Ending Soon! Save 33% on All Access

Many of Your Employees Are Probably Healing From Past Workplace Trauma. Here's How You Can Help Empower Them. There is no magic way of healing people of their preexisting workplace trauma — but leaders can (and should want to) help.

By Daniel Todd Edited by Kara McIntyre

Key Takeaways

  • Toxic workplace environments can cause trauma, leading to fear, insecurity and diminished effectiveness among employees.
  • Leaders and managers have a crucial role in creating a positive work culture by aligning their actions with company values and fostering trust through consistent behavior.
  • Regular check-ins, authentic recognition and emotional safety all support healing from past traumas and lead to stronger, more committed teams.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

"Are you stupid?"

The words are harsh, even to look at. I could never imagine saying them to a member of my team.

Yet, when I set out to write this article and asked everyone in my company to talk about workplace trauma, these were among their experiences: CEOs calling people stupid in a meeting; managers blowing up over small mistakes or lying about a promotion; feeling stressed and being yelled at every single day. Fifteen percent of my employees were willing to share their stories. Some were hard to believe.

Most surprising was how prevalent workplace trauma is. Not big "T" trauma that results from dangerous or criminal behavior, but rather "little t" trauma that still causes serious harm, but results from poor leadership. Toxic work environments leave people feeling unworthy, incompetent and unhappy, diminishing their potential contribution to a company. While it does take individual responsibility to work through trauma from one job to the next, leaders and managers can and should want to help empower them to heal.

Related: How Managers Can Dismantle Workplace Trauma

The horror stories

Trust is easy to lose and harder to gain, but a history with toxic leaders can make that even worse. At every traumatic workplace, my employees reported hearing the same messages: "We're transparent," "a family" and "We trust you to do your work." Then, the inconsistencies began. One described a former manager, who spread negative gossip and was hypercritical of even the smallest mistakes, as leaving her with PTSD. One called his particularly condescending former manager a "nonviolent psychopath."

Even after leaving a toxic company, employees risk carrying that trauma to their next workplace. They may read articles on spotting a healthy culture, even join a new team, hopeful, but any signs of toxic behavior and they quickly lose that optimism. Many stay, feeling trapped without options or economic stability, but the more time spent in these toxic work environments, the deeper they instill fear and insecurity. Without healing, people carry that trauma with them, reducing the potential value they might contribute or desire to contribute to any future company.

The impact of leaders

Leadership behavior sets the tone for the entire organization. In my 30-year career, I have never yelled because yelling would be incongruent with my expressed beliefs that mistakes are opportunities for growth and continuous improvement. When words and actions are inconsistent, an employee who experienced trauma will be quicker to lose all trust in that company's leadership.

While the vision and actions of senior leadership lay the foundation for a supportive workplace culture, daily experiences with direct management and coworkers have the greatest impact. As a CEO, I can equip managers with the tools they need to build trusting relationships and empower them to support healing, so we hired someone to package the insights and skills of our top-performing managers into a training program. By training them in effective communication, recognizing trauma and fostering an emotionally safe environment, leaders can help managers mitigate the effects of past traumas on the rest of the workplace.

Related: Why Trauma Integration Will Give You a Competitive Advantage in Leadership

Rebuild with consistency

To rebuild trust after a traumatic experience, consistency is key. Leaders and managers need to do more than talk about emotional intelligence and living company values — they need to visibly and consistently demonstrate actions that measure up with those words over time. One team member remarked how surprised he was that the CEO would email him to recognize his efforts only days after joining the team, but even more so that every ongoing experience with leadership since has aligned with that behavior.

Start working to rebuild trust from day one. One person commented on the authenticity and transparency he felt in having his first interview with the CEO and how, after over nearly four years with us, that has continued. Most of my employees recalled smaller, day-to-day events making the biggest difference — supportive emails, free movie tickets and flexibility to handle last-minute emergencies. They also mentioned opportunities for team bonding over non-work topics, like our Vegas trip and book club, as helpful in releasing trauma by calming concerns that coworkers might cause similar problems.

Plan, assess and improve

There is no magic way to heal people of their preexisting trauma, but regular check-ins are the best way to help. It can be uncomfortable speaking about toxic experiences, but one-on-one, managers can more easily draw out, identify and help resolve individual workplace challenges. Create a standardized process to ensure consistent experiences and leverage technology platforms to facilitate scheduling and clear communication.

HR can be valuable in supporting these check-ins: taking in employee feedback, assisting managers or participating themselves. When we hired an HR leader, she took over regular one-on-ones and her open-ended questions were incredibly successful in unearthing past workplace trauma. Her ability to make people feel comfortable garnered valuable feedback, which has built stronger relationships and done so much good for the company.

When check-ins are successful, recognize and reward the efforts behind that success. One employee described the profound impact of a simple "thank you" on his trust in leadership and organizational commitment. By exemplifying and sharing stories of successful check-ins, leaders encourage an environment of supportive manager-employee interactions.

Related: Career Trauma Is a Real Thing. Here's How to Recognize and Recover From It.

Our positive results

At a social event in February, we invited everyone to send their coworkers Valentines expressing how special it was to work together. The next day, we received the messages others sent us and a second wave of positive feelings. Then, people took to social media and deepened the impact: "Amazing to wake up and read all the love from our Influence Mobile family. Thank you for encouraging such an enjoyable and positive workplace environment." That single spark of positivity became contagious.

No one can heal someone else's trauma, but leaders can do a lot to facilitate their healing journey. By fostering a culture of consistency and support between employees, managers and coworkers, we can build a work environment where people overcome past workplace trauma.

Daniel Todd

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

Founder and CEO of Influence Mobile

Daniel Todd is the founder and CEO of Influence Mobile. He is credited with creating a corporate culture that repeatedly won Washington CEO’s and the Puget Sound Business Journal’s “Best Places to Work” awards.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

Business News

TikTok Reportedly Laid Off a 'Large Percentage' of Employees as the App's Fate in the U.S. Remains Unclear

Laid-off TikTok employees were notified Wednesday night through Thursday morning.

Personal Finance

This Investment Bundle Includes a Trading Course and Stock Screener Tool for $150

Approach the stock market with an increased understanding.

Business News

Four Seasons Orlando Responds to Viral TikTok: 'There's Something Here For All Ages'

The video has amassed over 45.4 million views on TikTok.

Growing a Business

5 Strategies to Know As You Scale Your Business

Scaling a service-based company requires a comprehensive approach that goes beyond simply increasing revenue. It requires careful planning, strategic decision-making and a deep understanding of market dynamics.

Growing a Business

The Right Way to Ask Someone for a Million Dollars, According to a Fundraiser Who Does It For a Living

No matter what you're raising money for, Wanda Urbanskia says, the same basic rules apply.