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  • Writer's picturePaul Matthew

Staying Safe at Work: A pluralistic therapist's perspective on Workplace Trauma

This article explores, in shallow depth, workplace trauma and trauma. Please consider your own trauma experiences when reading this article as it may be difficult to read in parts. Trauma is a wide-reaching topic with so many variations and I cannot even begin to cover a fraction of that in this article but I hope what little is here helps. This article can be helpful for working therapists, students, volunteers or people who are or have experiences with workplace trauma.


The working world is a complex place. We’re often told what we ‘should’ do to get ahead. Words like ‘flexible working’ are ignored in the workplace while ‘reasonable expectations’ are distorted. Holiday requests go from being the passing on of information to things that are held above and against us, the ‘needs of the business’ often always come before the ‘needs of the employee’ and development discussions become a method for employee control where CPD budgets are sometimes no longer a thing.




It’s easy to work in a place where the unjust, the hurtful or the traumatic becomes normality. Or where promises made during the pandemic that have been swiftly ignored after?

What does any of this have to do with workplace trauma? ‘That’s just the ‘norm’ isn’t it?’ Well consider the effect these things have on you. Yes, a lot of the above can be standard (whether right or not) but for some it is the straw that breaks the camels back of their anxiety, stress and burnout. One of the most common mistakes made in the workplace is assuming because person X is ok with something person Y won’t be affected (In some cases person X is suffering too but let’s keep things simple for now).


Let’s say for instance person X has no other responsibilities than the job, they have space and time in their life outside of work to compartmentalise and use self-care to deal with the stresses of work, person Y however has children, money worries, perhaps an ill partner or illnesses themselves. Perhaps person Y is treated differently to person X. Are you beginning to see the many differences there can be.




Workplace trauma can affect one person doing the same job as another, it can affect a whole team or even a whole organisation or number of organisations.


Let me use a more extreme example. During the pandemic NHS staff were underfunded, underequipped and left in a vulnerable position, often over worked due to staff shortages. A recent study (www.roehampton.ac.uk/) found that; 1 in 3 nurses had ‘severe levels of anxiety’ and 1 in 7 had the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Many nurses were feeling this way before the pandemic, many more were pushed over the proverbial edge.



So what are some examples of workplace trauma?


Workplace trauma can come under a few categories. The obvious one is where we have experienced something severe at work.


These can include (but are not limited to):

· Bullying or unfair treatment in the workplace.

· Secondary trauma after a colleague dies or experiences a severe incident.

· A workplace accident or incident.

· Working in extreme conditions.

· Working in a toxic work environment


Another type of workplace trauma is where we have experienced a childhood or other trauma in our life and something that we experience in work brings this trauma back up for us. This is particularly common in workplaces where we work with trauma, charities, doctors, nurses, psychotherapists, aid workers, the list goes on…


Ashwinhi Padhi says in his article (guardian.com) “Workplace trauma can be either direct or indirect (secondary or vicarious) trauma, and include events such as accidents or injury, deaths, bullying, sexual assault and even severe workload stress or a toxic work environment.”.


One thing to be careful of is the impression that trauma needs to have that ‘big T’ in order to be trauma. Trauma comes in all shapes and sizes and can and does affect all of us in some way.



So How do I know if I am experiencing or have experienced workplace trauma?


Workplace trauma can cause anxiety, depression, panic attacks, burnout, even health issues such as migraines and IBS. The mental and physical impact of workplace trauma can often present as intrusive thoughts, irritability, loss of interest in day-to-day activities, aches and pains, low expectations of ourselves and feelings of low self-worth (yourtango.com).


If you think this is something you’ve experienced or are experiencing, consider speaking to a therapist, talk with friends and trusted colleagues, mentors, or coaches. If you are a member of an employment union this may also help. If things are extreme there are whistleblowing programmes in many organisations, legal routes and regulators that can be spoken to. There is always an option.



So how can we support ourselves or others experiencing or recovering from workplace trauma?


Well firstly it depends on the type of workplace trauma. If we are currently experiencing something extreme, unfair or unjust; it is important to seek help, looking at what we feel we need in the workplace, and if you can get that where you currently are, is important.

Take time for yourself and look for balance. Consider your life like it’s a cup, the more things that are added to that cup (home, work, stress, expectations, anxiety) the fuller the cup becomes the closer we are to a place of burnout (the cup spilling over). Consider things that might reduce the liquid in the cup. These can be activities that provide a bit of catharsis or distraction, fun activities, spending time with loved ones, perhaps taking a break. In Psychotherapy this is called the window of tolerance (nicabm.com), this will get it’s own article at some point but in the meantime there are some useful books below.


Talking to your friends and loved ones can also really help. Communication and sharing problems can lighten the burden and the people around you understand way more about it than you might think.


Remember the things you enjoy and try to do them, indulge in your hobbies (or try new ones), watch that comforting TV show, listen to that playlist, go out for walks. You may not feel like it at the time but it really can help.


Consider therapy, especially if you are experiencing long term or extreme issues.

The Harmony articles linked below also include things to consider and ways to be mindful.


Remember trauma might be something you live with for years, forever, but it can get smaller. It may be a long time after you’ve experienced trauma that you feel some or many of the symptoms and it’s possible you’ll feel better then something will trigger the feelings again.


Be aware when you need to Self-Care.


Paul Matthew

MA, MSc, MBACP (Accred)

Director

Harmony Counselling and Psychotherapy



References







Further Reading on Trauma and The Window of Tolerance


Van der Kolk, B. A. (2014), The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Viking.


Stanley, E. A., & Van der Kolk, B. A. (2019). Widen the window: training your brain and body to thrive during stress and recover from trauma. New York, Avery.


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