Trauma & mental health in the workplace

A bit about me:

I'm an engineer who's led teams, worked in high-scale environments, and worked in companies of sizes 15-3,000. I like to think I know a thing or two about tech startups since I've been part of the community for 5 years and I've had the opportunity to share experiences with many close friends in the industry.

I also happen to have come from a high-trauma environment.

To give you a picture of what I grew up with (it's seriously not a contest) my mother had cancer when I was 9-15 (she died), my father struggled with alcoholism for my whole life, and I grew up in areas stricken with police violence, gangs, and drugs. My brother is in prison for life for murder and my sister and I have been diagnosed with PTSD and CPTSD respectively.

I have a lot of needs when it comes to being comfortable in a workplace and it's not my fault.

Right now I think there is a fundamental cultural problem in businesses across the US and if I'm right it's totally illegal. It's easy when growing a company to put mental health at the wayside. We expect more hours, less compensation, less personal growth opportunity, less autonomy, and all-in-all less respect for our employees, their mental health, and their personal lives.

Now in many startups I've worked at going to drinks seemed to be the end-all solution for leadership to make staff feel loved and like they're a part of a real caring group.

Some companies even go as far as saying "we're family" and while I've never heard of putting a child up for adoption because of poor grades or even lack of funding I get the sentiment.

So what's the problem companies are trying to solve?

These companies want productive employees, attractive environments to new talent, executives that are happy with their team (this matters a lot), and sometimes even to do what's morally correct.

Providing benefits to employees like working from home, flexible hours, shorter work-days, and highly-transparent environments can go a long way but for some of us it doesn't go far enough. It allows people to decide, to some degree, how they'd most prefer to interact and that's a massive benefit for many of us.

Sometimes this isn't enough for all of us.

What most companies are missing

Sometimes these pro-active accommodations aren't enough and sometimes are counter-productive. For noise-sensitive individuals (like those with PTSD) a sales gong can be the thing of nightmares and cause you to have to stop working for at least 15 minutes.

For a person with a shame disorder like CPTSD flexible hours and over-communicative leadership team can pretty easily lead to 50-80 hour weeks for someone who receives no extra benefits (pay, promotion, recognition, or growth opportunities).

There are even more nuanced triggers for someone who's faced discrimination, abuse, and other horrifying circumstances that may be making your employees break down in tears every few days (yes, it happens).

I believe that these scenarios are morally wrong and sadly leadership teams I've worked with often just put it on the individual to "get over it", "get used to it", and just "stop worrying about things that don't matter".

These are all actually pieces of advice I've received and they didn't work for me.

What does work for me is mindfulness (the mental health technique) and that requires frequent reflection, regular sleep, and moderate exercise. Ideally I exercise by cycling, sleep 7 hours on a strict schedule, and reflect while I'm cooking for and eating with my family. 

When your culture requires employees to go above and beyond it can destroy these self-healing methods for months.

Does self-identifying help?

In my experience it hasn't. Being honest about my needs, wants, and concerns about other people has led to short tenures in my experience. I haven't job-hopped in my career because it was convenient or I was looking for the "next big opportunity".

My salary has been frozen for 4 years and I've never seen a single company stock. I change jobs because tiny culture changes can make environments unbearable for me and cause me to have meltdowns (think crying in blankets because you think no one loves you).

I change jobs because my accommodations are sometimes too much for a leadership team to reasonably tolerate so I leave peacefully. I've left because I had to, not because I wanted to.

Let's do something about it

There are laws in place about "reasonable accommodation" and how we should listen to people who have experienced trauma and provide a workplace that makes them comfortable. 

For many of us this can be as small as "co-workers saying bitch really ruins my day, please stop" or as simple as "being addressed in front of the whole company makes me genuinely uncomfortable so please address my manager instead of me".

Start small and work your way up. Help your employees respect each other and hire managers that treat respect as a number 1 priority. Respect that people have families, homes, and rituals that make them healthier and make sure they have time to do those.

Some of us need to know explicitly that we won't be chastised for leaving work to go to a Dr's appointment or that it's okay to come in a little late if it's going to keep your rituals in tact.

Do your best to make the world a better place and provide workplaces that are kind to people like me.

This is one of the core reasons I started Lemon & Honey. It's to provide a workplace that truly respects people and loves them for the people that they are.

If you're on the employee side of things keep strong and remember to respect yourself. You are loved and you are special. You deserve your recovery time and your circumstances don't define the amazing person you are. You're much more than what you've been through.


Gabe Limon