Embracing the Reality of Trauma and its Impact in Career Development
By Paola A. Barriga
Career practitioners understand, and in many cases have witnessed, the negative impact that losing a job may have on their client’s mental health. However, there are many other factors that have the power to impact an individual’s professional and personal well-being. It is now more common for workers to experience trauma because of the erosion of the workplace environment (Blustein, 2019).
How Trauma Can Affect One’s Career
Trauma can severely impact the work life and careers of individuals who experience it. In the United States, about two million workers are victims of violence in their workplace each year (Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 2002), and it is estimated that 25% of cases are not reported. Workplace trauma includes the experience of toxic work environments, physical and mental abuse, microaggressions, workplace shootings, and the impact of natural disasters (Blustein, 2019; Chamberlain & Hodson, 2010; One Mind at Work, 2021). Additionally, employees with marginalized identities, which include Black, indigenous, LGBTQIA and other ethnic minorities, face higher risks of trauma both in and out the workplace (One Mind at Work, 2021; Blustein, 2019). Trauma can be expressed on the job as absenteeism, increased distraction, task avoidance, accidents, loss of motivation, irritability with co-workers, and increased conflict (De Fraia, 2016).
The effects of family trauma may also play a role in a client’s unfulfilled career goals. For instance, individuals may fail to take the necessary steps to make their professional goals possible (Wolynn, 2016), such as a failure to stay in school to complete a degree. Individuals may repeat their family members’ failure stories and unconsciously sabotage their own careers. (Wolynn, 2016). Furthermore, clients could hold onto beliefs that they do not deserve to be successful, or to be more successful than a specific family member (Wolynn, 2016). Additionally, a history of family poverty can dim the future vision of prosperity for themselves (Wolynn 2016).
By unconsciously replaying unresolved family dynamics in the workplace, clients may create conflicts instead of authentic connections. For example, supervisors that have abused their power in the preceding workplace could cause clients to display poor interview behaviors, such as lack of eye contact, due to their previous intimidating situation (Choitz & Wagner, 2022). Similarly, toxic work environments where extreme or unhealthy behavior is expected from employees to “fit in” (e.g., heavily drinking alcohol on the job) and/or blurred boundaries between work and life can “scar” an individual, leaving a lasting aftereffect (McMenamin, 2021). Finally, individuals who experienced workplace trauma may also have more difficulty navigating job searches due to the fear of facing other traumatic experiences (Covert, 2022).
How Employers Respond to Trauma
Since trauma is common, whether experienced at work or in one’s personal life, it is important that employers address it. A recent survey of 2,814 global business leaders showed that only 35% of businesses had a crisis response plan that was applicable to the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, 95% of business leaders acknowledged that their crisis management capabilities need to improve (PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2021).
Leading companies are developing strategies to support the mental health of their employees, facilitate their recovery and resilience, and restore workplace operations and stability (DeFraia, 2016; One Mind at Work, 2021). Employers leading the development of responses to trauma are:
- Recognizing that trauma is multi-dimensional and developing strategic planning groups.
- Practicing traumatic event responses to train employees and identify gaps in their planning.
- Reducing the stigma of trauma and educating employees on symptoms and effects of depression and anxiety.
- Considering the addition of a “safe room,” having a family support liaison in the workplace, and/or incorporating intentional downtime after the competition of a challenging or intense project.
- Hiring a wellness manager who assist developing and executing a wellness plan for the organization.
- Requesting a workplace assessment to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to determine factors that are negatively impacting their employees.
How Career Practitioners Can Support Clients with Trauma
As practitioners continue to support clients with trauma during their career development, they can:
- Encourage clients to schedule self-care time.
- Suggest that clients engage in exercise and mindfulness activities.
- Suggest that clients research companies that are investing in health and mental health care for their employees.
- Suggest that clients schedule informational interviews with targeted companies to determine the existence of peer support programs (Workplace Strategies for Mental Health, 2022).
- Help clients build their support network by communicating with family members, professional organizations, religious groups, volunteering opportunities, etc.
When Therapy is Needed
Sometimes the impact of trauma on a client can require more support than a career practitioner can provide. In these cases, it is the career practitioner’s responsibility to suggest clinically appropriate referrals (NCDA, 2015). Clients who exhibit these and other symptoms should be referred to a therapist (Cascade Behavioral Health Hospital, 2022):
- tremendous fatigue and exhaustion
- anxiety, panic attacks, depression, or overwhelming fear
- avoidance of activities or places that brings memories of events
- lack of interest in previously enjoyable activities
Increased Awareness and the Need for Change
Career practitioners need to be aware of how clients’ trauma related behaviors may impact their career development. Career practitioners can advocate for clients and help identify employers who actively invest in programs that support mental health and have trauma-informed protocols. Unattended trauma does not disappear on its own, and its effects on clients and their workplaces are not silent.
Blustein, D. (2019). The importance of work in an age of uncertainty. Oxford University Press.
Cascade Behavioral Health Hospital. (2022). Signs and symptoms of psychological trauma. https://www.cascadebh.com/behavioral/trauma/signs-symptoms-effects/
Choitz, V., & Wagner, S. (2022). A trauma-informed approach to workforce. An introductory guide for employers and workforce development organizations. https://nationalfund.org/our-resources/publications/a-trauma-informed-approach-to-workforce/
Covert, B. (2022). Workers have few job protections during the trauma of a miscarriage. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2022/01/27/1075855131/workers-have-few-job-protections-during-the-trauma-of-a-miscarriage
DeFraia, G. S. (2016). Workplace disruption following psychological trauma: Influence of incident severity level on organization’s post-incident response planning and execution. The International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 7(2), 75-86. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27112716/
Joyce, L., & Chamberlain, R. H. (2010). Toxic work environments: What helps and what hurts. Sociological Perspectives, 53(4),455-477.
McMenamin, L. (2021). Why long-term workplace trauma is a real phenomenon. BBC. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20210415-why-long-term-workplace-trauma-is-a-real-phenomenon
National Career Development Association. (2015). 2015 NCDA Code of Ethics. https://www.ncda.org/aws/NCDA/asset_manager/get_file/3395?ver=738700
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). (2002). Factsheet: Violence in the workplace. https://www.osha.gov/sites/default/files/publications/factsheet-workplace-violence-spanish.pdf
One Mind at Work. (2021). 2021 CHRO Insights Series: Trauma and mental health in the workplace. https://secureservercdn.net/22.214.171.124/e47.77e.myftpupload.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/OMI-CHRO-Series-White-Paper-2021-FINAL-2.pdf
PricewaterhouseCoopers. (2021). Global crises survey 2021. https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/issues/crisis-solutions/global-crisis-survey.html
Wolynn, M. (2016). It didn’t start with you. How inherited family trauma shapes who we are and how to end the cycle. Penguin Random House LLC.
Workplace Strategies for Mental Health. (2022). Peer support programs. https://www.workplacestrategiesformentalhealth.com/resources/peer-support-programs
Paola A. Barriga is a faculty member in the Department of Plant Biology at the University of Georgia (UGA). She is a Certified Career Services Provider and holds a Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Arkansas. Paola gained pedagogical training in active learning approaches at UGA and has trained undergraduate Biology and non-Biology majors. Paola audited a Career Development and Theory course by Dr. Marian Higgins at UGA and attended a workshop entitled “From Trauma to Transformation” from Anne Ethier LPC. She has mentored UGA undergraduates and graduate students for the past eight years, many of whom have made successful career choices and transitions. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or linkedin.com/in/paola-barriga/