When Julio Harari’s son was suffering from cancer and became upset about his hair falling out after chemotherapy, the banker from Buenos Aires shaved his own head. He went to work the next day shorn of hair, to the puzzled reaction of colleagues.
Mr Harari describes his experience: “They tell you that your son is sick and you freeze. Then you get results from the next test, and you freeze again. You start thinking about what life is going to be like without your son, and you freeze. But you have to carry on, there are others in the family and other responsibilities as well.”
Although Mr Harari was traumatised by his son’s cancer, he was also able to put his feelings aside in this show of support for his son, who died in 2015 at the age of 24.
Trauma is an emotional and physical response to an unbearable event, such as bereavement, war, physical attack or abuse. The mind often rushes to protect the person, by numbing them from overwhelmingly painful feelings of grief, helplessness, rage and collapse.
People who have suffered trauma carry it with them, often unknowingly, wherever they go, including the office. Work can either help recovery or be the place where trauma is reignited. Much depends on the person’s early experiences, as well as their organisation’s culture.
Deprivation, neglect or abuse can affect the nervous system, making subsequent setbacks harder to bear
For Mr Harari, who is an associate director of an international private bank and in charge of a team of five specialists, work was a helpful distraction. “If you’re only thinking about the chemo, life is very miserable,” he says. “But if you also have [work] you can carry on breathing.”
During his son’s illness, it was important for Mr Harari to acknowledge that he would not be able to keep up the usual pace at work. This helped him to be realistic about what he could achieve. He also came to realise that he could only help his son by being by his side.
“I knew I would always run behind the curve. And I learnt that I could hug my son, but I could not cure him.”
Returning to work
After his son’s death, work provided a form of respite from his pain and grief. “He passed away on a Sunday night, and Thursday I was back working,” says Mr Harari. “Some people asked how could I do that and I said, ‘It keeps me alive’. I had to compartmentalise [my feelings] otherwise the pain would freeze me.”
“Compartmentalisation” — splitting off conflicting feelings — is a common reaction, and one of many defences the mind employs to protect individuals from extreme feelings. Such defences are normal, and only become harmful if they distort reality too far.
Mr Harari was fortunate to have the emotional stability not to be overcome by feelings of helplessness and despair during his son’s illness. That stemmed from a healthy and supportive early family life.
For others, however, experiences in early family life such as deprivation, neglect or abuse can affect the nervous system, making subsequent setbacks harder to bear.
For such people, even ordinary work disappointments, such as missing a promotion or being treated unfairly, can reactivate early traumas, leaving the person with incomprehensible and overwhelming feelings. The process is described in The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk.
For these individuals, an anticipation of danger persists — frequently where none exists — putting them in a hyper-vigilant state and often reacting irrationally.
I would think I’m going to get fired …It would bring up a painful anxiety
Such employees avoid close relationships at work because intimacy often provokes strong feelings, which give rise to traumatic memories, says Julia Vaughan Smith, a psychotherapist and executive coach specialising in trauma. Instead they may become needy, compliant or even narcissistic.
Ms Vaughan Smith explains: “They can be close in a superficial or detached way in which they have a pseudo independence: ‘I don’t need any help I’m quite all right on my own’.”
Such people fear being out of control and helpless. They control themselves, their work and others in an attempt to keep the parameters of their lives held firmly, so they are not taken by surprise. Their energy is consumed with strategies to avoid the traumatic memory, and vitality is lost. Exhaustion sets in because they are constantly under stress.
Traumatised employees: how managers can help
• Acknowledge what employees are going through
• Ask how you can help and let them know you are available to talk
• Accept that those who are traumatised will not be able to perform to their usual standard, and make contingency plans
• Explain your decisions regarding changes in the workplace
• Acknowledge endings: leaving parties, speeches of farewell and thanks are symbolic and important
Excessive and compulsive work can be a distraction from unconscious traumatic memories, where neglect or harm has been inflicted by parental figures. “Even if you don’t love me, I’ll make sure you need me,” is the reasoning behind this response, Ms Vaughan Smith explains.
Fear of mistakes
A 55-year-old man who works in finance told me how stress in his job reignited traumatic feelings from childhood. He explains how his controlling behaviour at work kept at bay excruciating feelings associated with his mother’s death when he was 14. But it also cost him career opportunities.
“When my mother died there was some guilt, totally irrational, that I could have done something to have prevented [her illness],” he says. As a consequence he became focused on being a diligent student and later a good employee to avoid feeling further guilt.
At work, the thought that he might make a mistake made him panic. “I would think I’m going to get fired, I would go to these dark places. It would bring up a painful anxiety, feelings which are very similar to when my mother died.”
Work can either help recovery or be the place where trauma is reignited
This dread of mistakes meant he shied away from risks that would have enabled him to move up the corporate ladder. Like others who exhaust themselves trying to keep early, painful memories at bay, he lost the liveliness and sense of personal achievement that career success can bring.
A risk for both business and political leaders is when they unconsciously allow hidden traumatic memories to influence their decisions. A need to avoid painful memories could result in a distortion of reality, such that past events are confused with the present.
Decisions and consequences
Professor Mark Stein of the School of Business, University of Leicester, who has studied the effect of trauma on political and economic decisions, explains how past trauma can lead to decisions that are poorly thought out.
If you work for a team …and suddenly you are [sent] to another office overnight, it can be an enormous wrench
He gives an example in his 2016 paper, ‘Fantasy of Fusion’ as a Response to Trauma: European Leaders and the Origins of the Eurozone Crisis. He argues that the European leaders who introduced the single currency had been traumatised by the second world war. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 reactivated their anxieties and gave rise to the fear that a unified Germany would cause another war.
“When they realised it was impossible to stop the reunification of Germany the only way they could deal with that was to dissolve Germany into a wider Europe,” he says. “You have this terrible history of war and this fantasy that something quite concrete [the single currency] could cure the problem.”
Denying reality, says Prof Stein, is one of the dangers of defending against traumatic feelings.
He believes executives often underestimate how organisational change may upset employees who have experienced trauma in their past.
For example: “When people are literally shown the door, you have to think what it does to colleagues who have been working with them.” Similarly, “if you work for a team for five years and suddenly you are [sent] to another office overnight, it can be an enormous wrench. Many organisations do not acknowledge the significance of these changes and the pain involved.”
The author is a psychotherapist and business consultant