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Part 4: Behavior on the job

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Bringing Trauma to Work FINAL
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Prefer to listen? Check out our podcast of Part 4 here.

Rosetta was shot during a robbery in a shopping center’s parking garage. After emergency surgery and rehab, she was okay to go back to work.

Or so she thought.

The first day she drove back to her office, she was about to pull into a parking structure -- and froze. She couldn’t drive in… and didn’t show up for work.


William works on an assembly line at packaging plant. As a child, he watched in fear as arguments between his father and mother turned violent.

So when two co-workers nearby began raising their voices at each other … he fled the building.


Robert’s stepfather bullied him – yelling, calling him names, insulting him in front of others.

So when his supervisor gave him advice on how to improve his performance, Robert felt attacked, ridiculed … and quit.


A history of trauma can make it challenging for employees to behave in a “normal” manner at work.

“We want them to be orderly, coming from chaos,” says therapist Mark Fossie, MS, MBA of WestCare, who works with trauma survivors.

One of the largest studies conducted on childhood abuse and neglect showed “strong evidence” tying Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) to poor performance at work later in life.

The effect of trauma – whether experienced as a child or adult -- can be at the root of why employees are often absent, appear to be more angry, anxious, withdrawn, disengaged, distracted, or unproductive.


As we explained in Part 3, people who have been traumatized often live on “high alert” -- a hair trigger away from a fight, flight or freeze response.

CJ Jackson works with trauma survivors at JobsWork MKE.

“When you live in a chaotic world, that’s what you always prepare for. So like you’re up here, at 10," she says, raising her hand above her head. "Most of everyone else is operating around six. And so, your perception is different.”

Something that reminds the employee of their trauma – even a color or smell -- can trigger the emergency response.

Michael Adams is president of JobsWork MKE.

"They’re there, literally there, in their mind, in their whole body ..."

Michael Adams

JobsWork MKE

Obviously, this is challenging for employers. But if you know the signs – how trauma “shows up” on the job – you can help employees work through it. When they’re more productive, so is your business.

Here are some common ways behavior can show up at work.


An employee in an emergency state “will think, learn, feel, and behave differently compared to when they feel safe,” says trauma expert Bruce D. Perry, MD, PhD, in the book "What Happened to You?" which he co-authored with Oprah Winfrey.

They’re more likely to act before thinking – and appear to “overreact” to a trigger that might not bother other workers.

Example: what seems like a harmless tap on the shoulder could cause an intense reaction. So explains Tim Grove of Wellpoint Care Network.

"... that basically renders me unable to complete my job ..."

Tim Grove Wellpoint Care Network


At times it will appear the employee isn’t focused, isn’t listening, or doesn’t care about what you’re saying.

Employees are so preoccupied with survival “it’s hard to focus on anything else,” says Grove.

“They might almost seem like they have trouble paying attention to things," says Terri deRoon-Cassini, MS, PhD, of the Medical College of Wisconsin, "or you feel like you have to repeat things to them in order for them to really encode the information and store the information being told to them.”

“It used to be we thought those individuals were not focused," says Adams of JobsWork MKE. "We thought individuals were not ‘all in.’ But now we recognize the trauma is the culprit.”


Trauma can disrupt a person’s ability to form and maintain relationships. They might have trouble trusting others. So the employee might not be comfortable interacting with coworkers or working in a group.

“It could show up as individuals maybe being perceived as though they're not a team player or a good collaborator, or someone maybe doesn't seem that they're warm, and so maybe other coworkers are having trouble connecting with them,” says deRoon Cassini.

Grove says people with histories of trauma can view people as potentially threatening.

"Most of them have suffered traumatic events at the hands of other people," he says. "So when that body and brain go into survival mode, they're sort of skeptical, at least initially. 'I want to be relationally engaged, but part of me deep down is very worried you might hurt me too.' And that core understanding is really critical to understanding this whole process."


An employee might become uncomfortable when interacting with a supervisor, even if the supervisor’s approach is not aggressive. The employee might want to argue or leave. “So, your trauma may be that you, as a child, were beaten by your father, who was not a nice man, and so now you have a problem with authority,” says Fossie of WestCare. “So, working on jobs you need to have the ability to respond to hierarchies. That triggers you and is always an issue.”


As we explained in Part 3, some trauma victims, in search of stress relief, resort to self-medicating with alcohol and drugs.

“They may discover that they can feel a quiet they have never experienced,” says Perry in "What Happened to You?" “The pleasure that comes from the relief of distress becomes a powerful reward. They are relaxed for the first time in their lives."

This can lead to abuse, and abuse can lead to showing up late or not coming in at all.

Employees might be too depressed or anxious, or are experiencing ongoing trauma at home.

“People who are victims of domestic violence, coming into work, but they may have gotten beat up last night," says Fossie. "People who are addicted, they're trying their best to be on time or work, but they can't because they have something that's a stronghold of an addiction.”


Knowing all of this, what can an employer realistically do? We explore that in Part 5.

But first, experts say it’s important to understand that the goal is for employees to be resilient. To manage and overcome trauma. For employers to support, not coddle. Topitzes explains:

"... resilience is available to all of us ..."

Dimitri Topitzes, PhD, LCSW University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee


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