Even the most passionate employee will have a bad day on the job now and then. But when workplace problems continue day in and day out, it starts to have lasting effects on workers, the companies they work for, and the workforce as a whole. Every year, millions of people worldwide struggle with post-traumatic-job disorder (PTJD). This widespread yet underexamined condition has changed an entire generation of the workforce.
In sharing my struggles with PTJD, I’m not trying to cue the world’s smallest violin. The places where I’ve worked have had wonderful people doing their best, sometimes against forces beyond anyone’s control. I’m sharing my experiences to help shine a light on this pervasive phenomenon, as understanding employees with PTJD can give you a better idea of how to integrate them into your company culture.
This list is by no means comprehensive, but it includes some common causes, symptoms, and treatment methods of post-traumatic-job disorder.
It has now been eight years since the Great Recession shocked world markets, leading to an increasing spiral of foreclosure, layoffs, failing businesses, and economic damage. I earned my bachelor’s degree in winter 2006, so nearly all of my professional career has been during this period.
Like many others of my generation, I had expected to graduate and find a job that paid enough to start a middle-class life. This seemed to be the case until 2009, when my supervisor at my full-time position called me into her office to inform me that I had a month left to work before being laid off.
For nearly two years after that, my family and I subsisted on a string of temporary jobs, experiencing a taste of the gig economy. I wrote operation manuals for a soy hamburger factory, working the swing shift and describing how rehydrated soy chunks exited the chunk squeezer. I crawled beneath desks, setting up computer workstations for nearly minimum wage, discovering raisins that were formerly grapes. I proofread tax forms for online software, examining every character on hundreds of pages full of bone-dry legalese—twice.
Nearly two years later, I finally got a full-time position again, and by that time, my outlook had shifted completely from my pre-layoff ideas. I no longer believed that my life was on a direct track from a degree to an entry-level job to a full career with the same company.
Most of my generation share this sentiment: a global study from Deloitte found that a majority of millennials believe that they will have left their current positions by 2020. The study also found that loyalty was higher among millennial parents, where 32 percent of employees believed that they’d be working at the same company in 2021, compared to 24 percent of non-parent millennial employees. Even when looking for stability in raising a family, it seems that modern employees don’t believe that the job market will provide the same long-term stability that previous generations enjoyed.
Stunted Responsibility/Phantom Position Pain
When employers keep layoff-scarred employees’ responsibilities static or scale them back, the employees may experience stunted responsibility/phantom position pain as a complication.
Layoff-scarred employees have a harder time simply trusting in their job security without concrete signs of progress, which can lead to anxiety, stress, and reduced performance. One study even found that distrust for employers persists for as long as ten years after an employee experiences a layoff.
Gone are the days when companies promoted copy room go-fers up through the ranks for thirty years before sending them off with a gold watch. As the workforce faces pressure to shift away from full-time work toward the gig economy, the divide between moving up and going nowhere is starker than ever.
In my case, economic trends had pushed my organization toward a leaner operation, one that needed fewer pieces of content. I was still completing all of my assignments, but the flow had slowed dramatically. Standing at my desk, I would look out over the silent rows of empty cubicles outside the call center while everyone else was in meetings, fully expecting a tumbleweed to blow by. Without tasks to fill my working hours, I began to wonder why no one had noticed, and the explanations I came up with didn’t predict a bright future.
Your best employees are the ones who plan their future each day they come into work. Ensuring that their vision of the future includes a position at your organization takes more than a “no news is good news” philosophy and an ineffective annual performance review.
Treatment for Post-Traumatic-Job Disorder
Post-traumatic-job disorder can manifest in many other ways. It could show up as residual micromanagement paralysis, where an employee’s initiative and engagement atrophy under a manager who changes everything on every project. It could show up as work environment toxicosis, where a developer might rage over the daily Nerf war, or where an isolated sales representative languishes on a different floor than the rest of his team.
However, the main treatment for post-traumatic-job disorder remains the same no matter which symptoms an employee exhibits. Effective and regular communication, from the first interview onwards, can help you diagnose issues stemming from PTJD and soothe any flare-ups that happen during the unavoidable stresses of the workweek.
The Deloitte survey asked millennials “What are the most important values a business should follow if it is to have long-term success?” More than half of respondents’ answers were along the lines of fair treatment or integrity. You might not be able to resolve every symptom of post-traumatic-job disorder, but if you consistently communicate these values to your employees, you provide them with space to heal and room to grow.