If you are physically injured at work you recognize it. Can you say the same for mental trauma?

Most often, you post a physical injury right away. It could be from something like slipping on the stairs and twisting an ankle or dropping a heavy object on your foot. The actions leading up to the injury are apparent. Likewise, the symptoms are obvious and well-known – pain, bruising, bleeding, and so on.

Mental trauma vs. physical trauma

But if you were to suffer mental trauma at work, however, would you recognize it?

With a little knowledge, you can begin to see mental injuries as clearly as you can see physical ones. Often, the tendency is to explain symptoms of mental trauma away or make excuses for them. This happens even when symptoms of a mental injury are apparent and affecting you.

Dismissing the contributing factors that lead up to an injury is all too common. You’re told, “that’s just the way it is around here.”

Likewise, factors that cause these injuries are engrained in the culture. Sadly, not only is there a stigma associated with workplace mental trauma but there is a negative stigma that surrounds pushing back on the practices and cultural elements that cause them as well.

First, let’s take a quick look at some common factors that can cause stress, burnout, anxiety, depression, and other illnesses that affect your mental wellness. An emerging term in the field of employee mental trauma is “occupational stress injury.” Single events the likes of which our first responders see are usually associated with this term, however, it is the cumulative effect of stress that can result in the most severe reactions.

Cumulative Stress Factors

Do you identify with any of the following cumulative stress factors?

  • Ongoing conflict with co-workers or your boss (Maybe you work for a “Bosshole?” Read more about this term here).
  • Being asked to do something that conflicts with your personal values.
    • The Mental Health Commission of Canada describes “Moral Injury” in the same category as grief. When you must do something that goes against your most deeply held values, you are likely to experience a “moral injury.” Examples can include unscrupulous company activities such as “fudging reports.”
  • Lack of control over decisions that affect you. Work Safe Alberta outlines what elements of a workplace design represent the highest risk for a psychological injury. Notably, workers who have very little input into how their work is performed, yet have high consequences for error are at a higher risk of developing a workplace psychological stress injury.
  • Uncertainty of your role or your future.
  • Bullying.
  • A culture of negativity (While we’re on the topic of workplace culture, here are five ways to tell if yours is poisoning you.)
  • Feeling unappreciated or misunderstood.
  • Lack of accountability.

We often don’t notice the effects of these situations or even recognize them as hazards. This is because it isn’t a one-time incident or exposure that causes a psychological injury. Rather, it is accumulating exposure to stressful situations that causes mental trauma.

Signs and Symptoms of Mental Trauma

Just like the consequences of slipping on the stairs may range from something you can just brush off to a broken bone, exposure to the factors listed above can result in a range of outcomes. Exposure to these factors is unavoidable to some extent, but how do you tell if you can be injured by them? The answer should be easy: look for signs and symptoms of mental trauma.

Let’s take a look at the list of symptoms below and guess which are precursors to mental injury:

  • Low energy
  • Increased irritability and lessened patience
  • Lack of motivation or procrastination
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Inability to focus or concentrate on tasks
  • Decreased desire to socialize or interact with friends and family
  • Ongoing nervousness or nervousness when you normally wouldn’t be
  • Muscle aches and headaches
  • Increased sarcasm or negative comments
  • Increase in drinking, gambling, or high-risk activities

Key Takeaways

You’ve likely guessed the three key takeaways from this list:

  1. If you are human, you will experience everything on the list at some point and time. This is true regardless of how physically and mentally healthy you are.
  2. All of the items listed above are signs and symptoms of reacting to a negative situation.
  3. It would be easy to miss the symptoms of an oncoming mental injury or to explain the symptoms away.

So back to the initial question: If you were to suffer a mental injury at work would you recognize it? You likely wouldn’t at first. However, experiencing multiple items from the list above regularly is a warning sign. Pay attention and take steps to remedy the situation before it progresses to an injury.

On a positive note, more organizations are recognizing the importance of providing an environment that is safe from mental hazards. Occupational Health and Safety legislation in Alberta requires companies to provide psychologically safe workplaces free of bullying and harassment.

One way to reduce occupational stress injuries is to create a positive work culture with clear expectations and accountabilities. We are here to help! For information on how to transform a negative culture into a positive one, contact us at info@activatehr.ca. Or, take a look at our human resources and workplace investigations services here. And don’t forget to follow us on LinkedIn!

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We first published this post in 2017 but it was updated in 2021 just for you.