so you can take action before things escalate into something more serious. Here are some signs that someone might be experiencing workplace violence:
- They seem withdrawn from their normal social activities outside of work
- They have trouble sleeping or have nightmares about what happened at work
- They have frequent headaches or other physical symptoms
- They’re always on edge and quick to anger
- They often complain of feeling anxious or depressed
- Their performance at work has deteriorated
- They’re more likely to miss work unexpectedly or call in sick
- They’ve developed a new interest in weapons and firearms
- They’re more aggressive in their interactions with others
What can you as a leader do to address it? I’ve put together a simple guide.
- Identify the problem
If your company has been experiencing an increase in workplace violence, step one is identifying the problem—is it an issue with management or with employees? If you’re not sure, try asking some trusted colleagues for help.
- Find out why it’s happening
Once you’ve identified the problem, try to find out why it’s happening by looking at data like sales figures or employee satisfaction surveys. You’ll be able to see if there are any correlations between these numbers and events where violence has occurred (for example, if sales have dropped in certain regions or departments). This will help you understand what leads up to violent behavior in your workplace so that you can prevent future incidents from occurring again!
- Put together a plan of action
Now that you know what’s going on and why it’s happening, the next step is putting together a plan of action! This should include steps like making sure all employees feel safe at work by providing resources like counseling services; implementing new policies that address harassment and violence; having a clear process for reporting incidents of violence; and educating employees about how to prevent violence from happening in the first place.
Have you ever felt uncomfortable at work?
Maybe it was because of a coworker that just wouldn’t stop talking about their love life, or maybe it was because your boss was making inappropriate comments about your appearance. Maybe you were sexually harassed by one of your coworkers and didn’t know how to react.
Whatever the reason, I want to remind you that what happened is not your fault. You did nothing wrong and should not feel bad about yourself or ashamed for what happened.
Workplace sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.
The most common forms of sexual harassment include unwanted touching, talking to you in a flirtatious manner, texting you sexually explicit messages, leaning against you while look through your desk files, sexual jokes, and inappropriate comments about a your body or appearance. If your boss says, “I love that jacket; it really shows off your legs” or questions you about personal matters like your dating life and family plans, this is crossing the line.
If you think you may have been sexually harassed by your employer, contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). They’ll be able to advise you on your rights under federal law and connect you with local resources that can help.
Sexual harassment can be traumatizing because it can make you feel unsafe in your place of work. You might feel powerless over your situation because you don’t know who else has been affected by this harassment or if you’ll be targeted next.
In a survey of 500 women employees, 70 percent reported being sexually harassed at work. Women who suffer from sexual assault or harassment are more likely to experience depression and anxiety than those who were not victimized and can affect your job performance and overall well-being.
It’s important to remember that sexual harassment is never okay, no matter what your gender is or who you are being harassed by! Know your rights, know when you’re being harassed, and speak up if it happens to you.
Racism can be a huge stressor and one that many people dismiss. It is a reality for many people of color. When we experience racism in the workplace, it is emotionally draining. We can become frustrated, disheartened, agitated, and quite uncomfortable.
Imagine these scenarios:
1) You walk into a meeting that’s been called for the specific purpose of discussing racist behavior in the workplace and are ignored.
2) You’re mocked by a member of management for requesting vacation time because the manager believes Black people do not take vacations.
3) You’re told by an HR representative that there’s a strict “no cell phone use” policy which doesn’t really exist for anyone but you.
4) You find a noose in your cubicle space and then are told by your employer that you now need to work on the same floor as the person who left it for you.
5) You get fired from your job because you refuse to straighten your hair after being repeatedly pressured to do so.
Being the target of racial bias can be very hurtful, demotivating, and stressful. It can make you dread going to work. It can make the workplace feel unwelcoming and even dangerous to you. Sometimes racism can be hard to spot on the job, especially when it shows up as a micro-aggression — but its effects can be devastating.
You might start experiencing mental and physical symptoms like sleep problems, anxiety, depression, headaches, or stomach problems. It might affect your ability to concentrate or focus on tasks and can lead to making more mistakes at work.
Although you have no control over whether or not someone will discriminate against you based on your skin color, you do have control over how you respond to it.
Cognitive biases lead to micro-aggressions and discriminations against all forms of minorities in the workplace. Beyond sex and race, the most common types of discrimination factors are related to gender, age, sexual orientation, religion, and parental status.
It sounds something like this:
- “Why do you want that job? You probably won’t get it.”
- “Your generation doesn’t have the same work ethic as my generation.”
- “You don’t have children at home, right?”
- “…for a woman…”
- When you have too few boundaries people say, “You’re too nice.” When you have boundaries in place, they say, “You’re too bossy.”
It looks something like this:
- Your competence is judged by how well you look the part
- You’re constantly interrupted
- You’re a woman. When you speak up at a meeting, your idea gets ignored only to be praised when your male colleague says the same thing you just said.
Not only is this not fair, it is frustrating. It can impact your confidence to speak up for yourself. If you are discriminated against for both your gender and other bias, you are dealing with a double whammy.
If your company is being intentional about diversity, but not open to addressing unconscious biases, it will only perpetuate harmful behaviors. You deserve to work in a safe environment free from trauma that recognizes your worth.
Toxic Work Cultures
Work culture is the most important factor in determining employee experience at work and wellbeing.
A positive workplace culture can help employees feel supported, valued, and engaged in their work. It can also help develop skills and knowledge that are transferable to other jobs.
A negative or toxic work culture, on the other hand, can have a detrimental effect on employee experience at work and wellbeing. An employee who feels unsupported or undervalued will be less likely to put in effort and may even leave their job altogether. This can lead to feelings of isolation, anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems.
Your work culture is toxic if:
- Your manager is constantly passive aggressive, belittling, and critical, but never helpful.
- You are being belittled and mocked.
- Your work is minimized or compared to others’.
- You are being micromanaged by a supervisor.
- Your co-workers are intentionally and defiantly ignoring your requests.
- Someone repeatedly works around or undermines you.
- You are being expected to perform menial tasks outside your job description.
- There is an atmosphere of fear or mistrust in the office.
- Your employer seems more concerned with profit than employee satisfaction.
The workplace is a place that is built to make you feel empowered, supported, and valued. It’s a place where you can thrive, make your dreams come true, and grow professionally. But if your workplace is truly toxic and making you feel bad, there are some things you can do.
First off, if you’re feeling like you can’t handle it anymore, consider talking to someone outside of work. Whether that’s a family member or a friend or even just a therapist—someone who can help you figure things out on their own time and without any pressure from anyone else.
Second, if you have trouble sleeping at night or staying focused during the day because of what’s going on at work, ask your doctor if there’s any medication they might recommend for anxiety or depression related to the situation at hand so that it doesn’t start affecting your life outside of work as well as in.
Finally, if nothing else seems to be working for you, think about quitting! It may seem scary at first but once again talking with someone outside of work about all this can help give them an outside perspective on the situation. You may not realize that some of what you’re going through has nothing to do with your job or the people in it; it’s just a bad time in life for everyone, including yourself.
Workplace Accidents and Serious Injuries
We spend more time at work than anywhere else, so we are bound to come across accidents or injuries on the job. That said, many of these are preventable, but if your place of work does not provide adequate training or instruction, it can put you at greater risk. If you’ve already experienced a serious injury, it can leave you feeling traumatized.
Working in certain industries, such as construction or emergency services, means increased risk for the worker. You can be impacted by a direct work experience but also by witnessing or learning about others around you who were injured.
A recent example of this is what happened in the healthcare sector during COVID. Physicians and nurses, who are accustomed to a certain level of exposure to death and dying, were seeing patients dying by the droves. Despite working extra shifts that put them and their family members at increased risk, the shortage of equipment and the lack of training about this newly emerging virus translated into thousands of deaths per day. This led to increased feelings of helplessness, depression, and anxiety that no one could have prepared them for. If that weren’t enough, these same hard working and caring professionals often incurred the virus themselves as a result of exposure.
Workplace accidents, both fatal and nonfatal, cost employers $172 billion per year in medical care, legal expenses and lost productivity, so this is no trivial matter for your employer either. Common physical injuries include construction site accidents, slips and falls, back injuries, repetitive motion injuries, and carpal tunnel syndrome. Most emotional injuries can be traced back to stress at work.
Regardless of whether you experienced a traumatic injury on the job due to your industry or to an unforeseen accident, emotional trauma can be a common response. The best way to cope with this type of injury is to seek help from a mental health professional who has experience treating people who have been through traumatic events.
One type of work-related trauma that we often overlook is job insecurity. Job security is an important part of our lives, and when we don’t feel secure in our jobs, it can cause us to experience stress and anxiety. This can lead to a host of problems, including depression, increased blood pressure, and even heart disease.
Job insecurity is when a person feels they might lose their job at any time, whether it’s due to their own performance or the performance of their company. It’s not the same as being laid off or fired—those are two outcomes that you can see coming from a mile away, whereas job insecurity is not guaranteed in any way. You don’t know if your boss will suddenly decide to let you go because he doesn’t like your facial hair, or if your company will be sold and the new owners will want to hire their own team, or if you’ll get a promotion but have to move to another office with no transfer options available.
This kind of uncertainty can cause emotional trauma because it makes it impossible for people to plan ahead or feel secure in their position. They may feel like they’re always walking on eggshells around their boss and coworkers, which can lead to anxiety and depression over time.
When your job is insecure due to layoffs, organization restructuring, or business closure, it becomes impossible to focus on anything else in life outside of work. You’re constantly thinking about what will happen next, and this can lead to depression as well as anxiety disorders like PTSD or panic attacks.
When you struggle with imposter syndrome, you might imagine that you’ll lose your job due to a perceived incompetence even when others deem you to be fully competent.
This is because imposter syndrome can lead to a fear of not being good enough, which can cause people to avoid asking for help or speaking up in the workplace. This can then lead to a feeling of being unprepared and unable to do your job, even if you’re actually highly competent.
This can cause emotional trauma in the workplace, especially if the person suffering from imposter syndrome feels like they are being fired because they were “found out” as an imposter—even though they really are capable, competent employees who just need more support and guidance than other people might.
For example, let’s say that someone from another department has been promoted to a higher position than yours. You might find yourself wondering why they were chosen instead of you—even if there are clear reasons that don’t have anything to do with skill level or ability.
If you’re dealing with imposter syndrome in the workplace, it can be hard to know what to do.
The good news is that we’ve got your back. Here are some tips to help you move forward:
1) Get a coach. If you feel like you’re the only one who feels this way (and you aren’t), it’s time to get some outside help. A coach can help you navigate the challenges of imposter syndrome and help you build your confidence so that you can start making real progress toward your goals.
2) Find a mentor. Whether it’s a friend or a colleague or even someone online, find someone who has experienced what you’re going through and ask them for advice on working through it successfully. They’ll be able to tell you what worked for them and how they overcame their own challenges!
3) Take care of yourself physically and emotionally—you deserve it! When we’re stressed out or anxious, our bodies respond by releasing cortisol into our bloodstreams which makes us feel crappy physically and mentally (and like we’re not good enough). It’s important that we take care of ourselves so that we can stay healthy and focused on being successful at work!
Excessive or Unnecessary Criticism
When you’re attacked at work, it can be emotionally damaging. Whether you’re the victim of an abusive boss, a coworker who won’t stop gossiping about you, or even just a colleague who’s always late to meetings, the way your employer treats you can have a profound effect on how you feel about yourself and your relationships with others.
Being on the receiving end of excessive or unnecessary criticism at work can be emotionally traumatizing. Here are examples of what your boss might be saying that’s harmful to your psyche:
- “You’re the team member who needs the most improvement.”
- “You’re the team member who asks the most questions.”
- “Why can’t you do this as well as your colleague?”
- “This is taking too long. It should have been done already.”
- “You come off sounding stupid when you say that.”
- “You’re the reason it’s taking so long to get this done.”
Criticism is one of the most damaging forms of emotional trauma at work. When you’re criticized, it can feel like a personal attack, and it can be difficult to recover from.
But criticism isn’t always bad. If you are given feedback that helps you improve, or if your boss points out a weakness and suggests how to fix it, then you’ve been given constructive criticism, which can be helpful.
The problem is when criticism comes without any suggestions on how to improve. This kind of negative feedback just makes people feel bad about themselves and doesn’t help them up their game in any way.
And when criticism comes in front of other people, that’s just mean! It destroys your self-esteem and can harm your reputation among co-workers and customers alike.
The best way to handle criticism is to take it in stride. Try not to take things personally, because that can make the situation worse. In addition, if you feel your boss or co-workers are being unnecessarily harsh, try asking them what they expect from you instead of just accepting their criticism at face value. If you’re still having trouble getting along with someone after this, consider talking with a supervisor or human resources representative about it. You deserve to be treated better than this.
In conclusion, there are a variety of reasons why the stress from your job can lead to trauma and burn you out. Whether you’ve experienced outright violence, harassment, racism, discrimination, or work in some other form of a toxic environment, the implications are similar. Even when you encounter stress as a result of an accident or a product of your own mind (as in the case of imposter syndrome), over time, the anxiety it creates about safety in the workplace can wreak havoc on your health.
The first step to dealing with this type of trauma is figuring out what’s causing you to experience the anxiety. If it’s something that can be changed—like an employee who makes you uncomfortable at work—you’ll want to put up boundaries and tell that person directly that their behavior has become unacceptable. If it’s something out of your control—like an unsafe working environment—you’ll probably need to find yourself a new and more welcoming place to work.
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