Emotional Workplace Trauma is a Silent Epidemic — Here's How to Spot It

a woman with her head down at her desk


Anouare Abdou for Hive
Anouare Abdou for Hive
April 16, 2024 at 9:17PM UTC
Last year, a Twitter thread about the lasting emotional impact of toxic workplaces went viral. “Has anyone ever had toxic workplace PTSD? Like, the chime sound of an incoming email evokes your ‘fight, flight, or freeze response?’ Just me?” tweeted Desmond Hardy, a keynote speaker, technology strategist and podcaster. The post struck a chord, garnering thousands of comments and shares. 
“I definitely have toxic workplace PTSD. I keep waiting for someone on my team to throw me under the bus to save themselves, or for my boss to never bring up an issue only to hit me with it all at the most inopportune moment,” wrote one commenter. “It still impacts how I behave around employers years later,” added another one. 
Emotional workplace trauma can be devastating, yet it often goes undetected. That’s because of our perception of trauma. But your nine-to-five can literally traumatize you. “Often, people think of trauma as something ‘big,’ like being a victim of a crime or a car accident. But trauma is very personal and affects each of our nervous systems differently,” says Gabrielle Juliano-Villani MSW, LCSW,  a licensed clinical social worker, therapist, and burnout recovery coach. 
“Psychologists often talk about trauma with a ‘little t,’ meaning that people experience highly distressing experiences that are not necessarily physically or life-threatening (the DSM-V’s definition of a traumatic event),” adds Dr. Katherine Kirkinis, CEO and founder of career services firm Wanderlust Careers

What causes emotional workplace trauma? 

Research shows a link between workplace bullying and symptoms of PTSD. And you may be shocked at how often it happens. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, 30 percent of Americans have suffered abusive conduct at work. 
“Emotional workplace trauma can come from a variety of sources including but not limited to non-life-threatening injuries, emotional abuse, workplace relationships/breakups, bullying, intimidation, the experience of being fired, etc.,” according to Kirkinis. Racism, microaggressions, and misogyny can all lead to emotional workplace trauma as well, according to Juliano-Villani
Speaking of which, three in ten women experience gender-based discrimination and one in two Black employees experience race-based discrimination in the workplace, according to a report published by the Future Skills Centre. Racial trauma exists too – it refers to the mental and emotional injuries caused by encounters with racial bias and ethnic discrimination, according to Mental Health America. When you take all of this into account, you can see how the modern workplace is filled with potentially traumatic situations that are perhaps not being acknowledged as such. 

Signs of emotional workplace trauma. 

Whether you’re a leader in charge of a team or an individual contributor who cares about your mental health and the mental health of your peers, it’s important to be able to spot the signs of emotional workplace trauma since it’s not often talked about. 
According to Juliano-Villani, feeling on edge, experiencing a sense of dread, sadness and depression, and a fear of criticism or doing something wrong can be signs of emotional workplace trauma. “On an individual level, unresolved emotional workplace trauma can produce an array of negative mental health symptoms such as depression and anxiety and influence an individual to quit,” she says.  
Feeling highly distressed in the workplace or when virtually interacting with colleagues is another telltale sign there could be trauma involved, adds Kirkinis: “This could include symptoms like avoidance and procrastination, anxiety and panic, and dread about going into work.” 
There are also cultural symptoms. Silos, gossip, and leaders who don’t listen or integrate employee feedback can be indicators of a workplace that is a breeding ground for emotional trauma. “This leads to high employee turnover, a bad reputation, and causes emotional wounds to employees, which has a trickle-down effect (it impacts their family, friends, and community),” says Juliano-Villani. Not to mention the impact on productivity – suffering from those symptoms leads to decreased productivity, an increased risk of making mistakes, and apathy, she says. 

Tips to address and avoid emotional workplace trauma.

In order to combat the effects of emotional workplace trauma, psychological safety at work is imperative. If you’re in a leadership position, you’ll want to invest in your employee experience.
“Create a workplace where employees feel safe and their values and talents are fostered. Be clear about expectations and communicate transparently. Manage burnout. Offer good benefits, including ‘fringe’ benefits like Calm Fridays, mental health days, wellness perks, and the flexibility to work from home or set your own hours,” recommends Juliano-Villani. “Ask your employees what they think and listen. Integrate their feedback.” 
Kirkinis adds that while policies, regulations and an empathic HR department may help address and dismantle some of the roots of emotional workplace trauma, like bullying or discrimination, there are other factors to keep in consideration. 
“Other sources of emotional workplace trauma such as intimidation or fear of being fired may be harder to address and avoid because there are fewer policies in place and/or the trauma may come from an entirely different workplace than your current one,” she says. “If that is the case, mental health counseling and/or career coaching can be helpful in addressing some of these concerns.” 
This article originally appeared in Hive — the world's first democratically built productivity platform. Learn more at Hive.com.

How do you spot and address emotional workplace trauma? Share your answer in the comments to help other Fairygodboss members!

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