On Trauma and Professionals
In our work at Red Maple, one of the most curious intersections we routinely arrive at is is the challenge to answer this question: "Is this (enter a tough workplace situation here) a problem that requires organizational solutions, or is it a situation that -though tough- is being worsened by unhelpful reactions and mindsets?" Did the project go sideways, requiring new solutions, or is it a manager's insecurities that are at play here? Does the problem lie in weak administrative supports that must be strengthened, or is there a turf war between José in one department and Mark in another? Red Maple must routinely dig into the work of finding out how the intersection between organizational problems and human mindsets can be brokered.
One of the most common themes that will show up in these moments are the impacts of trauma on the professionals within a workplace. We must always remember that the people that fill our workplaces are humans who have stories and histories behind them. Also compelling is that at any given time, roughly 1 in 10 people are experiencing enough symptoms to meet the criteria for PTSD (you can see more on that here: https://toronto.cmha.ca/documents/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/).
When a professional with a trauma history is put into a work environment with high pressures, stress, and possible toxicity, that person will experience an increase in symptoms. Those symptoms will lead to visible behaviours at work. Most professionals are often very adept at hiding their symptoms for a little while, fearing the consequences of "unprofessionalism" at work. But concealing them does nothing to resolve trauma symptoms, and when the pressure go up, underlying trauma has a way of leaking into work situations despite the professionals best laid plans and efforts.
"Trauma" is a word we use to describe the events of our lives that have caused our symptoms and experiences. "Traumatized" is a word that we use to refer to the population that has endured those events. "PTSD" is a term used to describe people whose symptoms are of a frequency, severity and duration, that the criteria for formal diagnosis are met (it should be noted that many people meet this criteria, but are not necessarily identified by a medical practitioner).
In the workplace, traumatized professionals are those people who have endured terrible events in their lives, where those events feel as though they are not quite "finished." When terrible things happen, we must have important resources in order to heal our emotional and psychological selves. Those resources include a return to clear physical safety and wellbeing, access to nurturing people, and care for our experiences. If we have these resources, we will go through a process that helps us put words to the terrible event, make meaning out of it, and even grow from the event (something we refer to as "post-traumatic growth"). But, if we do not have these things, the terrible event will get "stuck." It will lodge itself in some part of our lives, forever casting a shadow on our mindset and our bodies into the future.
For reasons that are many, we must at times power through, neglect, or otherwise pretend that terrible events did not happen to us. We don't always have the resources we need to process the difficult events of our lives. That "stuck-ness" will show up eventually, often in a host of ways. Some of the most common examples of how trauma in the professional population might look are:
"Numbing out" and avoidance:,
using substances at work, and other addictive behaviour
being "there but not there" in meetings (mild forms of dissociation)
avoiding people and projects that stir up uncomfortable trauma responses (for example, avoidance of career growth to avoid evaluation)
Hyper-vigilance to threats and safety:
preoccupation with what colleagues think, say or feel about us in our professional relationships
"scarcity" mindsets; excessive worry about whether we will have enough time, money, support, resources etc.
strong discomfort with being put on the spot in meetings
strong "startle" reflexes
hostility and aggression towards colleagues
confusion, irritability and trouble with concentration
heavy experiences of guilt, shame, or personal blame for things that have gone wrong at work
anger and lashing out toward others
being unable to sleep (sometimes masked by "projects" that must be worked on)
nightmares, edginess and agitation
a variety of muscle aches / pains
poor memory; inability to remember terrible events, or link them to life today
The key to ending our trauma is the ability to process it and move it through our bodies and minds. We must "finish" the event and arrive at an emotional completion, with the peaceful sense that "it is over, and I am safe." Then, we must story that event in ways that make us proud of what we have lived through, and the badges of courage it has left us with. For many, that process will require time in psychotherapy, which will help them find the words for what happened to them, eventually finding uses for it that add purpose, meaning or connection to their lives.
Here in KW, our friends at Transformation Counselling Services are some of the best in the business when it comes to trauma therapy, and we regularly collaborate with them. John Roche, John Leroux and their team train many in our field to use a trauma informed approach in our work with people, and we have learned much from them. For our part, Red Maple is tirelessly working to help workplaces to understand how to build workplaces that understand the people within them, and create the psychological safety needed for their highest potential to be met.
A look at mental illness in the workplace: https://ontario.cmha.ca/documents/mental-illnesses-in-the-workplace/
A primer on trauma: https://www.camh.ca/en/health-info/mental-illness-and-addiction-index/trauma
Video: The Psychology of PTSD: https://www.ted.com/talks/joelle_rabow_maletis_the_psychology_of_post_traumatic_stress_disorder?language=en
TED talk: Nadine Burke Harris: How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime