Recognizing PTSD At Work

June 1, 2023

The term PTSD gets thrown around a lot these days.

“I won’t go back to that coffee place because the barista gave me caf instead of decaf and now I have PTSD, lol.”

“I had to wait in line forever at the service centre so now I have PTSD about getting my passport renewed.”

While we feel awful that you experienced these things, let us be the ones to tell you: None of it actually qualifies as PTSD.

In fact, the more we casually diminish the term conversationally, the less seriously it will be taken, and the less empathy we’ll have for someone who is actually suffering.

And even worse, any time we minimize mental health, even unknowingly, the less empowered people will feel to speak out about it or seek the help they need.

So, What is PTSD?

According to CAMH (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health), PTSD, or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, is a very real, often serious mental health problem that can emerge at any point following a frightening or disturbing traumatic experience, or set of experiences.

But we can’t talk about PTSD without talking about trauma.

And the definition of trauma can vary wildly.

Let’s Talk About Trauma

This term also gets casually thrown around. So let’s clarify a few things, shall we?

CAMH defines trauma as a lasting emotional response that results from living through a distressing event.

Experiencing a traumatic event can harm a person’s sense of safety, sense of self, and ability to regulate emotions and navigate relationships. Long after the traumatic event occurs, people with trauma can often feel shame, helplessness, powerlessness, and intense panic and fear.

It’s important to remember here that it’s not the event itself, but the emotional response to the event at play. This distinction is incredibly necessary because people have traumatic reactions to experiences that others might not consider distressing at all. The point being, it doesn’t matter what the actual event was.

**One person’s trauma is never any less valid than another’s**

Expanding Our Definition of Trauma

According to holistic psychologist Dr. Nicole LePera, our definition of what we call “trauma” must be substantially widened to account for this phenomenon.

Trauma does not have to stem from a specific event. It can develop from something as subtle as having to tiptoe around an emotionally reactive parent during childhood, which could manifest in adulthood as people-pleasing to “keep the peace”, or being emotionally triggered by figures who remind them of the parent in question (for example: a boss or superior at work with whom there is a similar dynamic of authority).

With this in mind, we can now get back to what PTSD means for someone experiencing it.

Common Symptoms of PTSD Include:

  • Re-experiencing the traumatic event mentally, over and over
  • Recurring nightmares
  • Experiencing intrusive memories of the event
  • Acting or feeling as if the event is happening again
  • Avoiding activities, places or people that are reminders of the traumatic experience
  • Inability to feel pleasure
  • Chronic pain or discomfort

These symptoms are often internal, however, and difficult to detect unless you are the person experiencing them. So knowing what PTSD can look like on the surface, in a work environment, becomes even more crucial.


  • People-pleasing.
  • Dissociation – appearing “spaced out”, disconnected, or disengaged.
  • Acting withdrawn, or avoiding certain activities or situations.
  • Forgetfulness – often a subconscious coping mechanism for distancing oneself from traumatic feelings.
  • Becoming easily angered or offended when certain feelings are (unknowingly) activated.

These lists are certainly not exhaustive – just as everyone deals with trauma differently, their responses and symptoms can vary as well. But it doesn’t make them any less valid.

If you notice signs of PTSD in anyone at work, it’s important to be able to provide the support needed, and to proactively create an environment in which all employees feel safe, empowered, and free of judgment.

Being able to offer employees sensitivity, as well as barrier-free access to mental health resources, is more important than ever.

For more information on PTSD, CAMH and are excellent resources.