Workplace norms and expectations often lead to poor mental health among employees, and there is a growing realization that this has very real consequences for employers. Despite this, according to Gallup’s most recent polling, four out of 10 U.S. workers report that their job has a negative impact on their mental health.
The Root Cause May Be Trauma
Trauma is something we all have, and it is often unacknowledged. It is estimated that six in 10 men and five in 10 women have experienced at least one major trauma, but even these numbers are likely to be low — and I think we all know that women are more likely to experience trauma, but less likely to report it. About 6% of us will experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some point in our lives, and that number is also incredibly low given societal stigma.
There is a perception that trauma is experienced only by people who have had extremely negative life experiences, such as being in a war zone or being abused as a child (“big T trauma”). But trauma doesn’t just arise from things like domestic or sexual violence, it can come from our experience of economic uncertainty, political division, or being on the receiving end of racism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-semitism, etc. Furthermore, the pandemic inflicted some degree of trauma on almost every single one of us.
The truth is that trauma is part of the landscape we all inhabit. Unacknowledged trauma shades our interactions—and leadership is far from immune.
How Trauma Appears in Toxic Workplace Norms
Unacknowledged trauma can lead to toxic workplace norms. How many of the following can you identify within your organization?
- Pressure to avoid absenteeism even if it would be healthier to stay home
- Microaggressions and harassment such as sexist and racist jokes
- Yelling and other expressions of anger, punishing employees
- Micromanagement and other signs of lack of trust
- Lack of recognition for good performance
- Leaders being dismissive of employee concerns and presenting a “show must go on” attitude
- Leaders working extremely long hours, which puts pressure on employees to “keep up” even if they are verbally told otherwise
- Rigid schedules and extreme pressure to avoid tardiness
- Lack of eye contact during interviews and meetings (which might be a sign of past abuse)
When workplace culture is shaped in these ways, it can create even further trauma for employees. For example, pressure to avoid absenteeism can lead to workers forcing themselves to show up after a major negative life event when what they really need is time off—which just compounds the trauma they’re experiencing.
The Economic Cost of Toxic Norms
In 2019, prior to the pandemic, poor health amongst employees cost companies $575 billion. Presenteeism—when employees come into work sick, pass germs to others, and/or perform poorly—is estimated to cost about $150 billion a year in lost productivity (not to mention dangerous for immunocompromised colleagues). Employees who have poor mental health take four times as many sick days.
Another major cost is that employees who feel their job negatively impacts their mental health are much more likely to leave. In 2019, before the “Great Resignation,” voluntary turnover cost U.S. businesses a trillion dollars. The cost of hiring a replacement can range from one half to two times the employee’s annual salary. While some turnover is unavoidable, anything you can do that supports employee retention is beneficial.
What Companies Can Do to Challenge These Norms
First, acknowledge that many of the things we’ve come to expect in workplace culture are, in fact, not healthy norms. For example, the typical expectation that everyone needs to work 9 to 5, five days a week can be harmful. For someone with kids in high school, it may be better for them to work 7 to 3 so they are on the same “shift” as their children and can spend more time with them. While some jobs do require that people show up on time and work set hours, this is not truly necessary for the typical modern office job.
Here are some things to consider about how trauma-informed organizations operate:
- Acknowledge what employees might be going through. For example, if an employee experiences a death in the family, a simple acknowledgment, a condolences card, can go a long way. Ensure that they have proper coverage so they can attend the funeral, travel if needed, and take bereavement time.
- Build a culture where people aren’t afraid to say they aren’t feeling 100%. Make sure people are not afraid to ask for help if they need it, and make sure they get the help they ask for, not what a third party thinks they need. Some people might need time off. Some people might actually need to keep working, as it provides a distraction. Some people might need to go cry in the break room, and this should not be considered shameful.
- Provide mental health resources and encourage their use. If the CEO is in therapy and willing to admit it, other employees who need it will be much more likely to do so.
- Provide frequent, reliable communication, especially during a crisis. Much of the high turnover during the pandemic was caused by confusion and lack of clear communication about office shutdowns and reopening. Organizational transparency greatly increases trust.
- Have a solid policy on harassment and bullying — and hold everyone accountable.
- Increase diversity in your leadership. Don’t tolerate racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia or transphobia.
- Take action to promote and hire leaders who are not straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied men.
- Have an actionable plan of support for when an employee is going through a particularly awful crisis, such as leaving an abusive partner.
- Provide training in trauma-informed techniques to employees, especially those in customer service. Your clients have trauma too.
Understanding trauma can help you build a workplace that avoids toxic norms, which include not talking openly about your issues at work. Showing vulnerability as a leader, and providing real support to employees (and even customers) might seem unconventional, but it reduces turnover, improves productivity, is good for your company’s bottom line—and creates a healthier environment for everyone.