Do you work for or lead a company or organization? Chances are you experience trauma every day.
When we think of trauma, we tend to think of war zones, or murder, sexual assault, the death of a loved one or natural disasters. Certainly those are traumatic (and heartbreaking) incidents, but they are the tip of the trauma iceberg.
Trauma expert Pat Ogden defines trauma as “any experience that is stressful enough to leave us feeling helpless, frightened, overwhelmed, or profoundly unsafe is considered a trauma.”
All traumas, even seemingly ordinary everyday traumas have one thing in common. When you go into fight, flight or freeze, your thinking brain goes offline. Your brain’s main job is to keep you alive, and when your brain perceives a threat, your so-called survival brain takes over. The result: Fight, flight, or freeze. In the snap of a finger, rational thought becomes an unaffordable mental luxury.
And here’s the problem: While your thinking brain knows the difference between a humiliating experience and a true matter of life and death, your survival brain doesn’t. As one organizational psychologist puts it, “in most people, the question ‘can I offer you some feedback’ generates a similar response to hearing fast footsteps behind you at night.” My coaching mentor Doug Silsbee goes on to suggest that “to our psychobiology, physical and identity survival are one and the same.”
The workplace is a hotbed of trauma. A recent Harvard Business Review article describes the process by which the small stresses of everyday working accumulate over time into a big problem. These so-called “microstresses:”
“might be caused by feeling the need to protect an employee on your team who isn’t getting recognized for their work. Or by having to put in extra time to finish a joint project when your teammates fall short on their part. Or by your manager’s suddenly changing a project after you’ve called in favors to get it done, wasting your and your coworkers’ time. Or even by knowing that you’ll have to miss your weekly tennis game with a friend (again), making you feel that you’ve let them down once more and that your skills are declining.”
That nonstop pinging of your survival brain takes a long-term toll on your physical and mental health. As the HBR authors put it, “microstresses may be hard to spot individually, but cumulatively they pack an enormous punch.”
And what about the macro stresses? The bullying bosses? The subtle but toxic presence of racism? The sexual harassment. Getting passed over for a promotion. The cutthroat competition? They too obviously fuel the trauma bonfire.
It’s not hopeless. Trauma can be healed. But until workplace trauma is identified and recognized for what it is, the wheel will just keep turning.