5 Ways You Can Heal at Work

Healing at Work


Did you see the recent announcement from the World Health Organization about how it has identified the workplace as a key source for burnout worldwide?  When I first saw that article, my immediate reaction was, “Really?  We needed a United Nations-funded study to come to that conclusion? Tell us something we don’t know.” When it comes to wasting money, this is right up there with the shrimp-on-a-treadmill study, if you ask me.

Here’s a topic that we’d all benefit from knowing more about:  People who begin their adult working lives already burned out. And how the workplace can actually help them heal.

I’m speaking specifically about adult survivors of damaged pasts (ASDPs): People who grew up in households where their parents or guardians, either intentionally or unintentionally, raised them to have negative beliefs about themselves. Many ASDPs grow up feeling unsafe or ashamed for a myriad of reasons. ASDPs commonly bring into their adult lives (and the way they experience day-to-day work) haunting, devitalizing beliefs about themselves and the world. In my particular case, because of my overbearing, angry, unpredictable father, I spent years of my early career desperate to please my managers and continuously braced for the potential of angry outbursts. I was on edge, on the defensive, always eager to please – to the point where I literally saw myself as a Golden Retriever puppy in the midst of wolves. I was emotionally exhausted. Did I start work already burned out? You bet I did.

Here’s a topic that we’d all benefit from knowing more about:  People who begin their adult working lives already burned out. And how the workplace can actually help them heal.

We ASDPs understandably hold out the hope that when we’re all grown up and able to get away from our home life (addictions, physical violence, neglect, overly controlling and narcissistic adults who have power over us, for instance), we’ll be able to leave our past behind. Most of us are unaware of the effect of our childhoods on us at work.  It’s important to realize that we bring into our adulthoods coping mechanisms that might have kept us relatively sane as children, but are getting in our way when we try to build healthy adult relationships with our bosses, colleagues, friends, partners, and even ourselves. Darn it! Can we ever hope to simply live in peace and ease inside our heads and in our own skins?

Weirdly, your workplace can be that place where you truly learn to heal and claim your life as your own. Here are some ways that your work life can help you heal from the negative lessons you may have learned about yourself and the world while growing up:

It will teach you to have faith in yourself and the future.

You may have been raised in an atmosphere of chaos and broken promises. Just managing to get through the day with “nothing broken; nothing thrown,” was the most you could hope for. In the workplace, you learn time management; goal setting; accountability; pride in achievement; the joys of celebrations; and the gratification that comes from being recognized for bringing your unique talents to projects that include teams who are glad to have you.

It will teach you that almost anything you need to know or do is learnable.

Shame-bound parents and guardians often don’t know how to teach without making children feel harshly judged for simply not knowing already. Young children in dysfunctional environments are afraid to admit what they don’t know. Consequently, to be able to say, “I don’t know this, will you help me learn?” can be a big risk that ASDPs bring with them into their careers. And it can be a big surprise and relief when they hear for the first time, “Sure! I would be pleased to mentor you. Thanks for asking.”

It teaches you effective skills and behaviors that deepen positive relationships.

ASDPs commonly grow up to believe harsh tones, angry reactions, controlling behaviors are “normal.” They learned to interact with people by watching their parents or guardians. When they start their working lives, they meet coworkers and colleagues who get ahead and attract what they need by using diplomatic skills, kinder ways to communicate, even more tempered tones of voice. They discover that, yes, even kindness is a learnable skill.

It teaches you how to not only change your mind, but actually change your brain.

In future blog posts, I’m going to go more deeply into the basics of psychoneuroplasticity. Let’s just say for now that when you build up your life experiences with positive stories and proof that you’re safe in the world, your physical brain will actually heal and grow. The more positive experiences you have at work, the more your brain is positively affected. As a result, even more positive experiences and healthy relationships come naturally and easily to you.

It teaches you to take control over your own life story.

ASDPs grow up learning about the world and their place in it from adults who are dysfunctional themselves – often because they’re ASDPs too. You’ve probably heard the truism that “hurt people hurt people.” ASDPs start their life story being told by damaged adults that they’re unworthy of kindness, safety, peace of mind, respect, all those emotional necessities of life that are everyone’s natural birthright. When you’re in an emotionally healthy workplace, you might be surprised to discover what it’s like to be treated with kindness, respect, and tolerance. From that foundation, you can build an entirely new life story of belonging, contribution, value, healing, confidence and self-respect.

You might be thinking, “Susan, where exactly is this perfect place to work? And how can I get a job there?” Yes, I know, workplaces are rarely a perfect incubator for healing hearts and minds. You won’t be the only ASDP at work. In fact, your boss might also be an ASDP, and there will be moments when there will be collisions – what I call bumper car moments.

Still, businesses are rewarded financially and socially for being emotionally safe places to work.  That’s one of the reasons why we have so many different kinds of Best Employers lists. Leaders know that they can get best performances from employees who feel safe, respected, valued and confident at work.

So, if you’re an ASDP, no matter where you work now, there is some aspect of your workplace culture that will help you heal. And if there isn’t, the time has come to find a place where you can. You’re worth your own effort to heal from your past.

Remember: The rest of your life is yours.

Tell me: What wonderful, positive truth have you learned about yourself at work?

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© 2019 Susan J. Schmitt


Bio: Susan J. Schmitt Winchester is the Senior Vice President, Chief HR Officer for Applied Materials, in Santa Clara, CA. This article was written based on the principles from her forthcoming book, Healing at Work: The Adult Survivor’s Guide to Using Career Conflicts to Overcome Your Past and Build the Future You Deserve (with Martha I. Finney). Contact Susan here.

2 thoughts on “5 Ways You Can Heal at Work”

  1. I like your writing style. It’s almost as if your are sitting next to me having an encouraging conversation.
    Also, as if you are sensing where my mind is going, and responding to unasked questions that I am about to speak.
    From my perspective, well spoken truisms, like “hurt people hurt people,” help both in understanding self, and in giving insight into how such inept love and nurture are intergenerationally transmitted, either knowingly or unknowingly by parents.
    I wasn’t originally sure how healing in the workplace could work, but am beginning to see that teamwork, realizing and being rewarded for accomplishments, etc., can change the trajectory.

    By the way…..nice eyebrows!. Love, Barbara Jean Wallace Shambach, mother of an amazing daughter who looks a lot like you!


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