How does individual trauma impact the workplace?

We typically think about trauma as primarily impacting our personal lives. But we don’t leave our troubles at the door when we go to work. So how is trauma impacting our professional lives?

This week, I explore the question of trauma’s impact on the workplace, and explain why mental healthcare should be a priority to corporate America.

The brain seeks connection, meaning, and cause/effect.

The human brain is very much like a computer. It does what we tell it to do. Once we’ve given it instructions, it follows them, even if those instructions aren’t in our best interest.

What this means is, once we’ve singled out something as good or bad, the brain records that and moves us towards or away from things based on its programming. We are designed for connection with experiences and other human beings. As such, our brains will seek out connections with people and things we identify as worthy.

The word “worthy” is tricky, though!

The word “worthy” is defined differently by our conscious and subconscious brain. Our conscious brain – the knowing brain that we are aware of inside our head (also known as the ego) – defines worthy as all things good or having value (worth).

However, our subconscious brain places value (worth) on wherever we focus conscious attention.

Our childhood experiences have an enormous impact on what we deem “worthy.”

If you grow up in a home that values wealth, you will subconsciously be attracted to wealth and wealthy people as an adult. The same applies to those who grow up in poverty.

What you live as a child is what your brain is programmed to connect with as an adult.

Thus, if you have a subconscious connection to unhealthy personalities and experiences, these are going to continue to show up in your life – including your professional life – until action is taken to change the instructions in your subconscious.

What is trauma?

There are countless definitions of trauma floating around out there. Everyone from The American Psychological Association to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and everyone in between, have their own definitions of trauma.

Within the Redefining Love Framework, trauma is both the cause and the effect. What I mean by this is, trauma is both the horrifying experience, as well as the brain’s response to that experience.

So, If I were to ask you “What is your trauma?” You could answer: “I was in a terrible car accident.” And you could also answer: “I can’t sleep at night because of the nightmares caused by my car accident.”

In Redefining Love, I use a term I call "trauma brain."

This refers to the brain’s response to adverse experiences that creates a lack or corruption of basic human needs or instincts. Studies show that when we experience a traumatic event, our brain is literally rewired. The way your brain processes information after the trauma is different than it was before the trauma.

In my work, the emphasis is less on the event or experience, and more on the brain’s response to the event or experience. It is useful to know what the traumatic experience is only insofar as it relates to how the brain has processed and stored it. It is only when we understand how our brain has responded to the experience that we are able to begin the healing process.

Same event, different response

Have you ever wondered why two people can experience the same event, and one has a trauma response and the other does not? This occurs because although they had the same experience, they don’t have the same brain. Each individual is unique, and therefore responds differently.

The reason trauma is so deeply damaging is because it denies us our basic human needs, or corrupts our brain’s natural instincts. When this happens, our brain gets muddled, similar to how a robot would blink out if you went inside and starting moving wires around. Trauma prohibits our brain from functioning as our system was designed to function.

Every type of trauma relates to a lack or corruption of one of the following basic needs:

  • Nourishment (food and water)
  • Physical safety (avoid pain and stay alive)
  • Clothing to protect us from the elements
  • Shelter
  • Personal autonomy (free will)
  • Sexuality (instinctual procreation and human connection)
  • Community membership
  • Spirituality (connection with the energy of the universe)

When any of these basic needs or instincts are withheld or corrupted, our brain no longer functions as it was designed.

It’s all relative.

It’s important to note that what constitutes trauma is relative, and different for everyone. The same experience hits each person differently. Something that sticks with one person might not phase someone else. This is based on each individual’s unique inborn temperament and experiences. Just like a fingerprint, no two brains are alike. Therefore, no two people will respond to the same stimuli exactly the same way.

This explains why siblings who grow up in the same house might have entirely different sentiments about their childhood experiences, or why one person walks away from a car accident unscathed, while another – though physically uninjured – is plagued by nightmares.

This is why trauma is so difficult to define. It’s literally different for everyone! This explains why it’s important not to compare ourselves to others. Just because you haven’t experienced one of the big traumas (sometimes called Big ‘T’ trauma) doesn’t mean you aren’t suffering the effects of your negative experiences.

Some of the so-called Little ‘t’ traumas can be just as debilitating. So it’s dangerous to think, “I don’t have it as bad as so-and-so, so I’d better just quit my whining.” Instead, it’s best to get curious about any negative experience that feels stuck in your subconscious. If you’re still thinking about it, it’s probably holding you back from living life to the fullest.

How this shows up in our work life.

You’ve likely heard the old adage that you should never assume you understand what someone else is going through based on outward appearances. Most of us learn how to bury our negative past experiences in order to function in our day-to-day life. But just because we’ve buried it doesn’t mean it’s not there.

It is safe to assume that every single person that you interact with, both professionally and personally, have some measure of trauma that they are trying to balance as they move through life. Regardless of whether it was a Big ‘T’ or Little ‘t,’ we’ve all experienced pain, and the vast majority of us were not taught how to properly process it through and out. In short, we’re all stuck to one degree or another.

Here's an example:

Let’s say you have a colleague named Joe. He’s a tough dude, quiet, straightforward, hard working. Joe is really, really good at his job. Joe is also a perfectionist. He holds others to the same high standards that he holds himself. This makes him unpleasant to work with sometimes.

Joe’s grouchy temperament is off-putting to everyone in the office, but for the receptionist Lucy it’s debilitating. She’s got a soft heart, and she really, really wants to do a good job. Usually she does, but like all of us, sometimes she makes mistakes. And when that happens, she’s in tears before Joe even reaches her desk. In fact, she has been losing sleep at night worrying over Joe’s next reprimand, even when she’s done nothing wrong!

This is a pretty typical office dynamics scenario. Historically, how has this been handled? typically, the rest of the staff reacts in one of three ways:

There’s the people who don’t seem to even notice. That’s between Joe and Lucy, and they’ve got their own stuff to worry about. But even if they aren’t inserting themselves into the middle of the situation, they still stop to watch the show.

There’s the caretaker. This is the person who rushes to Lucy with a box of tissues and an angry scowl every time Joe goes off on one of his rants. These folks vent to their spouse every evening at dinner about that darn Joe. His bad energy is affecting everyone in the office!

And there’s the tough cookies who think Lucy is just a drama queen, and Joe’s not that bad.

In short, there’s drama. And what does drama do? Destroys productivity. If people are stewing over the Joe and Lucy situation, they aren’t working. If they aren’t working, that’s dollars going down the drain for the company.

What we don’t know about Joe and Lucy…

What we don’t realize is that Joe grew up with a very strict and demanding father. He was expected to do everything perfectly the first time. If he asked questions, he was called stupid. Joe graduated top of his class, went to college on a sports scholarship, married his college sweetheart, had two beautiful children, and has a successful career.

And yet, his dad still only speaks to him if he has something negative to say. Joe cannot remember his dad ever being proud of him, or even saying “I love you.” It may seem like Joe has it all, and he’s just a giant jerk. But underneath that gruff exterior is a lonely little boy desperate to please an unloving parent, severely damaging his sense of community membership, which is one of the eight basic needs.

And Lucy! Poor Lucy is in an abusive marriage. She goes home every night exhausted from a full-time job, receives no help from her husband with the kids, and hides in the bathroom just to escape the constant barrage of criticism from her husband, who is drunk (again!).

Lucy is accustomed to tiptoeing through her house, trying to make everything just right, knowing that her husband is just looking for an excuse to blow up. She feels helpless, lonely, and inadequate. She goes to work with tears already brimming in her eyes. When Joe yells at her, it pushes her straight over the edge.

Lucy’s abusive marriage robs her of her physical safety, personal autonomy, and community membership, three basic needs that, when denied, create a trauma-response in the brain.

Trauma Drama is expensive

Now that you know Joe and Lucy’s backstory, it probably makes more sense why they act the way they do at work. Consider how much drama the trauma of these two individuals generates in the office. A lot, right? Now multiply that by the amount of people on the planet, roughly 7.9 billion. Now that’s a lot of drama. Or, as I like to call it, Trauma Drama.

The mission of Redefining Love is to heal our culture by healing our trauma, one individual at a time. It’s overwhelming to solve all of the world’s problems. But if enough of us worked on solving our own trauma, and supported those closest to us to resolve their trauma, we’d begin to see a dramatic cultural shift.

When employers commit to supporting their employees with mental healthcare, they are not only resolving their own systemic issues within the company (saving them countless dollars on diminished productivity and paid leave), but they are doing their part to resolve systemic issues worldwide.

Want to learn more about how trauma affects the brain?

Check out my 90-minute online course that provides practical, relatable, science-based information that you can begin applying to your life right now. The course includes optional printed workbooks with each module, and modules can be paused at any time, so you can take the course at your own pace. Each 15-20 minute module contains powerful information in short, manageable segments.

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