Your request for a raise gets denied. Your favorite coworker is let go. Your position is eliminated as the company restructures. Your workplace bully gets a promotion. You’re surprised by some feedback and denied a promotion. We’ve all seen these movies before (who knew Office Space could be so prescient?), and we all know these experiences suck. But while many of us just assume this is just a part of corporate life, these experiences can be legitimately traumatic—and they can have major impacts on productivity, confidence, loyalty, and workplace culture.
A recent study by Mercer found that 36% of employees are ready to quit their jobs because they’re dissatisfied or downright miserable at work. At the core of this dissatisfaction are the traumatic experiences workers have faced over their careers. To build a resilient workplace—and keep your employees happy—in the face of growing uncertainty in the world, it’s crucial for HR teams to learn the signs and impacts of workplace trauma—and how to alleviate them through culture and benefits. Let’s dive in.
What is workplace trauma?
Workplace trauma encompasses any emotional trauma inflicted at or by work. Trauma, according to the American Psychological Association, is “an emotional response to a terrible life event.” We usually associate trauma, and the resulting post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with some of the most horrible events an individual can experience: assault, war, car accidents, etc. When it comes to trauma in the workplace, many of us expect to find this in high-stress fields like the military, emergency response, or medicine. But trauma can spring from anything that engenders a strong emotional response—in other words, it can happen anywhere, to anyone, in any environment.
Trauma can be caused by something as major as a mass layoff, or as ordinary as poorly-given feedback from a manager. Workplace trauma can be acute (caused by one particular event or experience) or chronic (caused by a series of events or experiences.) It’s also extremely common: a landmark study found that 15% of employees will exhibit symptoms that could be diagnosed as acute stress disorder (ASD) or PTSD. That’s three out of every twenty employees struggling with a stress disorder caused by their job. Workplace stress can have a huge impact on physical, mental, and emotional health, and can even lead to substance abuse.
Furthermore, stress is climbing around in the world, in just about every workplace. A recent study by Gallup found that 43% of the world’s workers feel stressed at work. Additionally, 60% feel emotionally detached from their jobs and 19% are actively miserable going to work every day. With so much stress and emotional turmoil at work, burnout and attrition are just a few bad days away for some of your employees.
What causes trauma at work?
Trauma at work can come from a variety of sources. The ways in which someone interacts with or participates in the workplace culture, the ways they have power exerted over them, or even how they’re perceived or feel they’re being perceived can influence how an employee feels. Some specific examples include:
- Racism and discrimination by peers or managers
- Sexual harassment or assault
- Bullying (physical or emotional)
- Layoffs, firings, or job instability
What are the risk factors for workplace trauma?
The biggest risk factor for workplace trauma is, unsurprisingly, stress. According to research by the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health, risk factors for stress at work include, “job factors (long work hours, rapid pace of work) and role factors (high levels of responsibility, multiple tasks, role overload, role ambiguity).” Additionally, workplace stress is also influenced by workplace culture: research shows a strong correlation between toxic workplaces and stress. In short, a high stress environment and a toxic workplace culture put employees at major risk for experiencing trauma or developing stress disorders.
Trauma and DE&I
Although no one is immune to trauma and stress, vulnerable groups—like members of historically marginalized populations—are more prone to experiencing it in the workplace. A recent study found that while 54% of employees experienced some form of trauma in the past two years, the numbers skewed heavily towards respondents who identified as women, BIPOC, or members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Why? Because marginalized groups are more likely to experience things like discrimination, racism, or bullying both inside and outside the workplace.
A note on empathy
It’s important to be aware that employees bring their lives to work: their experiences, struggles, biases, and flaws. Their stories factor into how they perceive and react to emotional stimuli in the office. A first-time parent brings the stress of another bad night’s sleep with them, just like someone who’s struggling with their fertility journey may bring their PTSD-levels of stress to work as well. Someone who was laid off before is likely to carry that fear into their new role. So even if you’re working hard to manage employee stress and mitigate toxicity, it’s still possible for your business to feel the impacts of workplace trauma even if it didn’t happen under your roof.
Managing stress and trauma in the workplace
It’s not an easy world to live in right now. Economic uncertainty is rampant, burnout rates are still high, and the pandemic is still far from over. Vulnerable groups in your workforce—members of historically marginalized populations, parents with young children, and pregnant people—likely feel this stress even more acutely. So how can you help manage stress and trauma? Through training, benefits, and culture.
While you can’t plan for trauma, you can plan for stress. Training your managers to be aware of the signs of stress and trauma is an important first step in addressing it. Understanding how to communicate effectively, share goals and information, and make time for empathy in working situations is crucial for managers to support employees. Additionally, you can introduce trauma-informed curriculum into your workplace training regimen as well. Ethena, for example, does a great job with trauma-informed training.
Holistic care benefits
Emotional health is a tricky thing, especially at work. There are so many factors that influence and inform how people deal with stress and trauma. When your employees are stressed at home, they bring that with them to work—and vice versa. To help your employees cope, consider adopting benefits and vendors that emphasize holistic care. Holistic care connects the dots between physical, emotional, and mental health, so your employees can receive the care they need, no matter their journey. This is especially important for people building and raising families at work—arguably one of the most stressed out groups at work. Maven offers members access to a network of telehealth providers including parenting and career coaches, mental health specialists, and medical professionals, so your employees can address all of their needs as they arise.
Inclusive and empathetic culture
The final piece of the puzzle is your workplace culture. Toxic workplaces—ones where miscommunication, fear, and anxiety run rampant—beget stress and trauma. On the other hand, empathetic and inclusive workplaces, where people feel safe and like they can bring their full selves to work, set people up for success. Building this kind of culture is no easy feat, but it starts with empathy. From review cycles to manager training to benefits, your company needs to embrace the power of diversity, transparency, and support.
Building better cultures with Maven
Inclusive cultures start with inclusive benefits. Maven is the leading end-to-end global family care platform for every employee and their partners. We provide your employees with 24/7 access to a network of personalized and comprehensive care for their reproductive and family health needs, supporting everyone on every path to and through parenthood, no matter where they are in the world. To find out how Maven can help your organization support the holistic health of all your employees, check out our solutions page.
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