As a clinical psychologist who specializes in working with professional women, it’s become increasingly apparent to me that so much of American work culture is toxic to our mental health: The glorification of overwork and perfectionism. The lack of support for working parents and caregivers. The unforgiving productivity expectations. The expectation that we’re not just a person, but a “personal brand.”
We are overworked, underpaid, and burned out AF. Our mental health is suffering, and no mindfulness app subscription or corporate self-care workshop is going to fix that. Finally, it seems like there’s a reckoning brewing. The Great Resignation, changing norms and expectations for work among Millennials and Zoomers, and the surging interest in unions across the country are giving me hope.
When we think about unhealthy workplaces and their impact on mental health, we often think about stress and burnout (which are serious problems deserving care!) But in the years since I opened our therapy clinic, Stella Nova, I’ve noticed another serious problem that gets less attention: workplace trauma.
Sure, we know that military personnel and first responders like firefighters experience trauma on the job—putting oneself in harms way is a job requirement.
But when and how does trauma show up for other working professionals?
To answer that question, it helps to start with a definition. A trauma is a deeply disturbing, distressing event that we experience as a threat to our basic safety and survival. It can be a big, one time event (like a car crash or an attack) or it can be a series of smaller events that chip away at our sense of security over time. When we experience something traumatic, it’s not just unpleasant. It’s actually encoded in our bodies and brains differently than our other memories, meaning that it can impact us profoundly.
We’re more likely to experience something as not just unpleasant but traumatic when we feel we’ve lost control and autonomy in a situation. Negative experiences that involve cruelty or interpersonal harm are especially likely to be traumatic.
Many of my clients have come to therapy aware that they’re burned out, but not yet understanding that they’re dealing with trauma. Sometimes they’re trying to work through the aftermath, but other times, they’re still right in the middle of a traumatic situation.
Workplace power dynamics enable abuse
Hierarchies in the workplace can make it easy for abuse to happen. Lack of protection for victims, the threat of retribution, and the fact that our ability to provide for ourselves and our families is dependent on our employer all put employees at risk.
As a psychologist, I talk with clients whose relationships with their bosses sound a lot like the type of emotional abuse people can experience in relationships with an abusive partner or parent. That might look like:
- Verbal put downs, insults, and harsh criticism
- Deliberately embarrassing or humiliating an employee in front of peers
- Gaslighting behavior, like promising a raise and then acting like the conversation never happened
- Denying appropriate requests for necessary things like accommodations or time off, often as a power play or manipulation
- Isolating the employee from sources of support, or playing peers off each other to foster distrust and unhealthy competition
- Inappropriate boundaries, like texting an employee in the middle of the night to get support around their marriage problems
Because we often think of “abusive relationships” in the context of our personal or family life, it can difficult to recognize at work. But being able to put a label to this experience can sometimes be an important step in healing from it.
Sexual harassment and assault are still very real problems in today’s workplace
The #MeToo movement brought discussions of workplace sexual assault and harassment to the mainstream discourse. However, despite some people’s protests that cancel culture has made it impossible for men to do or say anything anymore, the problem hasn’t gone away. I still hear stories of everything from inappropriate “friendly” touches to the vilest forms of harassment on the regular. As far as this therapist can tell, the most helpful thing in combatting sexual harassment in professional settings in recent years has been the fact that so many of us now work from home. (Of course, this is only the case for a sliver of workers in some white-collar jobs.)
One surprise that I’ve encountered in my years as a therapist has been the frequency with which I’ve heard stories of acquaintance rape and sexual assault occurring on work trips. Pressures to socialize and drink with colleagues after work hours, a desire to not make things awkward with a coworker by setting boundaries assertively, and the presence of nearby hotel rooms are all vulnerabilities. After the fact, these assaults often leave survivors feeling confused and culpable in what happened.
Sexual abuse in the workplace often leaves victims with little recourse. And having to work with an abuser or attacker in an ongoing way with an “appropriately professional” demeanor compounds the trauma of the experience itself.
Workplaces can be scary and violent
If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you know that teachers are showing up to school fearing for their safety from horrific violence these days. (Same goes for transit workers, grocery store employees, massage therapists, clergy, and many others.) For the survivors of these attacks and the families and friends of those who are lost, recovery is a long and difficult path.
According to OSHA, approximately two million people experience violence in their workplace each year (which, like all stats that require victims to come forward, is probably an undercount). Women, retail and service industry workers, and healthcare professionals (especially nurses) are especially at risk.
Violence doesn’t only impact the victims of these tragedies. It makes all of us feel less safe in our day-to-day lives, from our workplaces to our commutes to our leisure time. And repeatedly witnessing violence on the news and in our communities has a cumulative effect. We call the traumatic impact of exposure to the pain and suffering of others “vicarious trauma”. It’s been a known risk for therapists, doctors, and other helping professionals for some time, but the reality is that it can impact anyone.
Microaggressions add up over time
Much like vicarious trauma can create a cumulative impact over time, microaggressions add up. That means people with marginalized experiences or identities are more likely to experience workplace trauma than their straight, white, male, cis-gender, able-bodied counterparts.
Microaggressions are more than just an annoyance, although they are often seen by bystanders as a minor slight or well-intentioned misunderstanding. They have a traumatic impact because they are part of bigger systems that prevent marginalized people from feeling safe, protected, and empowered to control their own lives and destinies at work. A woman being automatically placed in the note-taker role during a meeting, a Latinx employee being repeatedly mistaken for custodial staff, or a Black woman being told her natural hair is “unprofessional” are repeatedly receiving feedback that they’re outsiders in their workplace.
This isn’t simply a matter of sensitive feelings. It has real world implications in hiring and promotions, pay discrepancies, and vulnerability to exploitation and abuse. My clients who have chosen to speak up and push back against microaggressions in the workplace have sometimes faced apathy and lip service, and other times are further ostracized, punished, or forced out of their jobs. Many were only able to take action once they had a viable escape plan in motion. Even after they’ve left their job, the experience can stick with them for a long time.
Recognizing workplace trauma for what it is
People who have experienced workplace trauma often show signs of traumatic stress, and sometimes meet criteria for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In practice, this can look like:
Being extremely sensitive to potential danger, even when a threat has passed. This might look like being overly focused on how you’re being judged and perceived, paying excessive attention to other people’s signals, or being always on guard for the next bad thing to happen.
Avoiding triggers or reminders of a trauma. At work, this might show up as being withdrawn and checked out, avoiding particular assignments or projects, struggles with procrastination, or needing frequent sick days to get time away from the office. This could also look like using numbing behaviors like excessive drinking or substance use to get away from distress.
Finding a traumatic past experience showing up in unwanted ways in the present. For example, noticing your heart pounding, your hands sweating, and totally freezing up when your new (super sweet!) boss asks to talk with you privately, after experiencing a verbally abusive former manager. Alternatively, it might show up as rumination about what happened, or the situation showing up in your dreams.
Experiencing changes in your mood, worldview, and relationships. Many people experience irritability, depression, and anxiety after a trauma. Others find their relationships with coworkers, family, or partners are struggling. Sometimes people notice that they’ve become cynical and pessimistic about their future, and feel helpless to make changes. In our professional life, this can show up as a loss of purpose or drive, even for people who once found great satisfaction in their work.
What to do if you’ve experienced a trauma at work
Trauma is never your fault, whether it happens at home, at work, or out in the world. You deserve support to heal. Whether you’re still stuck in a traumatic situation, or you’re dealing with the impact of an experience that is over, therapy can help. There are a variety of treatments for trauma and PTSD that are effective and can help you get your life back.
But while therapy for trauma is important and necessary, it’s also essential to understand that workplace trauma is the result of many forces that are bigger than any of us individually. Solving the root of the problem requires systemic change. Those of us in positions of power in our organizations need to take a long, hard look at how our policies and culture may be enabling abuse, exploitation, and violence. And then—and this is the important part—we need to take action to change them.
Maya Borgueta, PsyD is the founder of Stella Nova Psychology and a licensed clinical psychologist based in San Francisco, California. She specializes in supporting women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ professionals’ mental health.