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Beyond Burnout: Understanding the Trauma of Draining Workplaces and its Long-Term Effects

December 26, 2023

In today’s fast-paced and demanding work environments, it is no surprise that people’s mental health and well-being often bear the brunt of the pressure. The toll of constant stress, overwhelming workloads, and toxic workplace dynamics can have a profound impact on employees’ overall well-being. 

To shed light on this issue, Yasmin Refaei, a corporate, organizational, and industrial psychologist who works at O7 Therapy, provided insight into the signs of workplace-related trauma or burnout, the long-term effects it may have, and how individuals could move forward from such draining environments.

Burnout “is not an abrupt occurrence but rather a gradual process that sneaks up on us. It’s a feeling of being pulled in every direction at once, with no discernible progress or advancement,” Refaei explains. 

She compares burnout to a car running on fumes: “we may keep pushing forward, but our efficiency and speed are significantly diminished. If left unaddressed, burnout can lead to a complete stall or breakdown.” 

Refaei identifies three main ways in which work-related trauma and burnout manifest in people’s bodies: exhaustion, detachment, and ineffectiveness. 

“When we experience burnout, we become irritable, drained of energy, lose our appetite, isolate ourselves, and feel hopeless. Productivity takes a step downward, leaving us far less effective in our work,” the psychologist says. 

The impact of a draining workplace goes beyond temporary exhaustion; it could have long-term effects on people’s mental health and overall well-being. Refaei emphasizes that one’s self-esteem and identity are deeply affected when they constantly feel inadequate despite giving their best effort. 

Moreover, the toll on employees’ physical health should not be underestimated. The stressors that accumulate in a fast-paced, draining workplace environment are directly linked to coronary heart disease. 

Refaei asserts that the cost of ill health due to occupational stress is more severe than currently realized, potentially resulting in psychosomatic and psychogenic diseases, as well as strokes and migraines triggered by increased workload and stress.

To identify when employees’ mental health is being negatively impacted by the workplace, Refaei advises people to listen to their bodies. 

“Physical signs like fatigue, insomnia, and frequent illness should not be ignored. Changes in energy levels, increased irritability, sadness, and feelings of detachment serve as indicators that our mental health is suffering,” she explains.

Refaei says that paying attention to one’s sleep patterns and being mindful of their thoughts and emotions may also provide valuable insights into the state of a person’s well-being.

Recognizing the signs is crucial, but what steps can individuals take to address the detrimental effects of a draining workplace? 

The psychologist encourages people to practice proper time management, set boundaries, and learn to say no when necessary. 

“Self-care becomes paramount in protecting our mental health, so taking breaks, being mindful, and prioritizing our well-being are essential.” 

She also highlights the importance of sublimation, channeling stress into constructive outlets such as physical activity, sports, or artistic expression.

Certain industries and professions are more prone to creating draining workplaces. Refaei points out the retail and service industry, where long hours, irregular shifts, low job security, and high demands contribute to burnout. 

The banking sector also poses risks due to long, demanding hours and intense pressure to perform. Healthcare professionals face their own challenges, including long working hours, emotionally charged patient care, and exposure to illness and suffering.

But it is not all doom and gloom, as Refaei has seen success stories of individuals who have recovered from workplace trauma and moved on to healthier environments. Through therapy and counseling, they have not only regained their sense of self but also developed resilience and strategies to protect their well-being. 

“Witnessing their transformation from a state of loss to one of empowerment is truly inspiring,” Refaei expresses. 

The responsibility of creating healthier work environments lies with organizations and employers. Refaei suggests implementing employee well-being programs that include therapy sessions, workshops on stress management, conflict resolution, and mental health awareness. 

Promoting work-life integration, providing proper leadership training, ensuring a reasonable workload, recognizing and rewarding hard work, allowing room for mistakes and growth, and fostering a culture of support are vital steps organizations can take to enhance workplace culture and well-being.

Effective leadership plays a pivotal role in mitigating workplace trauma and fostering a positive work culture. 

“When leaders adopt an autocratic approach, stifling employee input and dismissing their perspectives, it erodes a sense of belonging and identity within the organization. In contrast, an inclusive and supportive leadership style encourages employee engagement, well-being, and productivity,” Refaei says. 

During the job-seeking process, there are warning signs that individuals should be alert to in order to identify potentially draining workplaces. 

Refaei mentions that “vague descriptions of company culture, excessive emphasis on long hours and total commitment, unclear job responsibilities, and disrespectful communication can all be red flags signaling a potentially toxic environment.”

To maintain mental health in demanding work environments, individuals must learn to set boundaries and practice self-care. Establishing work hours, disconnecting from work-related notifications outside of those hours, declining excessive responsibilities, and prioritizing time for rest and relaxation are essential steps,” the psychologist suggests. 

The trauma of draining workplaces and the resulting burnout can have profound and long-lasting effects on people’s mental and physical health. Recognizing the signs of workplace-related trauma is crucial, as it allows individuals to take proactive steps to address the issue. 

Employers and organizations also play a vital role in creating healthier work environments through implementing employee well-being programs and fostering supportive leadership. By prioritizing mental health and well-being, both individuals and organizations can work towards creating a more sustainable and fulfilling work culture.

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