Racial Trauma Can Affect Your Career. Here’s How

 Talking about trauma with colleagues or employers is usually seen as unprofessional. But trauma informs our decision-making, day-to-day behaviors, and ability to perform at work. Several things come with the expectation to take time off work like giving birth, losing an immediate family member, or anything that is perceived as extremely traumatic. For BIPOC professionals, racial trauma is something that gets overlooked.

Dealing with police brutality, microaggressions, or other forms of prejudice can trigger racial trauma. Think back to the summer of 2020, when the murder of George Floyd spurred protests in all fifty states. His death, which occurred four years ago today, started what many Black people believed to be a racial reckoning for America.

Some companies started affinity groups, posted statements of support for Black people, and started DEI initiatives out of hopes that maybe racism wouldn’t be as prevalent in the workplace. People I never expected to see speak out about police brutality were putting Black Lives Matter stickers on their cars and Black Lives Matters posters on their lawns. The overnight activism didn’t last long as the social media posts in support stopped and the Black Lives Matters posters disappeared. The flame that was lit by George Floyd protests died out in a matter of months. However, the trauma that Black people experienced as we watched him die on video may not ever go away. Many of us experienced a collective sense of racial trauma from George Floyd’s death.

Companies should consider giving Black and brown people time off to cope with racial trauma after something like witnessing George Floyd’s death on social media. I believe racial trauma should be taken as seriously as a traumatic incident that someone would normally get time off for. Offering time off for racial trauma could be a part of DEI efforts, especially after seeing or experiencing an instance of police brutality firsthand or repeatedly. DEI isn’t just about conferences and conversations, it’s also about being inclusive in your policies. And in 2020 companies could have been giving Black employees time off to focus on their mental health. Today, four years after the death of George Floyd, it’s time to reflect on how racial trauma can affect someone’s career.

I spoke with Dr. Leslie Adams, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins who researches the intersection of race, gender, and mental health, about how racial trauma can impact someone’s performance at work. “Racial trauma can have a long-term detrimental impact on someone's career and its trajectory. These experiences can elicit symptoms similar to those with complex trauma and PTSD, which could look like hypervigilance, physiological responses (chest pains, sleep disturbances, or impaired breathing), and depression. All or even some of these symptoms may prevent someone from being fully present in the workplace and also may influence their likelihood of advancement or promotion,” she told me.

‘‘Work performance could also be impacted, especially if the triggering stressors are cumulative and persistent. Employees experiencing racial trauma will have difficulty performing optimally in the workplace, including difficulty focusing or completing work-related tasks promptly,” she said.

I experienced some of these issues while trying to work after seeing the video of George Floyd’s last moments. I lost interest in my social media management job and had trouble focusing on freelancing. All I could think about was George Floyd calling out for his mother, a clear sign that he knew he was going to die. I wanted a group at work where I could talk about these things. I yearned for someone in my professional life to speak about his death openly. Instead, people did posts, wrote hashtags, and eventually moved on. Read More

But Black America hasn't moved on— we refuse to forget. George Floyd’s family hasn’t forgotten either. They refuse to forget the cruelty that was enforced on a man they called father, brother, son, and nephew. George Floyd’s aunt Dr. Angela Harrelson, who is an ICU nurse, was deeply impacted by her nephew’s death. She told me how racial trauma from his death affected her career.

“Working while dealing with racial trauma is a daily struggle that requires a lot of emotional and mental energy. I remember I tried to go to work a few days after learning my nephew was murdered. I did not realize that I was in shock. I came to work. I felt numb like I was in an out-of-body experience. When I arrived at the unit, I could feel the tension in the unit from patients and staff members. Everyone had heard about the murder of George Floyd,” Harrelson said.

It was hard not to hear about her nephew’s death considering video footage was captured by a brave bystander. The way he was killed was essentially unignorable. With the death of her nephew, the footage from it, all of the media coverage, and protests taking place across the country, it was very difficult for Harrelson to continue working. She ended up taking some time off to process all that happened. To this day she still struggles at work due to racial trauma.

“It's become too exhausting to keep up a professional facade when inside I'm dealing with so much pain and anger. Simple tasks can feel overwhelming. Finding motivation was tough, so I took time off work. I am still grieving his loss. I take it one day at a time,” she told me. Although things have been really tough, Harrelson believes her passion for advocacy is the best thing to come out of this experience. “Advocacy work has been the most rewarding part of my journey. In advocating for my community [George Floyd Square], the community reminded me daily that I was not alone. I continue to speak out for George Floyd and others who lost their lives to police violence,” she said.

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