There is a good chance that at some point during your work life you will be in a toxic workplace. It could be a bullying boss, a bullying coworker, or even excessive workload that can bring debilitating symptoms of workplace PTSD. This is something nobody is going to tell you on your career day.
I’ve done this a thousand times before, watching Lyanna my director, uncork her wrath like a ferocious gray wolf on the weak, the slow and the meek. Only now, I am very much the reluctant prey. Even the junior copywriter can best me if things go downhill from here. My everyday goal is to make myself as invisible as possible so as not to garner her attention. On bad days, I feel anxiety and terror when I see that Lyanna is in a particularly bad mood. Past experience enabled me to decode her footstep pattern: when she stomps and sways her hips, it means she is on the warpath – and you certainly don’t want to be strangled under her barbed heels. She would crush her teeth and make a painful over-dramatic cringe if she didn’t particularly approve of something you’ve said in a meeting. She would talk poorly behind your back, and disregard any good performance. This has actually made our team’s work done, way harder.
The blood in my veins rush up to my head as I watch her come out of her cabin in irate, hurried steps. I breathe in a sigh of relief, once I realize I am not going to be the victim. I watch her whip out her fury at Alex, the mailroom boy. His cheeks flush as the subtle form of dehumanization strangles his sense of self-esteem around his colleagues. Despite the office air conditioning freezing my feet and my fingers, I begin sweating from my forehead and my back. I can feel her staring at me from the back of my head in firm reminder: ‘I am always watching you.’ My stomach drops, and so does my excitement for the task.
My drives home often edge on conflict, as the seemingly nonsensical belief rises over my rationale being that I am not as capable and efficient at work as I ought to be. Once home, things get worse as I rant my way past dinnertime until my mother limits her answer to five words, ‘You know the answer already.’
This is a dark time in my life. I love my job, but I cannot take the dehumanization. I do the minimum required to accomplish a task. Most days, I dart around in the office until 5 p.m., when it is time to go home. I reply to a question addressed to me in monosyllables because I do not want Lyanna to silence me in front of everyone.
Two months ago, I began to see a therapist as a means of crisis intervention. In hindsight, I now question if it was post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Workplace PTSD & Corporate Bullying
While PTSD is often linked with veterans who’ve experienced military combat, sexual assault survivors, or catastrophic events, experts are reporting an alarming rise of the condition caused by workplace bullying, with increased stress and anxiety leading up to the same symptoms people experience after returning from a combat zone.
“One of the many areas that PTSD affects is the workplace. There are many individuals with PTSD who are able to work and are functioning at a level where they are able to hold a job; some successfully, and some just barely,” writes Dr. Amy Menna, in her article Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the Workplace: What Employers and Coworkers Need to Know. “The level of success one has at his or her place of employment depends on many factors including the level of impairment, and support outside and inside the work environment.”
People with PTSD at work develop debilitating symptoms –
- High stress.
- Increased heart palpitations.
- Reduced self-esteem.
- Anger outbursts.
- Avoiding reminders of an event.
- Sleep disturbances.
- Increased depression/self-blame.
- Feeling cut off and detached from friends and family.
My symptoms began to appear four months ago. My job has always been stressful, but the interactions with the supervisor always left me flustered. I felt I wasn’t doing my job correctly. In fact, I was seen as someone who needed reprimanding more than assistance. Worse, I didn't want to help myself.
I had stopped sleeping. My insomnia kicked in, hard. My caffeine intake spiked before team meetings for that extra jolt of energy. Back at home, I was drinking a lot - and, it helped erase certain events of the day.
“I’m now much less of an asset to the company than I could be. I keep my head down and for self-preservation just do my work with little conversation with anyone. Yet the irony is this: in my self-preservation, I’m actually destroying myself. In bottling up my unexpressed feelings, I’m making myself sick emotionally and physically.”
- Gary Chapman, Rising Above a Toxic Workplace: Taking Care of Yourself in an Unhealthy Environment.
Sometimes, it takes a long time to learn that a toxic workplace can be a particular trigger for workplace Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Unfortunately, most people lack the help needed to effectively respond. Either they don’t understand the cause of their problems, or they don’t realize that it’s possible to come out of it. No wonder people who suffer from PTSD at work act so distanced and dejected.
There is a good chance that at some point during your work life you will be in a toxic workplace. It could be a bullying boss, a bullying coworker, or even excessive workload that can torment you. This is something nobody is going to tell you on your career day.
Workplace PTSD and corporate bullying can manifest in various ways:
- Placing unreasonable expectations on employees, where failure to meet those expectations means making life miserable for anyone who objects.
- Dismissing employees suffering from anxiety and stress as “weak” while completely ignoring or denying work-related causes of stress and anxiety.
- Discouraging employees from taking time off work to work over the stress.
Each of these causes can prove to be detrimental to the organization. The cost of which can fall into three categories:
Replacing staff as retention rate decreases with employees leaving as a result of bullying and PTSD.
Signs of PTSD at work include:
Workplace PTSD can be triggered or intensified in various ways at the workplace. Some of the problems associated with the workplace for white-collar PTSD are:
- Failure to meet organizational goals.
- Increased absence due to sickness.
- Panic attacks.
- Memory problems.
- Difficulty completing tasks.
- Poor reactions with coworkers.
Most of the time, the health problems experienced by individuals with PTSD at work result in a sense of helplessness and negative emotional states. Low self-esteem can further hamper the employee’s ability to respond to challenging goals. Such individuals fail to contribute their best work, do not give ideas for improvement, do not provide feedback on failures and are less honest about their flinging performance.
In coming years, white-collar PTSD will become more prevalent.
- Hold awareness campaigns for everyone on what workplace PTSD is.
- Investigate the nature of the problem.
- Improve management’s ability and sensitivity towards dealing with and responding to PTSD at work.
I have been there. I spent months feeling outmatched by my director. It took me a long time to make an effort to go and talk to the HR about my PTSD at work. The talks of making a significant change in the workplace culture with the HR and the higher up never came to fruition. Let my story be a cautionary tale for you.