Workplace stress and trauma is a major focus of my practice and the problem can manifest itself in many ways including anxiety, insomnia, addiction, depression, ruptured relationships and uncontrollable anger.
According to trauma expert, Judith Herman, trauma “overwhelms the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection and meaning.” We typically think of trauma as being the result of a sudden, violent event or loss or as stemming from long-term, intentional abuse. Comparatively little has been written about how individuals are traumatized by events in the American workplace, in spite of the fact that the majority of our time is spent on the job and with co-workers.
We are beginning to see research being done regarding the types of events that negatively affect workers. These include workplace aggression and incivility, conflicts between work demands and family life, the imbalance between effort and reward, the lack of promotional opportunities, job insecurity and workplace ambiguity. That being said, we rarely examine in what ways these events can be traumatic for the individual in daily life. Connection, meaning and control are often ruptured with very serious consequences.
It was long assumed that blue collar workers were most vulnerable to workplace stress and trauma because their work is often repetitive and physically demanding. They tend to work long and unusual hours and generally have little control over their efforts or environment. We have since come to see that in today’s working world, it is not only the blue collar workers whose fates are determined by external forces and the prevailing wage. White collar workers are just as vulnerable to these forces.
Workplace trauma cannot be understood until we understand the meaning we place on work. One major force that shapes the way we view work is identity. Sociologist, Everett C. Hughes, famous for his writings on work and occupation, rightly had this to say about the value the individual places on work. “…a man’s work is one of the most important parts of his social identity, of his self, indeed of his fate, in the one life he has to live…”
We have a situation where a cornerstone of individual identity is controlled by external forces. It is no wonder that problems in the workplace can rise to the level of trauma.