Interestingly, and perhaps why corporate experiences can be so dramatic is that our career is intimately tied to what we want to create, our legacy, and what we feel is purposeful every day. It’s little wonder that there are studies of present-teeism associated with work as we spend a lot of energy in drive and action mode toward a goal in mind. Negative or confusing dynamics and the energy it takes to reach equilibrium can feel challenging… especially when we feel confused, surprised, manipulated, punished, and with little space for safe discussion. It is in when situations feel difficult at work that our psychological contract with the organisation is broken.
Traumatic work events can leave us dissociated and cynical about work environments. We start to question decisions and values about the workplace, and about our alignment with them. Grieving of the hopes and dreams we have about work needs to happen in the same way it does for relationships. It’s not just the individual or organisation that changes but all of our psychic energy invested in our career and our identity around it.
I often work with organisations on implementing better HR, OD and L&D activities. Chatting to other OD and psychology practitioners, they too feel there can be a real difference made in organisations to the way in which people work together, and it takes both individuals and the organisation to get the balance right.
So what is trauma in the workplace?
Lana and I discuss what corporate trauma means. She reflects on previous articles about corporate trauma, and says that when she read about it initially she felt a sigh of relief. “I found that I had a really big space of relief around it. That it was acknowledged… and I was thankful that it was accepted and respected… I felt like I had some deeper space for reflection around how some of my experiences could be acknowledged”.
Acknowledging trauma and talking about it allows us to reduce the shame and guilt we carry.
How would she define it? “I feel like when I’m in emotional extremes outside of professional expectations, and that’s both around how the organisation operates, the expectations towards me, what I have in terms of options around my own behaviour, and the way I observe myself in it, it’s really about if I’m able to turn off when I leave the office emotionally. For a long time I’ve been working in places where I think about aspects of my work and organisations when I’m not at my work. I don’t associate that with stress – sometimes the solutions come when I’m taking a walk or driving my car: when my mind is in a relaxed state. When I think of the trauma I think of fear to a degree that does not feel like a normal challenge; challenge to an unacceptable degree – a lack of breathing ability in a conversation or situation”.
I’d like to offer an extension of the definition of traumatic experience to that which is anything outside of our capacity to understand and cope. Where they affect our functioning they call for our attention. Lana has also captured how work is part of our private life. Biologically, our brains function better when the nervous system is regulated during relaxation or ‘downtimes’; and sometimes outside of office hours or a work environment.
I ask Lana about her experience.
In a period of time in her life several things happened in the same timeframe. There were 3 main things that happened. Lana adds a disclaimer that there was nothing illegal that happened in terms of current legislation. Her experiences however signifies that the playing field shifted dramatically, and how that had an effect on her self-esteem.
Lana was in the midst of an organisational merger having worked in the previous organisations for several years. The first thing she noticed during the merger was a breakdown of workplace values around teamwork. “How I expected us to work as a team changed. This was in a place that I had been working for years, and the terms we had used shifted dramatically, and that was because the game had just shifted in a dramatic re-organisation, a change in leadership, and a big expected change in behaviours around new colleagues going forward. I was shocked by the character and behaviour of people I was around. I felt like I was falling, and I was very confused about what was happening. I was using an awful lot of emotional energy to try and make sense of it. At some point I realised ‘no no’ this is not to be mapped to what I knew and loved in my workplace before; the page has turned and we’re in a new chapter. That was very difficult for me to absorb. I felt like it was an impossibility for me to face because I so dearly treasured the ways of working we had before. And I certainly felt that with a few other incidents that subsequently came, it was an… echo effect (of falling)”
The second event that followed related to two colleagues in the organisational structure above her. Lana had a feeling of collaboration with these colleagues, and a recognition of diversity and the ability to use each other’s strengths. “We were able to contribute to each other because there was collective clarity of what needed to occur”. She reports “my heart is still sad about it.” “With these 2 individuals I had experiences where I realised they would like me out of the game, and that was very difficult for me, because I was more invested in it than a normal job – it was why I was invested in the location of the work. I thought we had made an agreement to some degree of the collective direction that not only was breaking, but that they preferred to leave me out altogether. This was very shocking for me. I was grateful for having other collaborators that could check and balance it a bit so that we could all continue forward.”
The third difficult event that followed was when “when we all became the new organisation, the two people went in new directions; and so the new environment was entirely different in the way we behaved together. Somehow I felt like that was more acceptable because we could see what new behaviours were expected of us. I could understand that we were all trying to translate what it was we were doing now and how it is that we worked. In that environment the thing that was traumatic about it was that where I felt that my worth was valuable and I was a strong contributor went close to nothing. I wasn’t seen as someone worth including, or consulting. I would argue that the new organisation would have certainly rejected me entirely if it was allowed to. (After a few months) I got a primal wake-up call that signaled “I need to leave this train”.
Metaphor can be a great way of understanding the emotional landscape. Lana uses metaphor to explain what it felt like.
“In terms of the emotional energy expenses, typically I feel like I am treading water or I’m swimming and the water is still – like a pool or lake. During that period of time I was in a current – a river or a resistance pool swimming all out (but not far). What was dramatic was that I needed to figure it out. When I realised what other people were feeling I felt like I could stop treading water because I didn’t understand the point. My investment and directionality was entirely unclear for me then. It didn’t have a context anymore. It took a few months to realise other people were experiencing it. It was difficult for anyone else to divulge to each other because we were all feeling a bit at risk and abused. Also because the people I had been working with felt like the new was normal, and so it was emotionally challenging to come from a different place – it was tricky. Some people I felt started to think it was absurd (holding on to the old), and have an integrity sense in not wanting to engage anymore around it. And maybe I was one of the last one’s to give up and maybe that was the worst part for me. The people I thought I was able to work with who I thought were strong, and they are personally, we did not have strength to continue to be together in that space. That was like an earthquake, and things were falling down all around me. I wasn’t enjoying treading water or swimming. I was trying to move away from the falling pieces of the building so to speak”.
While there is change that occurs as part of normal evolution, rapid change without a space for psychological consideration can leave us without a platform from which to make sense – this mental framework is fundamental to our identity and why it can feel traumatic. The process of change encompasses a period of loss, acceptance, and negotiation about a ‘new normal’. If this process isn’t made available it can feel like ‘being dragged under by the surge’ and ‘swept around by the current’.
Lana also highlights why conversations about ways of working should be a priority. Through conversation we negotiate, and come to understand what is happening. Conversation between people at different levels allows a culture of safety and trust to develop. It also allows managers to be informed of challenges upfront. It breaks down psychological barriers and promotes improvement to processes and performance.
Lana describes how the series of changes affected her emotionally.
“My professional worth was effectively zero after that. There were huge issues with my self-esteem, and I felt very careful not to pick up (work) that was any different to what I knew I could do. I had been bombed in myself. Any professional creativity or willingness to clean up, build, create – totally gone. I am now working at a different place with different people. I can feel how amazing it is to feel my professional self returning to me. I can feel the people around me doing what they like to do – like creatively building new systems or processes or connections. All of that as my normal way of swimming (in my previous work life) was totally gone for me, at least on the level of explicitly applying it. I was hiding. Maybe I was seeing if pieces were still falling. At one point I figured out that they weren’t still falling – from what I could see. I had someone who was able to hold (the falling pieces) back. I had this feeling of paranoia that I was going to get hit, and I was told that (the falling pieces) were being held back (from hurting me); that for me was brilliant. I could then understand that I could trust my senses – I wasn’t just paranoid. That helped me move forward.
During the years of re-organisation I was trying to find out what the change meant for me: working hard or leaving sustainably and how and when. Perhaps the clearest realisation I have now began in the new year, and I could see I was going to hit a wall fast. And I was trying really hard to fix things, and make myself stronger and better, and that wasn’t really helping me. I found that it was really important to let go, not knowing where (to go next). Just let go. Don’t fix. Don’t discover. Let go. Move on. Then it was very tricky to look at what I needed to look towards. To identify and trust new organisations”.
Lana indicates her loss of self, her worth, her trust in the organisation, and notes her newly developed paranoia. With prolonged negative experience we can internalise negative aspects deeming ourselves no longer worthy, and externalise negative aspects of the issue, deeming others not worthy and developing suspicion towards the new organisation or worklife in general. These attributions are ways in which we can temporarily justify what is happening, but in the long run they may not serve us. To restore our faith in ourselves and organisations takes time; it is not only a momentary emotional response we go through but can be attached to the narrative of our lives.
End of Part 1.
For organisations, we have a holistic framework to support in understanding this balance and using it to adjust organisational systems and processes that allow for individuals to thrive: https://www.patriciainezmeiring.com/frameworks/organisational-development-consultant-london/.
For individuals who want to create greater alignment for themselves, have a look at this online personal development course: https://www.patriciainezmeiring.com/training/online-masterclass-2/
For training on resilience, wellbeing, and mental health we also have an offering for companies to ensure their employees can align: https://www.patriciainezmeiring.com/enterprise/
Subscribe for more articles.