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Workplace Trauma ... Check on Your Employees

The month of May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Not talking about this is a social illness. The term "suffering in silence" has become all too common—especially at work.

Even before the pandemic, mental health costs were a high cost for businesses. In 2018, employee mental health costs rose twice as fast as all other medical expenses (full article). Imagine how things are compounded as we live through this pandemic.

As a Professional Career Coach, I have worked with hundreds of people and heard numerous stories of individuals experiencing workplace depression, anxiety, and trauma. Disclaimer: I am not a clinician nor claim to be one. I advise anyone experiencing mental health issues to seek help from a licensed medical professional (doctor, therapist, counselor, etc.) ASAP.

As a coach, I create the space for my resume and career coaching clients to speak about their current and past work experiences. Before we jump into common themes from their stories (and my own), let us get a high-level understanding of depression and workplace trauma.

Depression in the Workplace Happens

Depression is not just about having a bad day. Depression, left untreated, may have a significant impact on work performance. It can look like decreased productivity, irritability, absenteeism, low energy, withdrawal, and possibly even anger and anxiety.

Absenteeism - This missing work/calling-in. In the United States, workplace depression accounts for $23 billion in lost workdays each year (full article). People are the heartbeat of the business, and your business is losing money when your people are not okay.

Presenteeism - This refers to employees who can come to work, but their mental health symptoms impact their productivity (time management, concentration, physical tasks, attention to detail, and communication).

Depression can affect anyone—even a person who appears to live in relatively ideal circumstances.

STOP. Have you felt any of these at work lately? No, I am not asking you to self-diagnose yourself, but I am asking you to check in. Depression is a spectrum ranging from situational depression to major depression. It is not uncommon to experience stress at work, but do not ignore feelings of depression.

Workplace-Induced Trauma Happens

Workplace trauma is defined as employees' physical or psychological response to a crisis or critical incident, a response that can interfere with normal functioning.

According to Workplace Strategies for Mental Health, potential trauma in the workplace could include exposure to:

  • Stressful Events: Accidents, Injuries, Greif, or Death

  • Organizational Stressors: Bullying, Harassment, Unresolved Conflict, Authoritarian Leadership, Downsizing or Fear of Unemployment

  • Physical Stressors: Extremes of Heat or Cold, Sense of No Control Over Workspace, Noise, or Fear for Physical Safety

  • External Threats: Evacuation, Lockdown, Fire, or Robbery

Work-induced trauma varies from person to person. Some people experience burnout or compassion fatigue, which may express itself as exhaustion or disinterest.

Burned Out - According to SHRM, 41% of U.S. workers reported feeling burned out from their work. The individuals who felt the most emotionally drained by jobs were mid-level workers in the $30,000 to $60,000 salary range (full article).

Compassion Fatigue - This is the reduced capacity for empathy toward people suffering from over-exposure to stressful events.

STOP. Have you experienced any of these things at work? How you feel and show up at work might be a direct response to the environment you are in or the past trauma you have experienced as an employee.

My Experience as a Career Coach & Resume Writer

As part of the resume upgrade process, I meet with each client one-on-one to discuss their work history. I realize that as employees, we spend so much time "doing the work" that we forget to pause and document our successes. These calls are meant to uncover critical things people forget to list on their resumes.

However, sometimes the conversation goes much deeper.

For one client, he was a District Manager for a storage company, and each week he had to evict customers who were already experiencing hard times—no home with all their possessions in a storage unit. It broke him. He hated going to work and was even offered to pay for a customer's rent to avoid evicting them. He expressed this to his manager for two years and asked for a different role, yet nothing happened. Luckily, he was already in a new position when we spoke, but you could hear the pain and frustration in his voice.

Another client loved his position but hated the work culture. It was a production company where the manager expected you to work 55 hours per week (salaried employee, so no paid overtime). He was managing a team of 63 employees across the entire second shift with little to no leadership support. He went to work frustrated every day and was mentally checked out from everything. He stopped caring about metrics and targets because he felt as if the company did not care about him as a person.

These are just two examples, but according to Gallup, 54% of workers are "not engaged" -- they are psychologically unattached to their work and company. Not all employees start off this way.

My Experience as an Employee

Writing this blog brought up some workplace traumas for me. I started working my first part-time during my senior year of high school at a fast-food restaurant and have worked ever since.

Now, working at a fast-food restaurant comes with its own set of stressors—trying to beat the clock to get customers in and out, serving in the drive-thru regardless of snow/rain/heat/etc., and smelling like food each day.

One summer, the restaurant was robbed at gunpoint. I had just moved from the cash register and was only a few feet away when it happened. The cashier screamed, "< Manager's Name>, he got a gun!". I ran toward the back emergency exit and heard one gunshot, and kept running. Once I made it outside, I looked to my left, and he was running in the same direction. I began to run faster. He veered into an alley and started running the other way.

Luckily, no one was injured in that situation. Having the feeling of safety taken away from you at work can play with your mind. As I think about it, (unconsciously) I forged excellent working relationships with the building security guards and personnel at each job since then. Interesting.

Personally, I have experienced depression, situational depression, presenteeism at work, and even overworking (which can be a trauma-response) to avoid personal issues.

What Can Employers Do?

Here are just a few suggestions of what employers can do to address these issues (below).

  • Proactively talk to your employees and ask for ways to support them (create a safe space for honest dialogue)

  • If your company offers an Employee Assistance Program (or EAP), be sure to publicize it and educate employees on how to access this benefit

  • Bring in a medical professional or counselor and raise awareness about depression in the workplace and its effect on productivity

  • Offer a list of local mental health resources for employees (i.e. support groups)

  • Encourage employees to use all their vacation days/paid time off (PTO)

  • Reduce the stigma surrounding mental health conditions by speaking up

  • Call out and remove toxic executives, managers, and employees

Again, as a Career Coach and advocate for employees, I hope this blog sparks some much needed conversation. If you are looking need advice on how to “coach” you boss check out my article (here). If your current workplace is not a good fit for you mentally and emotionally, feel free to check out the services I provide (here).

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