How Untreated Trauma Affects Employment

trauma affects employment

Most of us have experienced a potentially traumatising event at one time or another. How we respond to those events depends on our learned or developed emotional resilience and level of distress tolerance. While some are more resilient in the face of trauma, others are more  prone to suffering from its symptoms following a traumatic event. When we experience trauma, we may suffer from acute stress disorder, chronic trauma (PTSD), or complex trauma (C-PTSD).[1]

Trauma, especially when left untreated, can have adverse effects on many areas of a person’s life. Trauma affects the way we relate to ourselves and those around us, our world outlook, our motivation, emotional well-being, psychological and physiological states, and even our ability to carry out daily tasks.[2] One area of life in which the symptoms of trauma can be particularly impactful is in the workplace.

The symptoms of trauma can be intense and happen suddenly when a person is triggered (when a person, place, thought, feeling, even sensory stimulus reminds a person of their traumatic experience).[3] In the workplace, job-related stress can set off a chain reaction of trauma symptoms, as one major symptom of trauma is a reduced ability to handle stress. Often, trauma survivors feel guilty, even inadequate, when they are unable to carry out a task or achieve a high standard with their work. It is important for survivors to know that the symptoms of trauma are real, have developed following a personally uncontrollable circumstance(s), and can most certainly impact one’s ability to work.

What are the Symptoms of Trauma?

 Depending on the nature of the traumatic event or events, the symptoms of trauma can vary. However, there are some general symptoms that all survivors of trauma are likely to experience to some degree. The following are trauma-related symptoms that can reduce a person’s ability to perform at work.[4]

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Sleep problems, insomnia
  • Hypervigilance
  • Distrust of others
  • Intrusive thoughts and memories
  • Low self-worth and self-esteem
  • Lack of motivation
  • Poor memory, concentration, and focus
  • Perfectionism
  • Physical illness – headaches, cramps, muscle aches and pains
  • High sensitivity to criticism
  • Emotional dysregulation

It can be difficult for a person suffering from the symptoms of trauma to speak about their issues, especially in the workplace where we often must separate our work from our personal lives. We are often called upon to leave our baggage at the door, but this can be difficult when our baggage is heavy and seems impossible to put down. What can appear to be laziness, low motivation, or slacking can actually be the result of a reduced ability to focus and debilitation due to feelings of depression or an inability to effectively handle stress. For some trauma survivors, even getting out of bed in the morning can be a herculean task. In the workplace, where we are often required to be focused, punctual, and motivated, trauma survivors may struggle to keep up.

Stress and Burnout

Many sufferers of PTSD are faced with the challenge of managing their trauma-related symptoms and performing well at work. Every employee is given tasks and demands that are important for any business or company’s goals, and employees are expected to work towards meeting the company’s goals with care and dedication. For trauma survivors, workplace demands and the associated stress can be difficult to deal with, but performing well at work is important if a person wants to keep their job and income. Because of this, many trauma survivors may attempt ‘push through’, suppressing or attempting to ignore their difficult thoughts, feelings, emotions, and behavioural urges in order to meet the demands and complete the tasks that have been allocated to them. However, this can lead to burnout, which is characterised by physical and mental exhaustion, a sense of alienation in the workplace, and reduced work performance.[5] Thus, in order to keep performing well at work, it is better to recognise and acknowledge times when we are stressed and struggling, and take appropriate actions towards helping ourselves feel better.

In order to better manage our work lives when we are also living with PTSD, we must acknowledge the truth of our condition and accept that our symptoms may sometimes impact our work. If symptoms are debilitating, it may be worth getting a note from your doctor and bringing it to your employer. PTSD symptoms are real, and with a doctor’s note employers may find it easier to understand the issues you are facing. You do not need to go into detail with your boss about the origins of your trauma, but by letting them know about your experiences you encourage understanding and are more likely to be empathised with.

How can Employers Help Employees with PTSD?

 It is understandable that an employer will want to employ people who can get their work done well and on time. However, trauma and PTSD are common and just because a person is suffering does not that mean that they shouldn’t be employed or kept in employment. Mental health issues affect everyone at one time or another, so even if employees are not suffering from trauma but still struggle with poor mental health, it may be beneficial for employers to outline local mental health resources and information.

Employees should feel comfortable enough to communicate their issues and struggles with their employer. Employers can support their employees by making it known that communication is welcome and that everyone’s best interests are at heart. Trust and vulnerability are common issues facing those who have been through trauma, so when it is known that vulnerability and openness will not be met with harsh criticism but instead with compassion and understanding, it becomes less scary for trauma-affected employees to ask for the support they need.

Healing from Trauma is Possible

While it is important for the workplace to offer mental health support and resources for all employees, it is also important that we seek professional help when we need it. Despite how welcoming, forgiving, and accepting a work environment has been made to be, and despite how much support is offered to trauma-affected employees, our healing is our own responsibility. Professional help is available for those suffering from trauma, however it has occurred. Various therapies, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy[6] (CBT), Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing[7] (EMDR) and Somatic Experiencing[8] (SE) can be used to help clients explore their deeper feelings and to build emotional resilience and distress tolerance, and medication can be prescribed to help clients manage debilitating trauma symptoms such as insomnia, depression, and sudden, intense anxiety.



[1] Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (US). Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2014. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 57.) Chapter 3, Understanding the Impact of Trauma. Available from:

[2] Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (US). Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2014. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 57.) Chapter 3, Understanding the Impact of Trauma. Available from:

[3] Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (US). Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2014. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 57.) Chapter 2, Trauma Awareness. Available from:

[4] Bisson, Jonathan I et al. “Post-traumatic stress disorder.” BMJ (Clinical research ed.) vol. 351 h6161. 26 Nov. 2015, doi:10.1136/bmj.h6161

[5] [Internet]. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2006-. Depression: What is burnout? [Updated 2020 Jun 18]. Available from:

[6] Chand SP, Kuckel DP, Huecker MR. Cognitive Behavior Therapy. [Updated 2020 Oct 15]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-. Available from:

[7] Shapiro, Francine. “The role of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy in medicine: addressing the psychological and physical symptoms stemming from adverse life experiences.” The Permanente journal vol. 18,1 (2014): 71-7. doi:10.7812/TPP/13-098

[8] Brom, Danny et al. “Somatic Experiencing for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Randomized Controlled Outcome Study.” Journal of traumatic stress vol. 30,3 (2017): 304-312. doi:10.1002/jts.22189