Abuse Survivors on the Job: Signs, Symptoms and How to Help

It's not as uncommon as you might think.

Maybe child abuse isn't such a problem. As of 2011, according to the  Health and Human Services Department, there were 742,000 "confirmed cases of child maltreatment," which translates into about .1 percent of the child population. 

Of course "there are lies, damned lies and statistics" and the numbers depend on both definition and methodology. For example, how would you define "maltreatment?" At a minimum, the categories are physical, emotional, sexual and neglect -- but beyond that, the precise criteria vary from state to state.

And what is a "confirmed case?" According to the government, if you call social services and they issue a referral for assessment instead of doing a formal investigation, "it is often the case that no determination is made as to the allegations of maltreatment and therefore the child will not be classified as a victim."

Here are some statistics, gathered from governmental and nongovernmental studies by, whose founders were recognized in 1983 by Health and Human Services for their "leadership in the prevention, treatment and research of child abuse and neglect, nationally and internationally."

Among the horrifying statistics cited by Childhelp -- among them that "a report of child abuse is made every 10 seconds" -- are the results of one large-scale study carried out from 1995 to 1997 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention jointly with Kaiser Permanente.

For this study, 17,000 patients self-reported childhood abuse during the course of a doctor's physical. Even taking into account the fact that these allegations are not necessarily proved in a court of law, as well as the fact that the study was conducted nearly 20 years ago, the disparity between the numbers generated by official investigations and victims' own accounts is shocking. 

According to them, here's what our nation's children may actually be experiencing:

  • More than 1 in 4 children physically abused (28.3%)
  • More than 1 in 5 children sexually abused (20.7%)
  • More than 1 in 10 emotionally neglected (14.8%) or abused (10.6%)
  • Nearly 1 in 10 physically neglected (9.9%)

Let's assume that the workplace population is generally reflective of these percentages, and let's also assume that most people work in a team setting. The generally accepted norm for immediate team size is five people, but most of us interact with a slightly larger group of colleagues from other teams in order to get things done.

So it is likely that at least one person you work with on a somewhat regular basis has been abused as a child. The long-term symptoms of such trauma do not just "go away," and the victims cannot just "get over it." 

Bracha Goetz explains why: "Traumatic experiences remain encoded in a primitive part of our brain, the amygdala, which automatically goes into “fight or flight” mode when triggered by certain stimuli, even decades later …  The lower part of our brainstem, unlike our far more complex prefrontal cortex, doesn’t have the level of sophistication needed to be able to tell the difference between triggers that signal real danger and those that do not. Footsteps above, or even a particular place or food, can elicit an automatic response that floods the body with terror, since those stimuli are neurologically linked to the approach of the abuser."

As adults, she notes, survivors experience a range of unwanted symptoms including "depression, PTSD, dissociative disorders, eating disorders, drug addictions and anxiety."

For adults who have been sexually abused as children, write Melissa and Joshua Hall, the impact includes not only depression, but also a range of symptoms that affect survivors' relationships with others. Among them: "guilt, shame, self-blame ... anxiety, repression, denial."

Of course, survivors of childhood abuse do not normally walk around with a tattoo that says "I was victimized." In fact, the shame they feel -- as well as the ongoing social and workplace stigmas surrounding any discussion of one's personal traumatic experiences -- virtually guarantees that they will go to great lengths to appear "normal" at work. 

So you will probably not know. But you may very well see evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder in a colleague. Amy Menna and others at Gift From Within outline some of these in an article titled "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the Workplace: What Employers and Coworkers Need to Know":

  • Information retention: Memory problems, difficulty retaining information, lack of concentration.
  • Emotional responses: Feelings of fear or anxiety, panic attacks, unreasonable reactions to situations that trigger memories.
  • Physical issues: Physical problems, trouble staying awake.
  • Relationship issues: Poor interactions with co-workers
  • Disruption to the workplace: Absenteeism, interruptions if employee is still in an abusive relationship, harassing phone calls, etc.

Of course, it is neither sensitive nor advisable to directly confront a co-worker or employee with the concern that they may have been abused -- even in the name of helping them. But if you think you are working with a potential victim, the authors of "PTSD and the Workplace" have some advice:

  1. Invest in training. Given that one in four employees has potentially been abused in some way and given that abuse affects the ability of an individual to function in all aspects of life, this seems like a sensible move regardless of whether a certain person seems to be exhibiting symptoms. (I would add that supervisory training and co-worker training will likely need to differ due to HR considerations -- for example you don't want an employee to get the opposite impression from what you intend (e.g., that they've somehow been targeted.)
  2. If an employee tells you that they need practical help, listen to them. They offer the example of an assault victim who doesn't want to work nighttime hours, or who asks to be walked to her car (or the bus stop).
  3. Be aware of what symptoms look like, and be prepared to accommodate them.  The authors give the example of providing an office environment that has less distractions, or more time to finish a task.
  4. Ask what you can do to help the employee do their best work. The authors point out that survivors will feel embarrassed to admit they need help at all, so it is important to keep asking, but not in a way that seems overly persistent and aggressive. A good training program will help supervisors and co-workers alike to find the right balance.
  5. Address problems immediately. The authors point out a commonly known best practice, to provide "gentle and immediate feedback" if and when performance isn't up to par or the employee seems to be having a hard time. They may never talk about PTSD at all, but the open dialogue and your sensitivity to various potential causes of problems are both beneficial to helping the employee as well as helping restore the office to a more productive state.

The bottom line is this: All of us walk through life with baggage -- physical and emotional --no exceptions. Like my father-in-law, may he rest in peace, used to say: "The chances are a million to one, but there are a million and one things." 

So it's wise to have compassion for others, if for no other reason than karma.

But if you're looking for a business justification for sensitivity to co-workers who have survived (or are going through) some form of abuse, think about this: Just like with diversity, treating others with care and compassion is ultimately good for business. It's smart management:

  • At the very least, it reduces disengagement and time lost due to stress and the resultant physical symptoms, not to mention the impact on health insurance rates.
  • At best, it promotes worker trust, loyalty, team performance and the retention of institutional knowledge that can benefit both long-term strategy and the immediate successful implementation of complex projects requiring detailed knowledge of company history, culture and operations.

At the end of the day, caring about others at work does not mean you look away and let them get away with poor job performance. It does mean you pay attention to what is going on, with their behavior and their work, and take positive and reasonable steps to support their productivity.

Copyright 2016 Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. The opinions expressed are her own, and the content of this post is not intended to represent any federal agency or the government as a whole.

(Image via Lightspring/