The majority of my education and training in pastoral counseling focused on major issues within the family system and systemic oppression. Cycles of abuse, neglect, childhood formation, gender roles, physical trauma, and so many other GIGANTIC issues that impact our psyche and leave us spending most of our adulthood either perpetuating these dysfunctions, rebounding through various techniques, or simply sweeping them under the rug to emerge at the least convenient time.
Something that was not discussed, work trauma.
Trauma is defined as an experience that produces psychological injury or pain.
For way too many, home is the main source of stress and heartache. But for a few, going to work brings a level of anxiety or a sense of dread when you realize the majority of your week will be spent dealing with an unhealthy boss or co-worker.
Work is a space where we are obligated to deal with others. Our time at work is connected to our welfare, and if we are lucky, our purpose, our talents, and our passion. It’s a sector of our daily lives that we need in order to pay our bills, unlike our family or friendships. If that daily experience is full of drama, backstabbing, manipulation, out of nowhere reprimands, or where we are treated poorly, it can mess with you.
In the last church I served I had this habit. Every time I would be called into my boss’s office I would get this sick feeling. My boss would say, “Why do you look like that every time I ask you to come in here?” referencing my bug eyed panicked expression. I can count on one hand the number of times over my twelve years there that I was actually reprimanded, but still, I flinched every time. I didn’t correlate it at first, but thinking back, my previous job rarely saw me in the “boss’s office”. The few times it did, it was not good. Someone was upset with me for something. Not to mention lots of “secret meetings” where I would later learn I was discussed in not so friendly terms. Which is why I can still panic if I’m called in after someone else has a “closed door” meeting, even logically knowing it most likely has nothing to do with me.
People develop work coping strategies – ways to avoid conflict. Based on previous experience with teammates or managers, we make assumptions that shape how we interact with coworkers or respond to feedback. Maybe we had a season where we blindly followed a charismatic leader that took advantage of us. Or perhaps we’ve been betrayed by a work friend, or openly gossiped about around the office. We develop responses, often allowing those responses to go unchecked. The result is a transplanting of our work hurt and insecurities from office to office.
When I work with someone new there is often a moment when I ask about a particular reaction, and through conversation, I hear a story about a previous job interaction that left a scar on how they now manage their relationships. I would imagine everyone reading this has at least one story of a serious difficulty with a co-worker or boss, and I would bet that for at least a few, that story continues to impact how you work today.
Have you experienced work trauma?
Any trauma, on any level, leaves a residue. Healing begins with a willingness to be attentive to that left-over ick from that last situation. Maturity evolves from an ability to notice changes we need to make in how we engage at work. Just pay attention to how you are working at work. Could there be some responses today that are actually more rooted in a previous scenario?