Trauma at Work: Are You or Others at Risk?

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Trauma can be overwhelming. Learn how to tell if you've experienced it at work, and what to do next.

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Stress at work can have negative implications for your wellbeing. But, there are some extreme forms of stress that are particularly harmful. New research suggests that trauma occurs at work, and that it can have negative implications for you and for those close to you.

Want to understand if you, or your loved ones, have experienced trauma at work? Do you also want to learn what to do about it, if so? Read more to find out!

What is Trauma?

First, it’s important to know what trauma is, so you can recognize whether you or others have experienced it. First, regular stressors are pressures on your time or your workload, which are more predictable. You usually have time to prepare for them and you probably know many others who have grappled with the same stressor. In other words, stressors are normal experiences that may make you feel anxious or worried at the time, but they aren’t completely overwhelming. For example, if you have to present in a meeting with senior leaders, you might experience stress.

Trauma is much more severe than regular stressors are. Trauma reflects a significant disruption, which results in high levels of fear or helplessness. It is overwhelming and intense. For this reason, it can cause longer-term changes to moods, patterns of thinking, or the ability to perform tasks related to the trauma domain. Bullying or harassment, experiencing injury or witnessing death on the job, or being exposed to violence can cause trauma.

Trauma is overwhelming and goes beyond a normal stressful experience.
Trauma is overwhelming and goes beyond a normal stressful experience.

What Happens if You Experience it?

If you have experienced trauma, you could develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD involves being easily startled, having unwanted and intrusive memories, or experiencing flashbacks. While this response is more extreme, it is still frequently occurring. Experiences of general distress are even more commonplace. This can include anxiety, depression, fatigue, and feeling worthless. For example, bullied employees can feel anxious around the person bullying them, might feel bad about themselves or their lives, and could feel burnt out overall.

Interestingly, you can experience symptoms even if you haven’t experienced a traumatic stressor directly. A new meta-analysis shows that your significant other can experience trauma vicariously through you. You can also experience it vicariously from your significant other. This research demonstrates that relationships between partners can degrade when one person experiences trauma. This is even more true in relationships where partners talk about it more frequently.

Partners can help each other through trauma, but have to be careful about vicarious trauma along the way.
Partners can help each other through trauma, but have to be careful about vicariously harming each other along the way.

What Can You Do to Decrease the Impact of Trauma?

Of course, removing yourself from a traumatizing situation is always the best course of action. Finding a new job, reporting misconduct, or rethinking your commitment to a profession (e.g., an emergency room nurse), may be necessary. If you’re feeling impacts on your wellbeing, you may need to prioritize your wellness. But, that’s not always a possibility. Victims may have to pursue other avenues toward healing in these instances. While victims are not at fault, there are ways to reframe the experience. Post-traumatic growth – or findings ways to learn and become stronger through trauma – may be possible. Informing yourself about how to focus on growth opportunities can help.

Showing empathy may help both parties. Empathy is linked to post-traumatic growth. For example, you and your partner may both benefit from empathetic conversations about trauma because they promote this growth. Finally, you should recognize that trauma can permeate families – not just individuals. Family therapy can be a useful tool for addressing these broader concerns.

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