There are the obvious forms of workplace trauma: Bullying, harassment, micro-aggressions. Then there are the more common: Being passed over for a promotion, having superiors minimise your concerns, or peers questioning your work ethic or judgment. In 2023, the question isn’t whether workplace trauma exists (it does) but rather what leaders can do to build resilient, trauma-informed organizations.
Not only is workplace trauma real, it’s pervasive. According to a 2021 McKinsey report, women overall, and Black women and women with disabilities in particular, were more likely to experience micro-aggressions, such as having their judgment questioned or having others interrupt or speak over them in professional settings. A 2022 analysis from MIT’s Sloan School of Management found that a toxic corporate culture is 10 times more important than compensation in predicting turnover.
To better understand why both explicit traumas like harassment and subtle traumas like micro-aggressions can be so damaging, it’s crucial to recognize that workplace trauma "can be any psychological injury that affects performance," says Katherine Manning, author of The Empathetic Workplace: 5 Steps to a Compassionate, Calm, and Confident Response to Trauma on the Job.
Manning notes that everyone responds to trauma differently, and there’s no single "normal" response. Symptoms can range from weeks to years. However, ongoing micro-aggressions have been shown to contribute to prolonged stress, trauma, anxiety, and workplace performance. A 2023 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that Black employees who were subject to micro-aggressions in the workplace were more likely to experience burnout and job dissatisfaction over the long term.
Because work tends to consume a big part of our psyche, workplace trauma can manifest in ways that are ongoing and pervasive. Obsessively checking emails, constantly worrying that you’re never enough regardless of work ethic or output, and the perpetual fear of being reprimanded or terminated are often considered par for the course in competitive, fast-paced corporate culture. But in reality, these behaviours could signal that workplace trauma has shaken one’s self-assurance and is impacting performance — and when superiors dismiss this as normal it’s yet another layer of gaslighting, suggests Dr. Rischa Gottlieb, a psychologist who specialises in PTSD and trauma.
"Some of the results of psychological trauma can include a loss of a sense of safety, nightmares, intrusive thoughts about work, hyper-vigilance, fear, sadness, and a sense of isolation and more. The sequelae of betrayal and abuse is not limited to the workplace; these reactions usually are diffused into a person's personal time so that there is little reprieve."
Trauma and institutional betrayal
The double whammy of workplace trauma and lack of protection is what’s known as institutional betrayal, explains Manning.
"When we are in times of crisis or trauma, we tend to go to the institutions that we align ourselves with for support and protection. When those institutions fail to provide that support and protection, that can create a second injury on top of the first. This institutional betrayal really has a long-term effect on a person’s healing. The interesting thing is that the closer a person is aligned with an institution, the greater the sense of betrayal when they receive an unsupportive response," says Manning.
For women in the C-Suite, whose careers often provide meaning and purpose, the effects can be devastating. "When work is central to our identity, the potential for institutional betrayal can be especially strong. It’s also why it’s difficult to speak up when someone is under threat or experiencing a trauma. [The institution] is their whole life."
Institutional betrayal can be particularly insidious when there’s a disconnect between an organisation’s values and actions, explains Gottlieb. For example, a company that champions diversity but repeatedly passes over women of color for promotions, comments on their emotional state or questions their judgment, then dismisses their concerns, can cause traumatic invalidation.
"This occurs when a person’s environment repeatedly and intensely communicates that their characteristics, behaviours, or emotional reactions are unacceptable," Gottlieb said. "Many people assume that because invalidation is not a physical attack it is less harmful, but research shows that severe invalidation is as or more harmful than physical violence in terms of PTSD and mental health outcomes."
Manning shared a story about a friend who experienced workplace trauma and institutional betrayal. As a Black woman who was a partner at a law firm when protests over the murder of George Floyd erupted in June 2020, she waited for her firm to address the news. She stood by as her clients and other law firms condemned the murder — while her firm remained silent for two weeks before putting out a statement. Within the context of years of racial trauma, the firm’s silence during a watershed moment that was impossible to ignore was incredibly painful and traumatic for her friend, which caused her to nearly quit, Manning explains.
"Here she is at this moment when this horrific thing has happened. She’s giving her blood, sweat, and tears, plus so many hours to this firm. And now she’s thinking, 'I don’t know if they even care about people like me,'" explains Manning.
Building trauma-informed organisations
Women who’ve experienced workplace trauma often feel pressure to take action to protect others, but Manning emphasised that "the first priority has to be your own healing."
The onus is on leaders to build trauma-informed organisations, which proactively work to mitigate the negative effects of a crisis on the organisation's employees and the communities it serves. They can do so in three key ways, says Manning: First, they acknowledge employees' struggles and make it clear that leadership is listening. Next, they show support by defining clear action steps in response to trauma, and finally, they build trust through consistent follow-through.
"It's so important that organisations realise they’re not just a company that makes a product. They are also the culture of people that they’re creating. You can’t just say, 'This is not our business, we’re not political, we don’t get involved.' Well, you employ people who have a diverse set of backgrounds. When you say, 'It's not my job to get involved,' what you’re doing is really perpetuating the dominant culture," explains Manning.
For leaders who are already building trauma-informed organisations, it's critical to watch out for compassion fatigue, which can be "a slow burn" that "sneaks up on you," says Manning. In some cases, that might mean leaders are transparent about their struggles, too.
"It's one thing to say we have an employee assistance program, and they offer free and confidential counselling. It’s another thing to say we have a great EAP — and it really helped me when I needed it. When you add that last part, you’re making it okay for everybody else."
Manning suggests practicing "noisy self-care" to model how to avoid burnout. "Your team doesn’t need you to be a superwoman," says Manning. "They need you to be present for them."
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