Anna was highly excited about the new job she landed in her dream company. The designation, the salary, the job responsibility, everything seemed picture-perfect to her, just what she wanted in her new placement.
But her excitement soon turned to be a nightmare. In less than three months of her joining, she experienced numerous instances of excessive bullying, verbal abuse, and racial discrimination from her toxic colleagues. She started getting panic attacks and developed severe mental illness symptoms such as excessive sweating, chest pain, and slurred speech. She was struggling because of her PTSD from work.
After enduring the traumatic events for about a year, she finally quit the company she aspired to make a long-term career.
What is workplace PTSD?
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD is a mental disorder developed in a person after experiencing or witnessing a daunting incident in their life. The condition is an after-effect of the emotional or psychological shock caused due to experiencing a fatal accident, sexual violence, verbal abuse, natural disaster, physical scuffle, brutal attack, or robbery. People with a family history of depression and other mental disorders have a high risk of PTSD.
Anna fell victim to workplace PTSD, a psychiatric disorder in employees induced owing to dreadful experiences with her co-workers and employers. The horrifying memories haunt her, even after years of leaving the workplace. She gets easily startled by the mere mention of the ex-employees or company name.
PTSD is not a new and fancy term in companies. Workplace-induced stress or mental illness is a grave concern getting prevalent in almost all the workforce. It intensifies when employees feel emotionally injured by vulnerable factors such as race, age, and gender. The profound hurt impacts the relationship with their bosses and colleagues. It also exerts a strong influence on their career decisions and professional interactions.
Another knock-on effect of this mental disorder condition is that the target gets too distressed or scared to discuss the stress with others. They isolate themselves to suffer from PTSD in silence and fight a lonely battle with this emotionally-wrecking disorder. However, the stimulants revive the terrifying memories of the mental torture, resulting in severe physical and emotional fallout for several months, years, and sometimes, the rest of their lives.
PTSD From Work: Triggers
A highly critical point relating to workplace-driven PTSD is that no single set of triggers stimulates strong reactions in the sufferers. The intensity of the reactions depends on their perception, comprehension, and sensibility to the traumatic events.
The usual triggers of workplace PTSD are:
- Aggressive or short-tempered managers or supervisors who verbally and, at times, physically assaults more often than not for different reasons (e.g., not fulfilling unrealistic performance expectations).
- Intimidating colleagues who harass in the wake of gender, race, age, or relationship status and manipulate things in their favor.
- Toxic work environments that approve of bullying, bad-mouthing, and vilifying behavior and the refusal to recognize the emotional struggles of employees.
- Immense power inequality between higher and lower-level employees in the organizational hierarchy, not giving authority to employees to complain to managers.
- Hybrid work arrangements owing to the COVID-19 pandemic causing people to work for extended hours or be available all the time.
- A company culture that continually exposes employees to sexual harassment, emotional assault, and threatening behavior.
- Past traumatic life experiences of employees that triggers reactions when encountered with a similarly high-risk situation in the current workplace scenario (e.g., an employee relating an aggressive manager to an abusive parent or the overtly advances of a co-worker reminds them of previous sexual assault)
Symptoms of Workplace PTSD
Some peculiar symptoms come into sight when an employee starts developing PTSD. Look out for the following typical changes in their behavior and actions at work:
- Impaired work productivity and performance
- Frequent absenteeism
- Lack of confidence and concentration at work
- Physical symptoms such as excessive exhaustion, muscle spasms, chest pain, stammer while speaking, and profuse sweating
Broad categories of symptoms -
- Interfering past thoughts cause flashbacks, sleep disturbance, and nightmares.
- Loss of self-worth; Excessive pessimism in mindset and conversations
- Panic attacks; Sudden responses to noises, touches, or arguments at work
- Persistently anxious, irritable, or depressed mood
- Increased sensitivity to stimuli (hyper-reactivity).
- Avoidance of specific persons, places, or situations that exposes them to the high-risk trauma
- Emotional numbness; distance themselves from co-workers, family, and friends
The noteworthy point is that the symptoms may not always be distinctly evident and may become noticeable after cautious observation and probing. Also, not every PTSD target experiences all of these symptoms. Nonetheless, these are red flags that require immediate action from employers.
How to deal with toxic work culture?
PTSD from work calls attention to a distressed mental health condition of employees caused due to the hostile, traumatic, or offensive facets of their jobs. Unarguably, it emanates from the toxic culture at the workplace that is counterproductive for employees and employers equally. The optimal remedy to this profound issue is to build a positive and productive work climate. Employers need to create a supportive culture that stipulates professional behavior and communication guidelines in the workplace.
Building a supportive company culture starts with recognizing the issue and being prepared to provide constant support to employees to elevate their psychological well-being. The concrete steps in this direction are -
- Formulate and enforce workplace safety norms in all forms with provisions of taking stringent actions against the violators.
- Create open communication channels where employees feel comfortable sharing their concerns and experiences and pouring their hearts out on distressing matters.
- Build mental-health support and a rehabilitation center for your employees where they can seek help and get positive reinforcement and constructive feedback to overcome their post-traumatic stress.
- Provide employees with a grievance subdivision where they can file complaints anonymously.
- Devise a comprehensive training program to create company-wide awareness of PTSD and educate employees on techniques to work with anyone developing symptoms of this mental disorder condition.
Thus, the companies must emphasize making the employees feel ‘fit in’ to the culture without settling for offensive behavior or acts.
How can you support teammates who have workplace PTSD?
Employees who have PTSD from work face a hard time enduring it. If not addressed sensibly and timely, it may have devastating consequences for both the victim (the employee) and the company (the employer).
We can support teammates with workplace PTSD by being compassionate towards them. The targeted techniques to help are -
- Motivate them to be vocal about the traumatic events they experienced at the workplace and their impact on their mental state.
- Listen to them with empathy and patience to understand and feel their agony. Strive to sense their emotional state as they bring on the difficult conversations.
- Approach them gently and considerately to make them feel safe and supported, and help them overcome their fear.
- Ask them how and what you or any other co-worker can do to help them? E.g., any specific change in the work environment that makes them feel better and comfortable, such as changing the workspace, allowing flexible work hours, or allocating independent or less demanding projects for some time.
- Choose your words wisely to express your genuine concern towards them.
- The HR department can provide them with community referrals and resources, such as employee assistance programs, focused psychotherapies, and counseling services to help them cope with the stress.
Build a supportive company culture to make a difference
The grave issue of workplace-induced PTSD has roots in the overall company environment and culture. Companies have an ethical responsibility to give strength to their distressed employees.
Thus, the HR departments and top management team need to address the mental illness predicament head-on. They must collaborate to develop and foster a supportive company culture that prioritizes employees’ psychological safety, mental wellness, and work-life balance.
Building an empathetic and amicable workplace culture encompasses establishing a robust peer support network and continual positive reinforcement of the leaders. Had Anna received the positive support of her seniors or a transparent platform to disclose her suffering, she would not have fallen prey to PTSD and not left her dream company.
One way to build a strong, positive company culture is by creating a transparent environment that engages your people with real-time recognition. Mesh can help with this. Book a free demo with us to learn how.