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How to Spot a Traumatized Coworker

How to Spot a Traumatized Coworker

by Mark Goulston
author of Trauma to Triumph

Trauma is different from stress. While stress upsets our balance in the moment, we still maintain a feeling of control over our lives. Most of us deal with routine stress daily and are able to manage it (up to a point, anyway).

Trauma, on the other hand, overwhelms our self-protective structure and sends us scrambling for survival. It leaves us vulnerable, helpless, groundless. It shatters our sense of safety and security and changes how we look at the world. And unaddressed, it can result in long-term harm.

In these times, it's very important for employees to recognize a traumatized coworker so the organization can give the person the support they need.

people greeting each other with elbows because of virus

Trauma impacts individuals and organizations  

In a very real way, we’re all struggling with “collective” trauma brought on by COVID-19.

The pandemic has wreaked havoc on both individuals and on our nation as a whole. Millions of people have become infected or have had loved ones get sick or die. Some have lost their jobs, some their businesses. Almost all of us have lost our previous feelings of freedom to travel and to engage with others.

For nearly everyone, the pandemic has and will continue to disrupt our lives.

Of course, organizations have been impacted—some more severely than others.

Almost every day, we are in contact with leaders whose organizations continue to deal with the traumatic fallout. Overnight, these leaders faced chaos and confusion, as they found themselves in survival mode with little concrete information, struggling to react swiftly and decisively to ensure the safety of employees, coordinate response plans, and effectively communicate with their workforce.

You can’t always see trauma

The effects of trauma aren’t always visible.

While it’s possible for a person struggling with trauma to shake, sweat, cry, appear terrified, or show other outward signs, it’s also common for them to look and behave the same as anyone else—especially when they have their “game faces” on for work.

This does not mean that they are not suffering or that trauma will not break through later.

What’s more, when traumatized people do “act out” in various ways, leaders rarely recognize their behavior for what it is. To a leader, an employee struggling with ongoing traumatic stress may simply come off as angry or hostile or distant.

Also leaders who feel out of their area of competence to handle the internal emotions of an employee may indirectly encourage a “don’t ask, don’t tell” atmosphere, that can increase the level of trauma that individual is feeling.

The truth is, many remain in the grip of fear.

They unconsciously or consciously may believe that whatever comes next will kill them. The employees’ behaviors (especially if they’re markedly different—negative and positive changes—from how they normally act) may be a manifestation of trauma.

professional woman holding her head between her hands

Signs of a Traumatized Coworker

Here are some red flags that individuals in your organization might be suffering from trauma:

  • People cling to their “Competence Zone.” They may rigidly cling to what has worked for them in the past. “This is where I’m competent. This is where I’m confident. This is where I feel in control.” They may blindly keep doing what they’ve always done, even though it no longer works—or even though their skillset is in less demand than it used to be, due to the pace of change around them.

  • When asked to change, they dig in and resist. This is the fast track to becoming dysfunctional. Instead of taking a step back, assessing what needs to change, and adapting to the new situation, traumatized people may double down and put up strong walls of resistance. Instead of feeling excited about learning a new way to do things, they cling to their way. Instead of finding ways to leverage their wisdom, or finding new ways to add value, they are unable to pivot or reinvent themselves. Eventually, they can become dysfunctional to the needs of the situation.

  • They seem angry, aggressive, or “difficult” in other ways. Employees may be disagreeable and contrary (or more so than previously). They may give you unexplained pushback or develop a negative attitude in place of their usual optimism and tenacity. They may have angry outbursts. They may become increasingly unpleasant to work with. Unfortunately, many times this behavior pushes others away when they are most needed for support.

  • They resort to self-destructive behaviors to relieve distress. People who have been traumatized may develop an exaggerated stress response. This occurs when the stress they’re feeling crosses over into distress. In the face of stress people can still (with difficulty) get back on track moving toward their goals. With distress the new and highest priority goal becomes finding a way to relieve it. People may resort to excess drinking, eating, avoidance behaviors, overworking, etc., to numb or mask their pain. These behaviors can be counterproductive methods to cope and can be a slippery slope if they become habits or addictions.

  • They insist they are “fine” or go uncharacteristically silent. Trauma-induced behaviors don’t always show up as negatives. Yet when people refuse to acknowledge they are impacted at all, especially when others are clearly struggling, it’s often a sign that they’re masking their pain. An interesting observation about people is that when you ask them how they’re doing and they reply, “Great,” they’re usually good. However, when they reply, “Fine,” they very well might not be.

  • Leaders behave in un-leaderly ways. Remember, these red flags signifying trauma don’t just appear in employees. Leaders are just as susceptible to traumatic impact as employees. For example, a leader might seem paralyzed and abdicate responsibility—hiding out in their office and not doing what they need to do to lead the company out of trouble. On the other hand, they might overreact and make rash, knee-jerk decisions even though they were previously known for level headed steadiness.

Do your part to help heal your organization

Now you know some of the main ways that trauma shows up in individuals in the workplace. Be on the lookout for them. Recognizing these signs and symptoms is the first step in guiding employees and your fellow leaders through crises of all kinds and ultimately help the organization heal.

Want to read more? Get the book!

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Dr. Mark Goulston

Mark Goulston, MD, FAPA is a board-certified psychiatrist, fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, former assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA NPI, and a former FBI and police hostage negotiation trainer. He is the creator of Theory Y Executive Coaching—which he provides to CEOs, presidents, founders, and entrepreneurs—and is a TEDx and international keynote speaker.

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