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We need to talk about workplace trauma

Updated: Sep 30, 2023


Broken blue plate on concrete

The impacts of workplace trauma are enormous but largely ignored. I know this from experience because I ignored them too. But even as I refused to acknowledge what happened, it worked against me and sabotaged my career.


I believed trauma was something big that only happened to someone else. I believed it happened primarily in childhood, except in the case of abusive partners. I believed nothing that happened at the workplace, barring rape, could possibly be impactful enough to have repercussions beyond a person’s tenure there – "change the environment, get a clean slate."


And I was wrong.


The breakdown


In early 2020, before the US went into pandemic lockdowns, I was working 55-plus hour weeks at a consulting firm on a high-visibility, politically volatile project. I also had in my portfolio an even higher-visibility pursuit and a collection of smaller, but still complex, projects. My role? Project manager for public involvement.


I’d been in the role for six months, but only in the two prior months did I live and work in the state where my projects were located. For the first four months on the job, I split my time between four offices across three cities in two states. I was selling a house (first sale fell through), buying a house (first offer was rejected), and living out of suitcases and boxes at my then-boyfriend’s house.


I lived in survival mode.


When I finally consolidated my life into a single space in a single city, I thought everything would get easier. Instead, my workload intensified, and I found it easier to stack more onto my plate than to delegate the work to the half-dozen project coordinators at my disposal. They each had varying levels of experience but shared a unified distaste for the vitriol associated with my main project. And I wanted to protect them.


Then, right after Christmas, my boyfriend broke off our relationship, and I took it as a sign to double-down on my workload and fill the holes in my life with my career. I lasted three weeks in this mode before I started to melt down.


The meltdowns started as fits of rage that, after a few screams into the emptiness of my house, really seemed to help. But the fits of rage started happening closer together – a week apart, then four days apart, then every other day, then every single night. When it became too much rage and too much sensation inside my body, I had to dissociate. Which led to numbed cynicism, disinterest, and rapidly, a determination to kill myself.


On February 12, 2020, I called my boss to tell her I needed to hand off my projects to someone else. When she asked why, I explained pragmatically that I would be dead in the morning. She transferred me to the HR lead who triaged me quickly to the nearest mental health clinic, and I didn’t go back to the office for three weeks.


But I survived. And I’ve spent every day since learning to heal.


The wake-up call


I believed that the trauma underlying my breakdown was little more than exhaustion, isolation, and the usual toxic soup of ambition and perfectionism. I knew I could solve exhaustion with rest, isolation with friendships and perfectionism with whatever therapy, mindfulness practices and coaching could teach me to accept myself as-is.


And that’s the route I pursued. It led to my decision to take back control of my time by starting my own business. It led to major lifestyle changes, from regular exercise to getting remarried. And it led to my autism diagnosis.


But this spring, I stumbled into the old meltdowns again – not rageful outbursts this time but clear suicidal ideations. I realized my ideations were a sign of autistic overwhelm and pared back my work commitments which helped but revealed a deeper blockage, a blockage so serious I wanted to close my business rather than address it.


The truth woke me up in the middle of the night this June. I had a vivid flashback of a workplace investigation from many, many jobs ago in which I was accused of a variety of wrongdoings and ultimately found at fault for violating procurement policies on which I’d never been trained.


Clearly, the allegations were following a larger agenda – procurement mistakes happen all the time, and the procurement in question hadn’t even achieved a signed contract yet. But all I saw was guilt and assumptions of guilt. I couldn’t see how I fit into the larger power dynamics at play.


Knowing now that I’m autistic, I can see how my neurodivergent attributes were the most dangerous attributes a person can bring to an interrogation: my confusion around intent, my inability to read social cues (especially when I’m in distress) and my default to frank honesty when I can’t tell where a conversation is leading. This is why attorneys and union reps matter, and I had neither.


The experience is second only to my divorce in the pain that it caused. I was so devastated that, rather than see the investigation through to its end, I gave up after two months of questioning – essentially signaling guilt – and quit the job I loved.


Then I packaged up all the memories, emotions and sensations and buried them as far under my consciousness as I could. I planned never to look at them again. But there they were, playing out in my mind and body this June as if the investigation was still ongoing. And I had an epiphany:


The nearly-catastrophic breakdown that swamped me in 2020 was not the trauma that I need to heal. Instead, it was a trauma response to this earlier trauma that, in my mind and body, had never stopped happening to me.


What I now know to be true


This is how trauma works.

  • It gets stuck in your nervous system as if it never ended.

  • It can happen in adulthood.

  • And it can happen in the workplace, with monstrous consequences to your career and your life.

The reason I took the job spanning three cities and two states? To escape from a job I’d wanted for an entire decade. I finally landed my dream job! But I ran away nine months in because, even though I didn’t see it at the time, it kept triggering me in its familiarity to the role in which I’d been investigated so many years prior.

  • I left my dream job because of unresolved workplace trauma I couldn’t bear to look at.

  • I crashed out of the next job because of unresolved workplace trauma I couldn’t bear to look at.

  • Then I dropped out of workplaces altogether, started my own business, and that’s how I finally found the space and time to see the trauma for what it is and begin to heal the damage.

These are the consequences of workplace trauma, especially on neurodivergent workers advancing into more visible roles.

  • This is why psychological safety in the workplace matters.

  • This is why we can’t pretend that what happens at work stays at work.

  • This is why we need to talk about workplace trauma, especially in the context of neurodivergence.

If you are burning out quickly in jobs you want to love, it’s probably time to ask yourself whether there is something in your career history that's too painful to look at. Then, look at it. Talk about it with someone you trust. Journal about it. Work through it.


Because if you don’t, it will sabotage your dreams at every turn.


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As you can tell, I’m on quite a journey. Travel the road to recovery with me by signing up for my newsletter. Let’s create new possibilities.

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