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Trauma happens in the workplace

Have you left your corporate job because of something that happened? Perhaps you know of a colleague who has suffered from some sort of stress, burnout, or conflict.

We all have had some sort of experience that plays on our thoughts, retracing what happened and what could have happened if things were dealt with differently. Perhaps we noticed times when we withdrew and isolated because something felt uneasy and there wasn’t any way for us to change it. Yup, traumatic experiences can occur in the workplace, and sometimes leaves us little space and opportunity to deal with it properly during and after the event.

Trauma is a subject experience. It has too many extraneous factors to really define or predict how it comes about and that is why it is at the discretion of the individual experiencing it. Trauma can occur because of a toxic environment, strained relationships, sensitivity, desire, power structures, the ability to manage change, long work hours and workplace constraints (the list goes on…). Some industries can also be unkind. We can so often be subjected to a work environment we wouldn’t necessarily choose had we known what it would be like. We can also feel limited in regulating in the same way we would – getting outside, napping, isolating for a while, allowing ourselves to process, talking to a loved one. Increasing the bodies’ resilience and giving people more effective skills to manage workplace trauma is possible, and perhaps can be more timely should a company understand and allow for space for mental health to its natural extent.

We spend approximately half of our week at work expending our energy for something that we believe is necessary and beneficial. We meet far more people than we’d normally meet at home. It is only natural to understand that we enact all of our defenses at work too.

Why Does Trauma Occur?

In the same way we live in a community, or with family, we meet people who are growing and learning themselves. We meet people who are different, and companies that are different. Dr. Peter Levine suggests that in our current society, trauma is an inevitable part of life.

A psychoanalytic therapist would suggest the host of primary and secondary defense mechanisms Freud and subsequent theorists put forward play a role in personality on a permanent basis. We can’t separate the individual from a work environment, including any previous traumatic event they may have experienced themselves. 

Therapists who work with relationships (such as Esther Perrel) suggest there are a lot of relationship dynamics that play out at work and a lot of the same defenses and patterns are often used.

Organisational psychologists suggest we are faced with institutionalised power dynamics and opportunities to hide behind structure and positions of authority. Power is a strange thing. It is egocentric. And so leaders who love power are not necessarily wanting to do away with it by disseminating decision making into the organisation, or having conversations to equalise the status quo. Conflict can bring out extreme defenses because it can feel threatening to all parties. 

Organisations and leaders are not necessarily only those people who are accountable for the experiences within the organisation, although they have a bigger influence over the power dynamics, and governance systems that exist and what behaviours are tolerated. People inside of the organisation create the culture of the workplace and so too are responsible for the communication and accountability in their behaviour. 

Are there psychological benefits to being in the organisation?

Yes there are. That’s why they exist. In organisations we remain connected to people. There is potential for more engagement, more collaboration, and better opportunities. And in good organisations, this is where we encounter teams that grow together purposefully – provided they are self-aware and continually learning together. This is why organisational psychologists are often employed – to bring engagement and feedback and provide an unbiased ear and eye for leaders. They encourage healthy conversations and build teams that function well together.

There are also a host of skills one can learn to enable better relationships including better listening, questioning, self-awareness, managing conflict, checking in, realigning with one’s values for more explicit conversations about what is and isn’t working.

Questions to ponder

Think about the memories you have of working… Do any of them stay with you unresolved? Have you chosen to shut down in some way? What happens in the body when engaging in the workplace with the same people or situation? Have you chosen to make your mind up about what the working world is like? What do you expect and assume of it? What are you doing now that assists you with exercising your individuality and power? Is it accepted?

What can we do about trauma?

I’ve found work in somatic experiencing to be particularly beneficial for dealing with traumatic events. The work is pioneered by Dr. Peter Levine who treated victims of PTSD after wars, some of whom were very young and had dissociated from their traumatic experience and their body to avoid having to deal with pain or hurt or anger. Interestingly society can place expectations on people not to cry, to always have a brave face, to suck it up etc. Without adequate outlet for deeply traumatic events an individual can continue to live in a state of activation or complete dullness of the autonomic and parasympathetic nervous system – both fending off the assumed threat; or replaying the trauma – which itself can be as traumatic as the event itself.

What happens during trauma in our nervous system? It goes into a highly activated state of fight, flight or freeze. After high activation it calms down through shaking, trembling, heavy breathing (see polar bear breathe) in an attempt to reach equilibrium. The traumatic event, if unresolved, can seem like a continued state of high arousal, hypervigilance etc., or the opposite: numbed out and detached from any arousal or opportunity to feel.

Trauma is the inability to stay present in one’s life.

Thanks to the work of practitioners in somatic experiencing, the body is a great entry into discovering what is there. The body has its own wisdom, and its own story. It is indistinguishable from the ego’s defenses and therefore can be useful in healing individuals.

What can organisations do?

There can be more of a focus on the deep psychological make-up of individuals in organisations and through employee assistance programs and wellness initiatives. Anything less and we discount the deep work needed at times, and allowing our whole-self at work. When there is space for employees to have more meaningful conversations, mediation, opportunity for respite or downtime, we allow individuals space and time to cope with the huge amount of change they may be experiencing in their personal lives, as well as changes at work.

All areas of our life are important. Business is personal. 

If you are suffering from a workplace conflict, bullying or traumatic experience and would like a confidential space to chat about it please get in touch. You may find this course works for you. It is what has brought more meaning to my own and the other facilitators lives: https://www.patriciainezmeiring.com/training/online-masterclass-2/

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