Previously published on Forbes
Work can be a source of growth and accomplishment — and it can also be a source of stress and trauma. You’re not responsible for processing trauma that happens at work. You’re a leader, not a therapist. But recognizing this reality about work will serve to enhance your understanding of and compassion for your team. It will allow you to listen from a deeper place and be a part of the solution rather than perpetuating the problem.
Trauma in the workplace encompasses a wide range of experiences, from accidents and physical injuries to emotional distress caused by toxic environments, harassment, discrimination, or unexpected and disruptive organizational changes. As a leader, acknowledging and addressing workplace trauma is crucial to the well-being of employees and the overall health of the organization.
Let’s take a closer look at the impact of trauma in the workplace and what you can do to create a supportive and resilient work environment.
How Workplace Trauma Impacts Individuals and Organizations
The term workplace trauma refers to any deeply distressing event or experience that negatively impacts an individual's emotional, psychological, or physical well-being while at work. Traumatic events can range from sudden accidents or deaths, workplace violence, or natural disasters to more insidious forms of trauma such as harassment, bullying, discrimination, and even chronic stress from high-intensity work environments.
The impact of workplace trauma can affect an employee's mental health, job performance, and overall quality of life. Traumatized individuals may experience symptoms such as anxiety, depression, flashbacks, nightmares, difficulty concentrating, and decreased motivation.
A number of years ago, I was working for a large company when our division underwent layoffs. The culture became toxic as many people competed for jobs and lived in fear of being next on the list. I developed ulcers in my mouth, and my hair started falling out — all stress-related conditions. The challenge was that all of us were stressed. It seemed like we had no control and no choice. We were collective victims of decisions being made by people above us in the hierarchy.
Maybe you’ve had your own experience of workplace trauma. These experiences can have a detrimental impact on both the employees themselves and the organization as a whole. Trauma in the workplace can inflict damage on:
- Employee well-being: Trauma can leave lasting emotional scars on employees, affecting their confidence, self-esteem, and sense of safety. This can lead to a decline in job satisfaction, increased absenteeism, and lowered productivity.
- Organizational culture: Unaddressed trauma can contribute to a toxic work culture where employees feel unsafe and unsupported. This can lead to higher turnover rates, difficulties in attracting top talent, and an overall negative reputation for the organization.
- Productivity and innovation: Trauma-induced stress and mental health challenges can hinder creativity, problem-solving, and innovation among employees, thereby affecting the organization's ability to adapt and grow.
Creating a Supportive Work Environment
What can you do to be a more effective leader in the face of short- or long-term workplace trauma? Here are four elements of a supportive work environment.
- Open Communication: Establish a culture of open communication where employees feel safe to express their concerns. Host regular check-ins to help identify potential sources of trauma and enable you to address them promptly.
- Training and Education: Provide training on recognizing signs of trauma, fostering compassion and listening, and addressing workplace harassment and discrimination. This will empower the team to support one another and promote a more inclusive and respectful environment.
- Mental Health Resources: Offer access to confidential counseling services, mental health resources, and Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). This can provide a lifeline for employees dealing with trauma, and it communicates the organization's commitment to well-being.
- Flexible Work Arrangements: When appropriate, provide flexible work arrangements to help employees better cope with trauma-related challenges. This might include time for attending therapy sessions or managing stress triggers.
Addressing trauma in the workplace is not only a moral imperative but a strategic necessity. Leaders who prioritize the well-being of their employees by creating a supportive culture will experience higher levels of engagement, loyalty, and productivity. By acknowledging the impact of workplace trauma and providing resources to promote healing and resilience, you can create a workplace where employees feel valued, safe, and empowered to thrive despite any challenges they may face.