New Year, new you? Actually, it doesn’t have to be a New Year resolution to recognise the tough time you’ve had and act. Kelly Harrison talks about her journey from trauma back to the light.
This time last year, we were surrounded by chaos and uncertainty and emotions were raw. Everyone around me railed against more Covid restrictions and were devastated they couldn’t see friends and family for Christmas.
I welcomed the opportunity to hide away from everyone, and felt nothing.
I had just walked away from a role that made me feel worthless. My confidence was rock bottom and all the plates I had tried to keep spinning for so long fell to the floor and smashed.
Covid turned everyone’s lives upside down, but for me it just made an unreasonable job impossible. It was only when my husband gently suggested that opening my work emails shouldn’t reduce me to tears, that I decided to throw in the towel.
I didn’t get the support I expected in my role and for months I blamed myself. I felt I had ‘failed’ at the job, and had no business in a senior role if I couldn’t cope with it.
After making the decision to leave, I started to feel better. I packed my feelings away in boxes and started to feel cautiously optimistic about the future. One morning I went for a walk with my husband and had been excitedly telling him about my plans. I felt in control and more confident than I had in months.
And then my mobile rang. It was someone from my old workplace and I suddenly felt sick. My chest was tight, my breathing was high in my chest and shallow. It wasn’t a difficult call, it was about something very boring and routine. But having to speak to them again, having to see that number flash up on my phone had triggered a trauma response I had no idea existed.
Recognising workplace trauma
Trauma is a word usually associated with something violent, like a car crash or an attack. For something to be traumatic, we might think there is force and shock. But I have found that trauma can sneak up on you. It can happen very quietly, while you are working away trying to convince yourself and everyone else, that you are ok.
From talking to colleagues and friends, I know my situation was not unusual. Communications is a field that rarely gets the respect it deserves. Under pressure to deliver campaigns and messages with very little resource, budget, or time. It is an easy department to blame when projects don’t go well, but it is not so easy to attract plaudits when things go well.
We have all seen the countless public Facebook comments deriding councils and public bodies for spending money on communications professionals. Wasting money on “someone to look after Facebook and Twitter. That money could be better spent on emptying my bins on time!”.
And then of course I take my hat off to my peers who have to face a deluge of abuse on those social media channels every day. Constantly absorbing the anger and frustration of local residents, who vent their fury on Facebook and don’t think about the person having to read these messages.
Until last year, I hadn’t really heard of workplace trauma. Of course I was aware of how people working in the police or fire service could be traumatised by the things they have to do and see every day. That fitted my understanding of ‘trauma’, but I didn’t realise that you could be traumatised by a toxic workplace.
Constant pressure to work over your hours, relentless workloads, bullying, racism, poor work-life boundaries and job insecurity all cause emotional and psychological damage. It can lead to depression and anxiety, and in some cases post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In this kind of working environment, the stress that everyone is experiencing just gets kicked down the line. The pressure and unreasonable expectations flow from senior management down to junior staff. It creates a damaging culture where everyone is facing the same trauma at work every day. Add to that a customer facing role, where you are also being abused every day on social media for just doing your job.
For me, sobbing over my work emails was admittedly, a red flag that something was really wrong. More importantly, I had started to withdraw from everything including my children. I struggled to find joy in anything, my head was full of all things piling up at work and it changed how I felt about everything. I told myself how useless I was, and my body was telling me things were not ok.
I was lucky I could get out. I could just hand in my notice and take a couple of weeks to just breathe outside of the toxic culture I had been trapped in. Some friends thought I was insane to leave a job in the middle of a pandemic, but I knew the insanity would have been to stay.
I signed up for some coaching, and it was an amazing experience. It allowed me to step back and assess what was important to me. The coaching made me think about how I talk to myself, which was pretty awful at that point. I had to look for opportunities to be kind to myself, and focus on the things I was really good at, and really enjoyed.
Slowly I started to get better, and I found a new job. Thankfully, my new role is great and a complete breath of fresh air. However, I know I have trauma triggers. Something might happen at work that reminds me of how I used to feel and I have to take a moment. I get some fresh air, go for a walk, or empty every thought in my head into my husband’s lap while he is trying to work (or cook, or DJ, or sleep).
Trauma doesn’t have to be one violent event, or a catastrophic series of events. It can be a slow build up of circumstances that have long-lasting effects on your mental health. I know my experience is not unique, particularly in the communications sector, and it is something we have to take seriously. Recognising trauma is the first important step, so the best thing we can do for ourselves is to just check in every now and again.
Go for a long walk on your own, or sit somewhere quietly and just ask yourself ‘am I ok?’.
You might be surprised by the answer.
Kelly Harrison is communications manager at Communicourt.