While many of you know me solely as an attorney who primarily represents workers and small employers, few of you know that while running my law practice, I am going to graduate school at night at the University of Balimore to finish my Masters degree in Counseling Psychology. Prior to law school, I worked as a psychiatric social worker in Spanish Harlem, for Big Brothers of NYC. While going to graduate school for counseling, my job required that I do indiviudal and group therapy for adolescents and single mothers who were experiencing adjustment problems. Now, 35 plus years of practicing law later and seeing individuals losing their jobs, careers and often the basic identities, I had decided to write a book titled “Workplace Trauma: How losing a job is not just about the money- Coping wtih obessive thoughts, anxiety, depression and PTSD.”
In working with women who had been sexually harassed on the job, I began to observe that regardless of the severity of the harssment, from crude comments all the way to rape, most women suffer PTSD like symptoms. Most rarely could get a good night’s sleep, tossing and turning thinking about their job, the harassment and worse, reliving it all every night. It was the last thing on their mind before falling asleep and the first think they thought of whem waking up. If the harassment was ongoing, my clients would begin to feel the panic rising in them, both physically, as their chest tightened while adreneline or cortisol ramped up their system in “fight or flight” mode as well a mentally. Much like other PTSD victims, these women who experience flashbacks, a constant or generalized feeling of anxiety and worse, depression. Not the kind you get when you lose a lover or friend but a much worse kind, when you lose yourself.
I also noticed that this type of emotional response was not limited to just victims of sexual harassment or abuse on the job but extended to all forms of harassment, bullying and most of all- loss of a job. For anyone over 40 who has lost a job, they know the helplessmess and hopelessness of finding out that you are not who you thought. You begin to doubt your abilities, which doubt only increases the longer one cannot find other suitable work. We all, by that age, have incorporated our job and job title into our belief of who we are. I am a lawyer, or electrician or an admininstrative assistant. Each carries with its role and sense of belonging that is lost when the job has vanished. The impact of the lack of sleep, the constant state of anxiety and depression, the lack of proper nutrition and physical activity all combine to kill off the person who used to be.
While those in the mental health field are well versed in the newest DSM 5 which is the therapist’s diagnostic manual. This newest edition comes with an all new section on PTSD but nowhere to be found in the manual, the term, Workplace Trauma. I guess for veterans who job was working in the military, being a marine or other soldier is not considerded a job or that the trauma experienced was the result of war and not specifically the job. However, just as the soldier goes off to work in a foreign land, so do most Americans go to work in their own battleground called work. We become inseparable from our occupation, regardless of how good or bad that job may make us feel. Even for the many of us who hate our job even to the point of having ruminating thoughts about each day’s little traumas, the loss of that job is unbearable. The pain resulting from the loss of that job is far worse than anything they experienced at work.
I am hoping to be able to put together support groups for those folks suffering the trauma of job loss. For the most part, these clients who have lost their job have stopped communicating with friends and family, falling into a type of agoraphobia. These victims no longer want to be around other people knowing that even if nothing is said about work, they will spend too much energy just worrying about how to avoid the subject. The longer this goes on, the more rooted in them is the sense of loss. While I used to think those clients who have just lost their job were like those who have experienced the death of a loved one. There were simply stages of grief including the anger, denial etc associated with death of that loved one. This, however, can be a far more profound loss. Being around others who have shared the same shame allows one a moment of solace. It my hopee and belief that that solace or reprieve from pain can often provide the fertile ground from which life can arise again. In working with such victims, it is often necessary to role play such as job interviews, teach through CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) and finally, mindfulness which is a meditation like therapy where we learn again to live solely in the moment. It provides and avenue, leaning how to deal with life again and perhaps at times, even emjoy the mystery of where this adventure will take them.
Part of this book will be victim’s own stories of trauma suffered either at work or as a result of losing one’s job or career. I would welcome any emails or other submissions that tell your story as I firmly believe that by sharing one’s trauma, others can be healed. I hope if this short article has stirred something in you that you will take the time to write or send video or whatever works. You will not only be helping others but maybe, helping yourself.