July 12, 2021 • Work

The Hammer of Workplace Trauma

Sometimes when I check for a route into Manhattan and realize I will have to get off at the subway stop I used to take for an old job, the bottom of my stomach turns heavy and my shoulders get tight. I resent the reminder of that place and that it still physically upsets me. One of the last times I had to go into that part of town, I tried to figure out the best way to avoid seeing the entire street where the building was, even though I would not have been able to see the building itself. My ordeal there isn’t even the worst of the horror stories from That Place, but the dread of it is still very real. I used to be afraid of labeling my body’s reaction to my old job as one of trauma, but it is a very real experience

I felt uncomfortable thinking of my work experience as traumatic or that I might be suffering from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, 1) because it’s not an official diagnosis and 2) I didn’t want to flatten language used for people who’d witnessed or been a victim of heinous crimes, accidents, abuse, war, or anything along those lines. And yet the more I thought about the things I’d gone through at a few jobs, the more I realized I was experiencing a form of abuse, that something doesn’t have to make you bleed or bruise to cause lasting psychological effects.

In that Manhattan job, my supervisors lied about the status of one of my projects in the all-hands meeting. When I emailed them with proof of their mistake and asked them to make a formal correction, they assured me they would, then waited and waited and waited, ignoring my follow-up emails, until too much time had passed for anyone but me to care. After yet another incident of distorting my work to explain their neglect of my department, I emailed my supervisors around 3 a.m. because their behavior was filling me with sleepless anxiety, and I wanted a paper trail of their misconduct and my unhappiness. I received a response that was such a blatant attempt at gaslighting that I refused to acknowledge it, even to call it out. The frequent smears against my performance, despite demonstrable proof otherwise, filled my waking life with fear and paranoia. 

This is not the only job that has made me uncomfortable to the point of physical distress. I once worked at a nonprofit that made my life so miserable, I started therapy. I was the only Black woman in a leadership position and it soon became clear that I was not expected to have any ideas of my own but to follow along and be glad I was even allowed to be hired. The constant microaggressions (like someone admitting to being surprised my name was not “Keisha or something like that,”) pushed me to find a therapist. I asked him how I could ignore the stress of the job. He responded by giving me a scenario I continue to think about when faced with difficult decisions: “Imagine someone is hitting you in the head with a hammer. Do you want to stop feeling the pain and let the damage continue or do you want them to stop hitting you with a hammer?”

I wanted the hammer to stop. 

In a recent survey by Slack, 68% of Black workers want flexible work plans that allow them to continue to work remotely because office life is so emotionally and physically draining. Furthermore, 72% of Black employees will look for new jobs in the next year vs. 56% of white employees. I don’t think that all of the experiences that make me hate office life are a result of racism, but enough of them have been, from the way my body has been policed to the colleague who said she was surprised I’d been let out of my cage when she saw me outside of our building. After my last full-time day job triggered an emergency room visit and I submitted my notice, I vowed I would not go back to that lifestyle. The slightest thought of a new hammer sends me spiking with anxiety.

I’m not a therapist, but I’ve learned in counseling that the trauma responses I have are reminders of danger. They’re telling me to remain alert, and when it comes to workplace trauma, these reactions are warning me not to let myself be mistreated again. Since I started freelancing full-time, I’ve had contracted work that required me to work in an office setting, and it’s usually fine, but once I have to be there more than 3 days a week, I start experiencing those flashes of anxiety and stomach distress. I had not realized how unsuited I was to corporate life until I allowed myself to leave it and experience something else. In the past three years, I’ve had opportunities to apply for full-time writing jobs in media, and as much as I would love the health insurance and steady paychecks, the fear of going back to a cubicle farm, or worse the cafeteria-style open seating of many new media offices, paralyzes me so much that I don’t submit a resume. Someone recently pointed out that whenever I talk about my past working experiences, my trauma is laid clear. And I had to come to terms with it.

I hesitated for so long to call my past professional life traumatic because I did not want to diminish other more significant pains. But trauma is real and varied, and we must name it in order to heal and move on.