It’s the first day at your new job.  You aced the interview, got yourself some new work clothes, and are beyond excited to get started with your new position.  Your new boss is great, and you’re excited to meet your coworkers.

Mid-morning, your boss sends you a message:  “Come to my office when you have a moment.”  Your stomach drops and you instantly get nervous. You find this response confusing, but with trepidation, go to the boss’s office.  She wishes you good morning and tells you she wants to check in and see how things are so far.  She asks if you need anything; then tells you how happy she is to have you on the team. You feel relieved, and grateful. You chalk it up to the first day nerves and let it go.

But it happens again, and again.  Six months later, over a year later. Every time your boss or any other manager asks to see you, the nerves strike. Your stomach hurts, your heart pounds. It takes some effort to acquiesce to the request. Even though each time is a pleasant experience, you go into fight or flight.

You find yourself in a meeting, but you can’t participate. Your stomach hurts and the words won’t come out. You have a terrible case of stomach flu, and it’s all you can do to talk yourself into taking a sick day. You have a great idea for the marketing team, but the thought of sharing it makes your heart pound and your palms sweat. You’re nervous to request time off. You tell yourself — this is silly. Everyone here is so helpful and accommodating, but the nerves just won’t go away.

What’s going on?

If you came from a toxic workplace, you may be experiencing emotional workplace trauma / toxic workplace PTSD. This is a real ailment that employers and employees alike struggle with every day.

A toxic workplace has many symptoms:

  • Gaslighting: You bring your CEO the data he asked for. He tells you, “I didn’t ask for that. I wanted this.  What’s wrong with you?”  After that, you get the instructions via email, because this way you won’t mess up.  You bring the data and he tells you, “I didn’t ask for that. I wanted this.  What’s wrong with you?”  You point out that the email he sent asked for exactly what you just gave him.  He says, “That’s not what I meant, and you should know better. I am so disappointed in you.”
  • Bullying: One of your coworkers makes fun of your outfit.  They take a photo of you, print it, and hang it on the breakroom wall with the caption “Skinny people shouldn’t wear yellow.”
  • Harassment: Your immediate supervisor has your time off request, and they tell you no, because you won’t go out to lunch with them.

Toxic workplaces can create real-life trauma for employees who experience them. Unfortunately, many people carry these traumas into every job they have, and they react as if they are still in the toxic workplace, even though the new environment is fine.

How do we support our employees who are having a hard time getting over past workplace experience?

  • Reassurance: Remind the employee that they are in a safe place where they are valued and appreciated. This may need to happen more than once before the employee is able to embrace this new atmosphere.
  • Mental health support: Sometimes, the employee needs professional help. Discuss utilizing your Employee Assistance Program (EAP), if you have one. Therapy might be needed to deal with toxic workplace trauma, but sometimes other activities help, such as meditation, yoga, and other therapeutic methods. There are many companies now that provide group and individual services to employers, outside of the traditional EAP.
  • Good culture: Having a supportive workplace culture is everything. When employees know that it’s okay to learn from mistakes, use PTO when it’s needed, and not come to work when they are sick, this goes a long way to making them comfortable in their environment.

The key is being consistent in helping your employees in their endeavors.  Have the honest conversations and provide a safe workplace where your employees know they can thrive.