Held Back: The Insidious Effect of Workplace Trauma

I remember the day I came into work to find everybody else’s desk empty. It was my first day back in the office after my latest round of chemo (I would work from home for two days after a Monday infusion, and by Thursday I’d feel well enough to travel downtown again).

I sat down at my computer and began working away, wondering where everyone could be. There was no email, no note to indicate where my colleagues and boss were. It was strange, to say the least. Normally, everyone would be in the office by 7:30am, feverishly working through the client reports that had just been generated.

An hour went by and finally, my colleagues showed up. My boss strode over to her desk, right beside mine, and with a big smile on her face, she asked me, “didn’t you wonder where we were? We are all out having a team breakfast!”

I was mortified in my humiliation. Here I was, literally fighting for my life – a second time, having not achieved remission during my first course of chemo (itself a seemingly endless six months of having poison injected into my body). I wasn’t even being invited to team bonding experiences anymore. What was the point of surviving, I thought, if no one even cared?

To say this experience (and many others like it during that time), was traumatizing is an understatement. The fact that I was being bullied and excluded at the exact same time that I was trying to survive stage 3 cancer, while working full-time so I could keep paying my mortgage, still astounds me. That people can be capable of treating others that way is truly hard to believe, and yet it happens.

When I tell people this story, they sometimes ask me what I was doing to somehow cause this behaviour from my boss and colleagues – was I not standing up for myself, was I not being assertive enough? Trust me, I’ve spent a multitude of hours blaming myself and beating myself up for not being worthy of better treatment. Learning how to stand up to bullying behavior and be treated with respect will be something I continue to work on for the rest of my life, although I’m also becoming more picky in terms of who I work with because who wants to spend all their time defending their right to humane treatment when you can just find kinder people to be around?

What I’ve become more interested in is how this traumatic experience impacted me and my career afterwards. This is an area of exploration that is showing up in a lot of my coaching conversations with leaders as well – motivated individuals who are also recognizing the impact of workplace trauma on their own confidence as they contemplate leveling up in their careers or transitioning to something new, and who may be feeling “held back” in some way, and for reasons they can’t readily identify.

Realizing that a workplace experience was traumatizing (trauma is defined as “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience”) is the beginning of the healing process, and it can often take a long while for people to get to there. Processing the trauma of that experience is another thing entirely, and requires skillfulness and knowledge on behalf of a supporting practitioner like a coach or therapist. You can’t necessarily just ask people to speak about their trauma because that may end up retraumatizing them again. Sometimes you have to approach it sideways in the conversation, collaborating with your client to determine the best way to work through their trauma together. This can take time and the client should drive the pace of that effort, not the practitioner.

Nonetheless, if the client is ready to look at their traumatic experience through a safe and supportive conversation, it can have transformative effect, releasing pent-up energy and revealing new perspectives about themselves, their situation, and their possibilities for moving forward. I know that the work of re-examining my own workplace trauma is an ongoing process that continues to open my eyes and help me gain greater understanding about what I’ve been through and how it has influenced my choices since. In particular, I can look back and appreciate the courage it took to walk away from that environment before it could harm me further, and how that’s empowered me to be courageous in lots of other ways.

I don’t wish workplace trauma on anyone. Nonetheless, I know it has happened to so many of us, and may be happening to you right now. Know that you’re not alone, even if you feel that way. When you’re ready, ask yourself these questions:

  1. When I look back on certain experiences in the workplace, what feels like trauma to me? Which memories come to the surface first?
  2. Which experiences can I recognize have potentially had lasting impact, and in what way?
  3. How can I be patient and compassionate with myself as I slowly process these events, and mine them for new insight and clarity?
  4. What support would be most helpful to me now? (journaling, reading a book on trauma, talking to a friend or practitioner, meditation, creative/artistic expression)


Maggie DiStasi, PCC, helps people develop their leadership skills and career opportunities through trauma-informed and mindfulness-based coaching and coach training. Please visit www.www.maggiecoultercoaching.com to learn more, or connect with her here to arrange a consultation.

About Me

Maggie Coulter Coaching was founded in 2009.  Specializing in career and leadership coaching for people who have experienced significant interpersonal trauma. Navigate stressful work situations and lead with confidence.

You can learn more about me here.

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