The ultimate guide to workplace trauma – causes, examples, and more

Aiva Strelca 19.02.2024

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear someone mention a workplace trauma? Injuries associated with physical labor or maybe PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) as a result of being an emergency or frontline worker? 

Today, workplace trauma describes a much broader set of traumatic experiences than it has been historically viewed. It’s widespread across industries, not just the classic high-risk fields like the military, police, medicine, etc. Even office workers who engage in seemingly peaceful activities in their 9 to 5 jobs are not protected from workplace trauma, which can be hard to recover from. 

From work-related anxiety to depression, job burnout, and serious physical effects, workplace trauma can have various appearances – and that’s why we decided to write this ultimate guide. Keep reading to learn more about workplace trauma causes, examples, and how one can overcome traumatic experiences at work. 

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Workplace trauma – what is it?

First things first, let’s define what exactly workplace trauma is. As we outlined in the introduction of this read, it’s not just about bad injuries or extreme one-time events. Even though those can cause workplace trauma, the term also refers to prolonged periods of stress, anxiety, and not being able to cope with the adverse events. 

Generally speaking – workplace trauma is an emotional response to negative or traumatic events that have occurred at work.

Causes of workplace trauma

Moving on with our definitions, let’s see what are common causes of workplace trauma.

It’s important to understand that when it comes to workplace trauma (or any trauma), it’s always subjective. Hence, what’s traumatic to you may not seem a big deal to someone else, but it doesn’t mean you should undervalue your experiences. If it matters to you, it matters. 

Here are some common causes of workplace trauma:

  • Violence and abuse of all kinds – be it physical, emotional, or psychological, abuse is traumatic. A l w a y s. According to the International Labour Organization, violence and harassment at work have affected almost 23% of employees. Plus, many of those affected have experienced it multiple times during their working lives.
  • Accidents or injuries at work – this is something no one’s immune from, and facing an accident or injury at work (both personal or witnessing someone else get hurt) can end up being a traumatic experience that you cannot simply shake off.
  • Being laid off or fearing for your job – feeling insecure about one’s employment or being fired can also cause workplace traumas to workers. 
  • Toxic workplace culture – this includes a broad spectrum of issues from lack of job boundaries and non-existent work-life balance to office gossip and gaslighting. Moreover, toxic positivity in the workplace can be no less harmful than other forms of toxic culture at work.
  • Excessive amounts of workplace stress – whether caused by abnormal workload, unrealistic expectations, or constant micromanagement (potential reasons are plenty, pick whichever), massive stress at work for a prolonged period can quickly turn into workplace trauma.
Stressed worker at the office

Examples of workplace trauma – how they manifest?

Potential causes of workplace trauma are quite clear. But how do you know when workplace trauma has hit you? This chapter looks at several examples of how workplace trauma can manifest itself.

Before you proceed with reading, please note that this list of workplace trauma examples is by no means exhaustive. Traumatic experiences can manifest themselves in the broadest varieties. We also advise always seeking professional help when dealing with any of the conditions mentioned further in the article. 

Some of the physical, emotional, and psychological symptoms of workplace trauma:

  • Increased anxiety and panic attacks – occasional anxiety does visit everyone. But when going to work or thinking about work-related things make its levels hit all-time highs, and maybe you have panic attacks tagging along, it could be a sign of workplace trauma.
  • Mood swings and difficulty regulating your emotions – this can be caused by several other factors, however, if you notice extreme mood swings at the workplace and seem to be out of control with how you feel and act when at work, it could signify a trauma. Especially if you’re usually collected and calm or haven’t previously struggled with emotion regulation.
  • Difficulties concentrating and decreased work performance – inability to focus and perform your tasks is the first sign that something’s off in many cases, including workplace trauma. If you’ve always been a top performer and now barely manage to do anything, be careful and pay extra attention to your well-being. 
  • Withdrawal from communication with colleagues, family, and friends – while some people turn to others for support when things are off, quite many of us tend to withdraw from communication when something major happens.
  • Depression is a complex mood disorder, and we’re not medical professionals to go into explaining it. However, traumatic experiences at work can lead employees to develop depression. 
  • Insomnia – difficulty falling or staying asleep is also an indicator of things being off, including excessive stress levels at work and traumatic events manifesting themselves into physical symptoms. 
  • Job burnout – another way some employees deal with workplace trauma is by throwing themselves into enormous amounts of work, which, in turn, can easily lead to job burnout. In addition, experts say that traumatic experiences at work are often linked to an increased risk of burnout.

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Workplace trauma recovery – how to heal?

The harsh and painful truth about workplace trauma recovery is that the process can be lengthy and non-linear, and there’s a chance that some remains of traumatic experiences will stick with you for good. However, there are steps you can take to move towards healing. 

Start with talking to your manager, HR rep, or mentor. The position of the person at work you choose to speak to doesn’t matter as long as it’s someone you trust. We advise going to a manager or HR representative as they usually have procedures and guidelines on acting when employees experience workplace trauma. Hence, they can guide you through the following steps toward your recovery from the perspective of managing your workload and your work time.

Seek professional help. Talking to your employers and the company’s human resource division is crucial to sort out your working situation. However, the real recovery process can only begin with seeking professional help. Start with your GP and ask them for guidance towards therapy or seeing other health professionals. Self-help and care are essential, but if it’s a severe trauma, no one can deal with its effects by themselves. 

Take some time off work. Another thing to do for recovery is to take some time off to rest and get attuned to yourself and your needs. Trying to keep up with work tasks while healing from traumatic experiences can be too much to handle, even for those who manage themselves and their emotions very well. Talk to your employer about time off.

Consider switching jobs. If you’re receiving professional help and your workplace is helping you to recover, but it doesn’t seem to be working, leaving your current workplace could be the best option. Sometimes, the trauma is just too big, and returning to the place that reminds you of it every single day is not helpful at all. Have an honest conversation with your employer and HR representative, and remember that you have every right to switch jobs if that’s what’s best for you. 

worker leaving workplace after workplace trauma

Parting remarks on workplace trauma

If you’ve experienced workplace trauma, know that you’re not alone. It’s essential to prioritize your well-being and seek the professional support you need to heal. Whether it’s through therapy, talking to a trusted colleague, or reaching out to HR for resources, remember that there are avenues for support available. 

Additionally, advocating for change within your workplace culture can help prevent future incidents and create a safer environment for everyone. While the journey to recovery may be challenging, know that there is hope for healing and a brighter future ahead. You deserve to work in an environment where you feel respected, valued, and safe.

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