It's Time to Break the Cycle of Work Trauma

Ifalase McGowan
May 03 2023 | Insights

What work trauma feels like

Imagine for a moment that you have a job in an office. Before you get ready each day, you pack a suitcase. This suitcase is filled with all the happy, easy memories of your life at work to date. You pack it graciously, appreciating every moment that you’ve experienced, and take it with you throughout your day. In all of your meetings, it serves as a reminder, a boost of energy, reaffirming you as you complete your work with ease.

Now imagine that the next morning, you pack a very different suitcase. This one is full of all the heavy memories, all of your bad work experiences. You pack your suitcase, perhaps with a different energy this time. This bag feels heavier, as though you’ve been carrying it for years. It's affecting your confidence, performance, and identity. It’s just not who you really are. Things don't seem to flow while you're carrying this suitcase.

For some of our coachees, this is how they enter their working world every day, with a suitcase full of unresolved past experiences that impact everything.

How work trauma is caused

Work trauma can arise from many different situations. Some are more subtle:

  • Moral injury, where you're actively being encouraged to work against your morals and values.

  • Raising an issue that your colleagues or team ignore.

  • Being underpaid or missing out on a pay rise.

  • Not receiving the expected promotion.

  • Being encouraged to work out of hours and being rewarded for it, whilst your health is suffering.

Whilst other traumas are more overt, like:

  • Receiving an overwhelming amount of negative feedback from your manager during a performance review.

  • Being actively being excluded from your team.

  • Experiencing micro or even macro aggressions.

If we carry enough stress around with us, our bodies begin to release adrenaline, causing us to see everything as a threat. Our response becomes automatic: fight (aggression, active or passive), flight (we leave the company, carrying our suitcase along with us), or freeze (our motivation drops along with our confidence, and we simply stop performing).

How might the trauma suitcase impact your working relationships?

What kind of manager would this make you?

How would you lead a team with that kind of reminder watching over you?

The cycle of trauma is just that, a cycle. Left unmanaged, it can seep into workplace cultures and become the norm. This isn’t a place from which anyone can thrive, and it’s time we start to break this cycle (gently).

Ways to support coachees with work trauma

So, what can we do as coaches when we encounter a coachee going through such an experience, whether it's live or in the past?

Support emotional exploration

Allowing coachees to explore and understand their emotions can help with processing unexpressed needs or desires that aren’t being met in their work environment.

Remember calming tools

It is the most natural thing in the world to feel the emotions of another human being — our brains are created that way — but it is our role here to stay calm and centered. When we do, we give space for our coachees to embody the same.

Stay out of judgement

Remember that trauma is a cycle. One saying that helped me so much is ‘hurt people hurt people.’ It’s not our place to judge or blame, simply to be aware of the bigger picture, so that we can help our coachee navigate from that place too.

Uncover their purpose

What’s truly important to them in this moment? What will motivate them to create action/facilitate them to be motivated towards something they desire.

Remember the power of coaching

Remember that coaching itself is a beautiful tool, which encouarges powerful listening and reflect, and that in itself gives them new ways of functioning in their working worlds, that they can model.

Support them if they decide to leave

It can be very easy to simply find a way to build tolerance and resistance to a situation, but if it’s causing more pain than pleasure, it’s simply time to walk away.

Work trauma has been in some places and has been normalized. It’s time to break the cycle.

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