Workplace Trauma Comes Home

Most adults spend roughly one-third of their lifetime at work. This makes them highly susceptible to work and the ways it affects them. At the end of the workday, a person may bring home stress from their job. Any achievements, incomplete tasks, or frustrations could linger at home. 

  Many working adults live with others such as their spouses, parents, children, or other significant others. People at home can be affected by everything brought home. This, especially after a long day at work, can include an altered version of the person they know.

Workplace trauma, or traumatic experiences from the workplace, can be especially difficult for people to cope with at home. Traumatic experiences can alter people’s mood and interactions with others around them. In our study, we wanted to understand the extent to which traumatic experiences in the workplace affected both the workers who experienced them as well as their significant others. We were especially interested in the indirect impacts on significant others because this can put them at risk for psychological symptoms. 


Workplace Trauma and Its Impact

  We began the study by reviewing past research on military service members’ post-traumatic stress symptoms. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress can include flashbacks, avoidance of things related to the trauma, negative thoughts about oneself or the world, and hypervigilance or increased irritability. This was when we realized that the partners of these service members might also be negatively impacted by their experiences. We found that partners of military service members reported depression, anxiety, and other symptoms that are similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Based on these insights, we began to investigate symptoms these partners reported. 

We used a method called ‘meta-analysis’, which is a way to comprehensively summarize all previous research findings on the topic a researcher is interested in. We searched through more than 50,000 research articles about workplace traumas from all types of jobs. In the end, our research team selected 276 research articles to review in detail. Each article investigated the effect of workplace trauma and included workers from both high- and low-risk jobs. High risk jobs included military service members, the police, firefighters, first responders, and emergency medical personnel. Low-risk jobs included workers from jobs that are not prone to workplace trauma. Even though the job is low-risk, people can still experience traumatic incidents like harassment, bullying, or assault.


Partners of Trauma-Exposed Employees Also Experience Trauma Symptoms


After reviewing each research article, we concluded that workers were significantly impacted by workplace trauma as expected. Workers reported symptoms that ranged from general depression and anxiety to severe PTSD symptoms.

  We also discovered that the traumatic stress that impacted the worker also impacted the worker’s partner. These partners were sometimes hurt as much as the trauma-exposed workers. In other words, we discovered that partners could experience similar stress levels as workers directly exposed to the trauma, despite never encountering the trauma. Symptoms found in partners are therefore secondary traumatic symptoms.

  We then asked: how does the worker’s job or the type of traumatic stress affect our results? We found that warfare had a much stronger negative effect than other stress. This means that military service members are at a higher risk of developing PTSD compared to workers from other jobs.

However, the partner’s vulnerability to secondary traumatic stress symptoms did not vary by job. For example, a military members’ wife and the wife of a civilian employee (who is bullied at work) are almost equally vulnerable to the secondary traumatic symptoms.

  Finally, we wanted to understand how traumatic stress symptoms “crossover” from a worker to their partner. Crossover is a term used to describe how the stress from one person can be transferred to important people in their life. We investigated two possible pathways. One pathway is called "crossover via empathy engagement” and the other is called “crossover via couple interaction”.


Pathway 1: Crossover via Empathy Engagement


The first pathway proposes that partners of traumatized employees become vulnerable from the heightened level of empathy that comes with caring for the significant other. In other words, because a high level of empathy is necessary to support their loved one, partners can become vulnerable to experiencing secondary PTSD. The very act of listening, imagining, and trying to put oneself in the shoes of their loved one can cause a person a similar type of pain and suffering.


Pathway 2: Crossover via Couple Interaction

The second pathway suggests that partners become distressed from the lower quality of interaction that stems from their partner’s PTSD. Traumatized employees may avoid building relationships or become less engaged with others. Their symptoms might lead to poor communication patterns and behaviors that hurt relationships.

In our study, we found evidence that suggests the “crossover via couple interaction” mechanism occurs. We also found mixed evidence that the “crossover via the empathy engagement” mechanism occurs. Empathy might be a double-edged sword. Too little empathy towards the traumatized worker can still hurt the partner. Without empathy, the traumatized worker may remain highly distressed. This can lead to more fights, arguments, and misunderstandings. However, showing too much empathy towards the traumatized worker puts the partner into a highly vulnerable position. For instance, they might find out more disturbing details as they listen about the trauma. The partner might even relive the traumatic incidents their loved one went through. We need more research to clarify the impact of empathy on the well-being of these partners. 


Organizations Should Consider Family as a System


Based on our results, we identified a few ways that organizations could support employees who are exposed to workplace trauma. 


Workplace trauma is not a new concept, but attention on the impacts of workplace trauma has only recently started to grow. Based on our results, we found that each worker’s family and home must be a part of the support system. This is important in order to foster healthy relationships both at home and in the workplace.


Written By: Dr. Yi-Ren Wang

Academic Editor: Epidemiologist 

Non-Academic Editor: Stay-at-Home Mom (wife of a police officer)

Original Paper

• Title: A meta-analysis on the crossover of workplace traumatic stress symptoms between partners.

• Authors: Wang, Yi-Ren Ford, Michael T. Credé, Marcus Harms, P. D. Lester, Paul B.

• Journal: Journal of Applied Psychology

• Year Published: 2023

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