Trauma At Work

How Does Trauma Happen?

A few years ago, if you asked me about trauma in the workplace, I would have thought of a major incident akin to the planes crashing into the Twin Towers or a disgruntled employee opening fire on colleagues.  Fortunately for all of us, these major types of traumatic events in the workplace are rare.   More often, trauma is caused by working in a persistently toxic work environment.  This type of toxicity is costly to the individual as well as the organization.

Unfortunately, I worked in a toxic work environment for the past two to three years.  It wasn’t always toxic.  In fact, it was one of the best places I had ever worked until management at three levels changed in rapid succession.  When circumstances afforded me the opportunity, I finally left the organization.  The choice came with an enormous amount of guilt – guilt that I was leaving the patients that meant so much to me, but even more was the guilt for the work-family that I left behind.    I had spent the past two years fighting for my team at a cost to me professionally as well as mentally and emotionally.  By the time I left the organization, I was damaged and truly felt like a failure.  I was unable to successfully lead my team through some very difficult times and, after twenty years of service, felt like I had been dishonorably discharged without actually being fired.  Feeling completely defeated and like I had let my work family down, I walked away.

There were many factors that contributed to the hell that I called work.  First and foremost was the lack of leadership at the managerial level.  Bullying behavior was not only supported but encouraged by the management.  This created a work floor with snitches that were more than happy to report any infraction, regardless of how small, to the manager.  She then took great pleasure in belittling staff, yelling, threatening, and emulating basic bullying behavior.  Bullying alone can contribute to a toxic environment, but when coupled with narcissistic, manipulative, and condescending management, workplace trauma is guaranteed.

Cost to the Organization

The trend in recent years is organizations asking more from their staff with fewer resources.  While organizations may feel this increases productivity, it actually increases stress among the team, causing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and social isolation leading to an increase in sick leave.   In fact, it’s estimated that 60% of sick leave is due to stress-related illnesses, in turn, having a significant impact on the bottom line.  A study in Canada showed that unaddressed mental illness in the workplace costs businesses more than $50 billion in lost productivity each year.  Interestingly, a third of managers have no formal support or resources to support their employees.

Eventually, as in my case, when employees are given the opportunity, they will leave the toxicity.  Staff turnover is challenging, but it is also incredibly expensive.  For every employee that leaves, someone new must be recruited and trained to fill the position, not to mention the lost productivity during the transition period.  The cost of one employee leaving an organization is upwards of $20,000.

Cost to the Employee

Repeated exposure to a toxic work environment can cause a variety of issues.  According to clinical psychologist Dr. L. Michael Tompkins, bullying in the workplace can be emotional abuse and can cause the symptoms and/or diagnosis of PTSD.  Employees can experience a loss of problem solving ability , may be poor at making rational decisions, and may take risks that they normally wouldn’t and consider it normal behavior.  Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to hear of suicide as a result of repeated exposure to a toxic work environment – the ultimate cost to the employee.

So Now What?

When CBC News published an article in November 2019, “Workplace Mental Health Programs Deliver Healthier Bottom Lines”, all I could think was ‘no kidding’.  We know that for every dollar spent on mental health in the workplace, the return is $1.62.  This makes great business sense.  But having worked in Primary Health Care for nearly fifteen years, my mind tends to focus on prevention.  How can we create environments at work that minimize the stress that creates the anxiety and depression that so many employees face?

Relationships Matter

A key to a healthy workplace is the relationships that are developed among colleagues and with management.  If an employee is absent, a caring, empathetic manager should reach out to see how they are doing, if they can support them in any way and to provide them the opportunity to remain an integral part of the team while they are off, if they are physically and mentally able to.   Employees are the most critical asset that a business has and as such, need to be cared for.  Developing relationships with employees should remain a priority.


Management must have the basic skills to lead their people.  They need to be trained to identify and manage trauma among their staff.  The key to mental support begins with transparent and supportive relationships between the manager and the staff.   This helps management with early identification of mental and stress-related difficulties.  Organizations need to invest in the mental health of their staff, going beyond the basic employee assistance programs.  Considering that we spend the majority of our day at work, it’s essential that everyone has a safe environment to work in.  Organizations should encourage the development of relationships between staff and encourage what I call the “work family”.  This allows for more support and increased resilience to stress.  Encouraging self-care such as ensuring break times, adequate lunch breaks, encouraging physical activity, and stress management are all ways the employer can help build on an individual’s resilience.  Empowering employees to develop and grow as individuals and as professionals only strengthens this resilience.

Organizations that invest in their employees and foster an environment that is safe, supportive, and encourages resiliency will find that the payoff is far greater than the investment.  Happy, resilient employees are more productive and will give 100% knowing that the organization has their back.

Lion Pride

How To Be A Great Leader

Have you always wanted to know how to become a great leader? For many years people assumed that effective leaders were born with certain traits. Therefore, the majority of research focused on trying to answer the question “what is an effective leader”? Maybe it was height, physical strength, or perhaps dominance or intelligence. Researchers like Stogdill (1974) and Lord a.o. (1986) demonstrated conflicting outcomes proving that there was no such thing as a shared set of traits as a predictive factor for effective leadership. Researchers then started to focus on the leader’s behavior, showing what they did became more important than who they were. I can already hear you “here’s hoping” because that means that anyone can learn how to become a good leader.

That, in fact, is very true! If you look at the underlying meaning of the word in a dictionary, it means “a person who leads”. There are so many types of leadership. And the basic foundation of leadership is the ability to influence. But what makes a leader a great leader? Throughout the years, many leadership styles have been reviewed. Let’s go through some of the most important ones before I come to the secret of great leadership.

Effective Leadership

Models that try to define leadership focus on the leader’s behavior. Researchers approach leadership by task focused, and person / relationship focused activities. Blake and Mouton’s Managerial Grid (Blake and Mouton, 1964) is one of the many models that can be used to define types of leadership and what’s most effective, including that “a participating way of leadership is the most effective.” But what does that mean? It means that an effective leader should be able to:

  • delegate decisions
  • give employees a chance to develop
  • communicate accurately with all people in the organization.

Situational Leadership

Let’s say a participating style is the best way to lead your employees. Would you be able to handle any situation holding on to just that style? I think the answer to that is no! Every situation is different. What does your team look like, how are the dynamics in it, what’s your relationship with your team, what’s the environment, what’s the task, and who are you as a person? Those are just a number of the essential factors that can have a significant influence on the effectiveness of a leadership style. Leadership seems to be precision work.

The model for situational leadership (Hersey & Blanchard, 1992) suggests that the best leaders need to be flexible in the style they choose, adapting to the stage of maturity of their staff members. Task maturity is very much a matter of wanting and being able to, in which confidence is an essential factor. To make situational leadership a success, leaders really need to know their staff members and how they work under a variety of circumstances and what they need to get the job done.

Charismatic Leadership

The most modern approach to leadership is the one focusing on the emotional effects of leadership behavior and the appreciation of staff members. Leaders need to share their vision and motivate their employees passionately, making sure they truly feel connected with the organization and its targets. Those that reach this state of leadership are referred to as charismatic leaders, a catching conclusion defined by Bloemers and Hagendoorn (2006).

Great Leadership

Becoming a great leader is very much about who you are and, more importantly, about who you want to be!  Great leadership means giving your very best in every situation and having an eye for individual needs and achievements in your team under all circumstances! Although to remain successful, you, at times, have to be hard and make decisions that won’t be easy and that affect your team. You can still do it with respect and empathy. Empathy is one of the essential skills to possess as a leader. It’s not just a matter of being cold or warm; it is the ability to understand another person’s experience, perspective, and feelings.

If I have to be honest, aside from the great enthusiasm, doing my work with empathy brings me closest to my definition of great leadership. What’s your secret to great leadership?