In my 20s, I got divorced. Soon after, I was left without health insurance and I called my boss thinking it would be easy to get everything set up. “I wasn’t expecting to have to pay for this,” he said with hesitance. Not exactly what I was expecting on this small team that just a week ago was telling me we were “like a family.” After a few persistent conversations where I told my manager I would have to leave if I didn’t get insurance soon, he told me he would do research. “You’ll have it before the first of the month,” he promised.
What he didn’t know is that I was in need of a doctor. I had an abscess that was growing more painful by the day. I was too scared to find out what it would cost to see a doctor without insurance. I had just gone through a divorce, lost a job, and I bought a house. I was not in a financial position to take on big medical debt. So, every day I called my manager about my insurance and every day he acted like I was inconveniencing him.
One day on a sales call, that abscess burst mid-call. I panicked. I didn’t want to interrupt the sale, but I was also having a medical emergency. “Call the doctor,” I texted my mom who lived a few miles away. “I need an appointment now.”
I’m almost ashamed to admit to all of you that I finished that call. I quietly waited for everyone and sold a sponsorship. When I hung up, I screamed – in pain, in frustration. The doctor I saw was just as frustrated with me. “This is so much worse than it had to be. Don’t wait to see a doctor ever again,” she said sternly.
I don’t know what kept me on that call. I wasn’t making commission and it wasn’t my company. There was no reason for me to sit on that call any longer except for the work trauma that made me think I couldn’t take time off in the first place. That I was causing a great inconvenience if I took care of myself or insisted that my employer take care of me.
We all have a story like that. Some event where we knew, even if we were never told, that we had to prioritize work over everything. I see it play out with my team, too. Their messages tell me they got the same conditioning I did. Messages like “I’ll get right back to work after the funeral and the emergency vet,” as if neither carried some massive emotional toll. Another one saying, “I can get this outline to you after I get home from the emergency room.” To both I replied with some version of, “please stop working, it’s not as important as your health,” but it has been bothering me.
I know I don’t set that expectation – I live in a van and travel the country. I’m constantly taking time off and pushing deadlines. It’s not me. It’s work PTSD.
Corporate toxicity and work trauma leaves with us when we break free from their bullshit. I know, I suffer from it every day. Every single day I’m wondering if I’m not doing enough, if I’m not working hard enough, if I’m somehow not meeting the magical expectations that will keep my business alive. Magical expectations of who, I’m still not sure.
The more I try to break free from this work trauma and PTSD, the more I realize how unrealistic this world of work even is. Imagine if you loved something and someone came to you and said, “you can love this, but you can only have it if you do it for more than 40 hours a week and you choose it over everything else in your life.” I’d be second guessing the thing I love more than anything.
Which prompts a question. Why aren’t we second guessing a system based on having to put that much work in just to get a baseline of benefits from an employer – not loyalty, trust, or anything extra? 40 hours is no small commitment but for some reason, most of us walk away with work trauma and PTSD instead of plans for improving our lives. Hell, we get treated like outcasts for even asking for what we need.
Why? I won’t begin to dissect that answer this week but I do know this. Managers who want to make it better need to explicitly communicate with their team about flexibility in order to allow them the freedom it implies. We have to be more explicit, even with a strong team culture, about how things really work. For some of you, that does mean a schedule and time off and finding a replacement if you’re out of the office. For others, I think we can be more realistic about how we get things done. Aren’t the KPIs better than a bunch of people just clocking in?
Tell people how you’re working and your expectations for them. Tell them to go to the damn doctor if they’re sick. Talk about how soon you expect them to reply to an email. When should they be online? What’s the priority when all hell breaks loose and you can’t work? We have to communicate because regardless of how fluid you work, you have power as the manager. You have to give power to people who are only informed by traumatic work situations – they won’t just take it.
Kat Kibben [they/them] is a keynote speaker, writing expert, and LGBTQIA+ advocate who teaches hiring teams how to write inclusive job postings that will get the right person to apply faster.
Before founding Three Ears Media, Katrina was a CMO, Technical Copywriter, and Managing Editor for leading companies like Monster, Care.com, and Randstad Worldwide. With 15+ years of recruitment marketing and training experience, Katrina knows how to turn talented recruiting teams into talented writers who write for people, not about work.
Today, Katrina is frequently featured as an HR and recruiting expert in publications like The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Forbes. They’ve been named to numerous lists, including LinkedIn’s Top Voices in Job Search & Careers. When not speaking, writing, or training, you’ll find Katrina traveling the country in their van or spending some much needed downtime with the dogs that inspired the name Three Ears Media.