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

Toxic workplaces are harming the health and mental well-being of many workers. In recent years, more people have spoken out about these dangers -- inspiring hope that we might finally be able to make a difference for those who suffer from workplace trauma every day.

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By Elizabeth Pearson • Oct 1, 2021

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Layoff announcements and workplace violence top list of most stressful events facing U.S. employees, yet fewer than half of employers provide support following traumatic workplace events.

And when a career trauma does happen, it can be difficult to recover from.

Two-thirds of employees (67%) responded that counseling or emotional support from their employer following a traumatic workplace event is something they would consider valuable in the wake of tragedy. But less than half reported experiencing such an experience themselves, with 53 percent working Americans saying it's happened to them at some point while on the job — yet just 46% were given any type of assistance by employers during this trying time for themselves and those close around them as well.

Related: The Hidden Trauma of Overachievement

This article explores how to recognize and recover from a career trauma so that you can get back on your feet again.

What is career trauma?

Although some joke about being "scarred" by past bad jobs, workplace-induced emotional trauma is real — with long-lasting effects.

Career trauma is an "injury" that occurs when an individual experiences a traumatic event in the workplace such as harassment, bullying or being passed over for promotion. Career trauma can even happen without any direct incident if your job doesn't provide you with enough of what you need from it, like money, security, fulfillment or support.

The problem starts when we don't recognize this injury and instead try to ignore the symptoms by distancing ourselves from our emotions and thoughts about what happened.

Related: The Top 5 Regrets of Mid-Career Professionals

What are some common symptoms?

The signs and symptoms may be physical, mental and emotional. Some common signs of mental trauma include:

  • Feeling numb
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Inability to maintain a regular routine
  • Feeling constant pressure to overwork
  • Digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Anxiety, panic attacks and depression
  • Relationship issues such as withdrawal from friends or family
  • Unprompted bursts of anger or aggression

These symptoms can lead to hallucinations as well as more extreme forms like depression or anxiety disorders.

Over time, a number of physical ailments that might not otherwise exist in someone will start manifesting themselves.

How to recover from a career trauma

I know how hard it is to recover from career trauma or burnout. I've experienced both, and it's not easy. But there are some things you can do that will help you get back on your feet.

Related: 4 Actions to Help You Recover From a Crushed Dream

Prioritize yourself

Take urgent action to support your self-care.

  • Make sure there's enough downtime between work obligations.
  • Go out in nature. Go for a walk outside in the daylight with no electronics as soon as possible.
  • Eat. Take a lunch break away from your computer and desk.
  • Carve out time to spend doing something that brings you joy.
  • Take an honest assessment of how much sleep you're getting nightly. If it's less than six to eight hours, it's not enough.

Identify what's triggering the trauma

If you have a career crisis, it's helpful to pinpoint the root of what's causing it.

A recent poll asked respondents to rank the workplace events that caused the most trauma, stress and anxiety. The top four are as follows:

  • Employer announcing layoffs/job losses (28 percent)
  • Workplace violence/criminal activity in the community (25 percent)
  • Death of a colleague (19 percent)
  • Natural disaster impacting the workplace (14 percent)

Women and men think about different things when they are at work. Women worry about violence and criminal activity. Men worry about the death of a coworker. Younger workers worry more about layoffs or job losses than other people do.

Set boundaries and disconnect

Rest and recharge by disconnecting from technology when at home or work.

  • Set limits on screen use during evenings and weekends. If you can't trust yourself to disconnect, maybe a lockbox for your phone is the answer.
  • Take regular breaks throughout the day.
  • Listen to relaxing music while working, especially instrumental.
  • Strive to meditate or chant for at least 10 minutes every day.

Consider taking time off

An increasing number of people know how damaging job environments can cause physical pain, as well as emotional distress like anxiety or panic attacks. Sometimes the best option (if it's financially feasible) is to take time off work. Consider taking a sabbatical or extended leave, or maybe just use the vacation time you've been earning.

Keep the faith

Change is on the horizon. Toxic work environments have been a growing problem for years, but now there's finally talk of changing the culture. A recent study found that while workplace-induced trauma may be alarmingly present in many businesses today; an increasing number of people recognize its damage and are becoming more vocal about it — which could mean hope on the horizon as well.

Related: Trauma-Informed Workplaces Are the New Normal

Elizabeth Pearson

Founder- Elizabeth Pearson Executive Coaching

When Elizabeth Pearson's 15-year career in corporate sales left her unfulfilled and depleted, she decided to bet on herself and start a business. Now, as an executive career coach, she spends her days helping powerhouse women get "unstuck" and rise both spiritually and professionally.

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