Rethinking the Traumatizing Workplace

Rethinking the Traumatizing Workplace

A number of letters to the New York Times Work Friend Advice Column understandably focus on how difficult the workplace can be for many people. Over the past year, however, people began reporting that their workplace is traumatizing. 

Recently, one person reported being meaningfully bothered by her new boss’ desire that have some social get togethers after work.  Another person complained about not wanting to look at pictures of a colleague’s new baby because she thought the baby was ugly. This was really stressing her out.


It may be helpful to clarify what is and what is not traumatizing. Webster defines trauma as “a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress.”

The workplace can be traumatizing.   Working for a boss who verbally demeans us or engages in racial or sexual harassment is beyond the norms of the workplace and civil culture and can inflict psychological distress.   The trauma threshold is not reached if one is asked to come to work for 3 days a week or that some overtime is needed to complete a project.  These may be inconveniences for us, but they are probably not traumatic.

Social media and news outlets provide “content warnings,” when a disturbing story is coming up. When we see the coverage of destruction in Ukraine or the violence on the streets of Memphis and other cities in the US, these images are upsetting to us but unless we ourselves experienced these kinds of events, they are probably not traumatizing.

What may be happening in these workplace situations describe above is what the psychologist, Martin Seligman refers to as “learned helplessness”.  In these situations, people assume they have no options to remedy a situation and resign themselves to just accepting the condition and learn to essentially give up, which creates a cascade of negative thoughts and experiences. This spiral can lead to a sense of trauma, although in these cases, we are probably self-defining them.

When I was laid off 13 years ago, I was highly distressed and worried and given that they elimination of my position came out of the blue, I probably could have been traumatized. A friend of mine walked me through my career and reminded me that whenever I faced a challenge, it was resolved and almost always for the better. For me, the remedy was not to let this situation define any future success.

We’ve all had traumatic experiences in our lives. The loss of a loved one, a bad auto accident or being a victim of a crime. These are difficult experiences, and yet we recover from these events in large measure due to our resilience.

Pain and difficulty are inevitable, we don’t have to make it worse by creating trauma where it does not exist. Suffering is optional.

© Richard Citrin 2023

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