My Job Traumatized Me — Now What? with Hammad N'cho | Crooked Media
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March 22, 2023
Work Appropriate
My Job Traumatized Me — Now What? with Hammad N'cho

In This Episode

Sometimes the stuff that happens to us at work is weird, or frustrating, or funny– but sometimes it’s straight-up traumatizing. How do you move forward when you still feel like you’re carrying trauma from a  previous job? Should I go back to my old job, because at least I had friends there? Should I tell my manager about my PTSD diagnosis? Licensed psychologist Dr. Hammad N’cho joins host Anne Helen Petersen  to answer some of these tough questions, and more.

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Anne Helen Petersen: Hi, everyone. This is Work Appropriate. And I’m your host, Anne Helen Petersen. [music plays] I don’t know about your group of friends, but mine loves to joke about the messed up and weird stuff that has happened to us in the workplace. It’s like gallows humor, you know, telling what’s happened as part of a story to an audience of people who don’t have to actually deal with it. It’s therapeutic and funny and useful and clarifying just how not okay, some of these behaviors are to some extent we do that here on the podcast, too. So many listeners have written in to tell us that just having someone read their quandary aloud and laugh at it but also take it seriously has been useful in figuring out how to keep showing up at work every day. But here’s the thing. Sometimes the stuff that happens to you at work is annoying or weird, but sometimes it is legitimately traumatizing and joking or laughing about it is insufficient. I knew if we were going to talk about how to deal with trauma at work, we needed a trained and experienced expert. And when I asked for suggestions for someone to fill that role, a bunch of you responded with the same name. [music plays]


Dr. Hammad N’cho: So my name is Dr. Hammad N’cho, I’m a licensed psychologist working out of Atlanta. I’m the executive director of N’cho Behavioral Group, which is a clinical practice as well as I do disaster response and global behavioral health consulting. 


Anne Helen Petersen: So you had a bit of a career pivot. I am familiar with it. You know, I have a PhD in media studies and now here I am hosting a podcast about work. [laughter] So tell me about your career pivot. You went from international development work to clinical psychology. How did that happen? 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Exactly. So initially after undergrad and I went to grad school and was studying economics and environmental management. And from there I was working in international development within West Africa, particularly in a country called Côte d’Ivoire in the late nineties. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, yeah. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: The country experienced a civil war also in the late nineties like right at 2000 and I just I could not help but see the impact of trauma on the citizens and on the society and how the society was functioning. And so I became really interested in trying to better understand trauma and how to treat it. So I went back to school and studied clinical psychology, cross-cultural psychology. I did my Ph.D. in counseling psychology. And then because trauma treatment was my focus, I joined the military. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Hmm. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: And the Navy has a adult clinical psychology residency program at Walter Reed Hospital. And so I completed that, and then they stationed me at a Navy Medical Center Portsmouth, where I was appointed the Assistant Division Officer over what was at the time, the Navy’s largest trauma treatment clinic where we’re like providing care for sailors and marines and their families. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: And it’s actually ironic that there the seeds of my next pivot began because there, I also served as a as a naval officer. I also served in the Navy’s psychiatric disaster response team. And upon leaving the military, I was offered an opportunity to serve on an outbreak rapid response team as a behavioral scientist in the Epidemic Intelligence Service of the CDC. And so this path kind of all of these things, all of these different positions that I engaged in, kind of led to the work that I’m doing now, the consulting work and the clinical work that I do now. And it’s actually funny. I listened to your episode on March 8th—


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: —where Maya Lau was talking about reinventing your professional self, and I was like, huh [laughs] all right, she’s talking, she’s talking about me. 


Anne Helen Petersen: I know. Yeah, me too. [laughter] I love the way that you describe a path towards where you are today. Because for me, like, you know, there was never any clear. You know, when I was 20, when I was 25, when I was 30—


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Mm hmm. 


Anne Helen Petersen: —I could never have predicted where I am now. But at every you know, there are just these forks in the road where you’re like, this feels right and this feels right and this is going to make me a better thinker and a better, you know, better at my job in whatever way. And it leads you in some interesting directions. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Exactly. Exactly. 


Anne Helen Petersen: So part of your work now, you you have private practice, but you also consult with businesses. So there’s a phrase that I hear thrown around a lot, and I don’t know that I’ve heard someone define it in a way that I really understand. But what does it mean to be a trauma informed workplace? 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Sure. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Or to provide trauma informed support to workers? 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Sure. And so when we’re talking about a trauma informed approach, what we’re working through and we see that especially now in the era of COVID, we’re understanding that within the workforce there’s likely going to be some level of trauma exposure throughout the workforce. And so what we want to do in designing policy, in designing our approach to supporting our staff, is recognizing how that trauma, which is often ubiquitous within the workplace, can impact how our staff performs and what are the resources and support that they want that they will need as they just show up to work, but also showing up to work carrying potential trauma exposure with them. And that has been particularly the case within a lot of the work that I’m doing since the pandemic began, helping corporations who stated, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, that we have a lot of folks who are on staff and we have a great deal of trauma exposure. If you have one person who’s in the cubicle next to you who passes from COVID. How do we address that within our workplace in a way that is supportive, in a way that is engaging? And that’s what a trauma informed approach does. It lists out some very specific ways to provide support to your staff with the understanding that they potentially have a great deal of trauma exposure in their day to day life. 


Anne Helen Petersen: You have perfectly set up our first question. [laughter] This is from this is from a nurse named Liz, whose job is exactly what you’re talking about. She is, started work in COVID, and she’s just trying to figure out how to deal. So Melody is going to read it for us. 


Liz: I worked as an RN at the VA hospital for three years. I started as a new nurse a few months before COVID. I had some intense bonding and relationships with my coworkers because we went through some trauma and milestones together. COVID, the Delta wave, patient deaths, along with personal stuff like pregnancies, marriages and one infant loss. Health care has become quite the shit show within the past few years. Our floor was always stressful, but work has become emotionally and physically untenable within the past few months or so. Anyway, I was on vacation and realized that I couldn’t relax. The chronic stress of my job was getting to me. I decided to see what else was out there and landed a job for more money on a more specialized floor at a fancier hospital. I started about two months ago, but I’m feeling sad all the time. I miss feeling loved and supported and getting to socialize at work. I feel really badly about myself because I am learning and I’m a novice on this new floor. I don’t know how to navigate interactions with nurses who seem to be generally type-A and meticulous. Most of my preceptors have been nice, but I had one who was very mean and made me cry. I’m not getting yelled at by patients on meth, but this floor has a lot of cancer and death and heaviness. Are things going to get better for me? Should I go back to where I came from? 


Anne Helen Petersen: All right. So what is your initial reaction to this question? 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Well, first, I’d like to take a moment and thank this nurse for her service. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: You know, when we reflect on the beginning of the pandemic, I mean, it was just a really scary time. No vaccine. A staggering amount of death. And in the midst of all of that, we had individuals like this nurse who suited up every day and basically went into battle. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: And so, first and foremost, I think we need to thank our medical staff and this nurse in particular for their efforts on all of our behalf. And then from there, you know, I think about I provided trauma treatment for staff working in COVID wards at the beginning of the pandemic. And it really did remind me of the trauma work that I had done in the military. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: I make that analogy to say this, when we are a part of a team fighting against an opposing and deadly force, be that in combat or, you know, during a once in a century pandemic that has claimed over a million American lives, there is this this unique bond that forms a powerful connection to those fighting alongside you. And so when that battle ends and you have survived, you can come to yearn for that connection, a level of connection that may, in fact, be particular to that circumstance. So in this nurses considering whether or not she should go back personally, I would want to explore does what you seek to return to actually still exist—


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: —as we are, you know, we’re in a different stage of the pandemic. And so I think I would do a great deal of exploring around that first. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, it’s almost nostalgia. Like—


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: —nostalgia feels like the wrong word because I think we often think of nostalgia with a positive valance. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Mm hmm. 


Anne Helen Petersen: But there is that trauma bonding that went on. And I think, you know, anyone who’s had a similar experience at a job or, I don’t know, like a, like a school situation, you know, some sort of situation where you get really, really close with people despite—


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: —the really difficult situation, apart from, you know, your friendships, you can’t go back, right? 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Exactly. 


Anne Helen Petersen: The same people are going to be there. The same outside situation is not going to be happening. But, you know, I think she also it’s almost like she feels a little bit of guilt for being on this different floor that’s fancier. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Mm hmm, mm hmm. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And but she also realizes that, like, there’s some stuff that she hasn’t dealt with. And you even see it in the question, I think, like she’s describing, you know, our floor was always stressful or it became—


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Exactly. 


Anne Helen Petersen: —emotionally and physically untenable anyway you know, like she’s going into this description of just how difficult it was. And then I was on vacation and I could not relax. You know, that to me is a real a sign that there’s some unprocessed stuff going on. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Exactly. And I think why the experiences I had working with folks, working in the COVID wards, it was very similar to some of the same themes that I experienced working with my troops in the military, that you can have these very austere circumstances, these very dangerous circumstances. But we had a camaraderie that is very hard to find outside of that space. And so you can have this this yearning for a return to that sense of connection, which kind of seems like it’s kind of coming out of that question a little bit. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: What I would also want to do is I would want to process with her exactly what she’s feeling with the new job. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Are these the usual expected feelings associated with starting a new job there, being a new learning curve and feeling like a novice? Or is it really just not a good fit? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: And because, you know, sometimes we start a new job and it just it isn’t a good fit. But I think I would want to flesh that out with her a little bit more and try and understand it a little bit more. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. Because it could be, you know, a culture thing, right? 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Mm hmm. 


Anne Helen Petersen: She’s saying that, you know, these nurses on this floor are very type-A and meticulous. And, you know, from the her description, she’s saying there’s a lot of cancer and there’s a lot of death, like it might be an oncology floor or something. That’s just a it’s a different pace. It’s a different feel than being at the VA. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Exactly. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And so what if she actually loves working in an environment that’s more like her experience at the VA? But it’s hard to untangle that feeling of like, was it the VA? Was it COVID? What was what did I really like about the job? What was really hard about the job? 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Exactly. And I am wholly biased by my career. But that’s what I kind of love about the process of talking it through and working through and processing and feeling because it can become all kind of enmeshed and being able to kind of process it, take it apart and understand exactly what’s driving it can help us direct the path that we would want to go in. So, for example, if what she is actually feeling is that, you know, this is about being on a new and steep learning curve and furthering her career now feeling like a novice all over again and and that being uncomfortable if we can identify okay well that’s actually what’s going on I would work to kind of help remind her of the learning curves that she has already overcome. I mean, if you could overcome the learning curves of COVID at the beginning of this pandemic, you can do this. What can’t you do, in fact? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Absolutely. And I think sometimes too when you’re burnt out, it’s hard to think of the next hurdle, right? 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Mm hmm, mm hmm. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Like, you’re like, I already did all the hard stuff. It reminds me of, I don’t know, being in geometry [laughter] and you like learn how to do a proof or something. And then you’re like, but wait, I also have to learn trigonometry? [laughter] I know that sounds absolutely insurmountable. But she seems to be very good at her job. And if if she can figure out how to break it down into something that seems more survivable—


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Mm hmm. 


Anne Helen Petersen: That will probably be a lot easier. But right now, she’s just feeling sad and unsupported. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: And that’s why I think if we can parse out the why of it, the why of the feeling, the sad and unsupported. Is it because I yearn for something, for an experience, for a time frame that potentially does not currently exist? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: All right, then we would work through grieving over that and grieving over the loss of that, that camaraderie. And then after completing that grieving process, we would then start working on, okay, so what are the feelings associated with your professional desires now, and how can we pursue these professional desires in the context of the now? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Do you think, you know, there’s this last question that she has. Are things going to get better for me? 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: When individuals ask you that question, what do you say? 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: So the question in and of itself is a desire for hope and things becoming better. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: And so what I end up doing and I think that that first piece of saying, well, if this is about new learning curves, we would focus on those curves that you have already overcome the obstacles and challenges and barriers. And in so doing, understand your innate strength. And that helps in and of itself, because it’s not always helpful for me to say, yes, it’s going to get better. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Because how do you know? [laughter]


Anne Helen Petersen: I know right, what if you’re wrong? What, then you have no trust, right? Yeah, yeah, yeah.


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Exactly. But instead, if we can turn that perspective inward and say, oh, wait a minute. Yes, I’m incredibly strong. Oh, man, look at what I’ve already overcome. Look at the innate capabilities that I have within me. Then yes, yes, it’s going to get better because I know who I am. And so my answer would not be, yes, it’s going to get better. My answer would instead be, let’s turn around and let’s look backwards at all of the obstacles that you’ve overcome and who you actually are as a person and as a professional. And just from her description, from her question, from what she’s already navigated, there would be ample evidence that, yes, things would be able to become better. And sure, it takes time and process and intentionality. But yes, things can become better. 




Anne Helen Petersen: So our next question is about carrying grief into work. And this is from Alex. 


Alex: What are some ways to handle grief in the workplace? Specifically, after losing my father suddenly and too young in 2020. I struggled with what and how to talk about my struggles with the team that I managed. I found support and understanding from most of my coworkers, but found almost no resources about how to be a good leader in the midst of grief and depression. Are there any good resources or best practices to guide leaders and managers through the struggles of grief? 


Anne Helen Petersen: So this is, I think, a really interesting question because there’s two things happening here. One is it’s asked in the midst of this ongoing discourse about like bringing one’s whole self to work and whether that is actually something that employers encourage or not. Right. Like—


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Mm hmm, mm hmm. 


Anne Helen Petersen: —is it even healthy? And then the other thing that I think is interesting about it is that it’s a manager, because oftentimes I think we get these questions about people who want to know, is it okay for me to share this with my manager? You know, I don’t know how much to talk with my boss about what I’m struggling with, but this person really wants to figure out how to model leadership—


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Yes. 


Anne Helen Petersen: —in the midst of this grief and depression. So what are your thoughts here? 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: You know, as listening to the question it’s funny, I was taken back to my time in the Navy, and while I was a naval officer, I had this amazing commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Amerson. He was this Marine who’d led troops in combat and had become this Navy neuropsychologist. He would call me into his office and we’d have these deep philosophical conversations about what effective leadership looks like. And I remember him saying one time, Lieutenant, we often think that leadership is driving towards a goal or achieving an objective. Pushing, pushing, pushing both yourself and your troops. But he went on to say, is that, while that can be true. It’s also about stopping and listening, listening to what the needs are, both of yourself and of those you seek to lead. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: And this, I think, is critical to discussing this question because it’s critical to how we process when we are grieving as leaders, when we’re grieving, you know, we should, of course, make use of employee assistance programs and therapy or faith based resources to help us process our grief and do all the things like make sure we’re eating well and going to sleep and exercising. But in addition to all of that, we allow ourselves to grieve by adjusting the demands and expectations that we have upon ourselves as leaders. In some ways, kind of like modeling that to our troops. You know, I say in my therapy sessions all the time that they tell us each and every time we get on a plane that you have to put the mask on yourself first. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Because if you’re not taking care of yourself, how could you possibly take care of others? And so I think part of it is about as a leader, recognizing I am a leader, but I’m also human. And it’s important for me to process the grief that I’m experiencing and allow that process to take place. 


Anne Helen Petersen: You know, we talk a lot on this show about how leaders and managers need to also model breaks from work, not responding to emails when they’re on actual PTO, you know, all those sorts of things. And I think if you are saying to your reports, hey, I want you to take time when you need it, right? I want you to make that space and you don’t do that yourself, ever. Right. If you don’t ever take time when you’re sick, if you don’t ever take time, when you’re just really having a difficult mental health day, then that’s implicitly telling your the people that are on your team that strong leaders don’t do that. Right. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Yes. Yes. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And so there’s real strength and vulnerability here, I think, in how you can model this. But so what would that actually look like, do you think? How do you think Alex could make this visible to people in her workplace in a way that feels professional? That sounds like a weird phrasing, but I think also—


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Sure. 


Anne Helen Petersen: —people are very mindful of this, right? They don’t want to be like weeping on a Zoom call. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Exactly. And so I think there’s a way in which we can communicate what is actually going on. Like, I’ve had leaders that will say to their reports, you know, my mother just passed. I’m going through a period of grieving and by explaining what they are going through and then doing what good leaders strive to do is to allow their team that they have built to step up, to fill that gap. Because as we’re grieving, there’s often a need for the leader to take that time and grieve and process it. And, you know, a good leader has worked really hard to put a good team together. And so this is a perfect opportunity to trust in your team, to allow them to demonstrate to you and themselves their capacity while you take your step back and take the time needed to mourn and to grieve. 


Anne Helen Petersen: I think even saying something like I’m going through a period of grieving, right? 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Mm hmm. Mm hmm. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Narrating that process can be incredibly powerful. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Exactly. 


Anne Helen Petersen: So what about people in the workplace who they themselves are not grieving? I think this is often a question how can I be supportive if I haven’t myself experienced this sort of loss or trauma? You know, how can I do it without overstepping my bounds? 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Sure. And of course, that will depend on the workplace—


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: –and the environment within the workplace, what those relationships are. And, you know, that should guide the process. But if there is a desire to support and that desire to be supported by the individual who is grieving pairs or matches up, well, in many ways it can just be to the recognition alone of saying, I recognize that you’re going through this. Do you are there things that we can support that we can do in your stead or do for you that can be also helpful in processing the individual processing their grief, and, you know, some workplaces they will have an individual who’s grieving or has had a profound loss and the workspace will collectively send food to the home or things like that by, and but being careful not to overstep and to understand what the individual who is doing the grieving actually wants and needs. And so by working to understand that there can be a process within the workplace as a whole to support that individual as they’re going through their grieving process. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Sometimes like even just a permission structure of— 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Mm hmm. 


Anne Helen Petersen: You know, we really want to underline that there is space for you to take a step back for a little bit, you know, for you to pass some responsibilities on to others for a little bit, but also to understand that some people process by working. Right. [laughs] This is this is something that’s hard I think if that’s not how you process but like—


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Mm hmm. 


Anne Helen Petersen: You know, sometimes you want to be doing something that is not just being by yourself and having nothing on your mind. You know, the work actually maybe in in some measure helps you to work through the process of grief. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: And, and, true. And we also have to be careful that—


Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. [laughter]


Dr. Hammad N’cho: —we’re not distracting ourselves from grieving. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: With just working because in many ways we’re not able to be fully there mentally and emotionally anyway. Like how how could we be? And so there’s a need to make sure that sure that we return to work. It can be helpful to be busy and become back to our professional selves. But we also have to be careful that we’re not avoiding grief—


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: —in so doing. 


Anne Helen Petersen: I really appreciate that [laughs] that corrective. Because what I see is myself being like, I would want to do some work [laughter] and when it when really what I need too is someone and this is why you can’t just rely on your colleagues to be your grief processing outlet because you also need someone who can say to, no you need to stop working—


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Yep. 


Anne Helen Petersen: —and actually sit with those feelings. Otherwise you’re never going to actually go through that grief. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: And it doesn’t go anywhere. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Like if we leave it unexamined, unprocessed, it’s still sitting there waiting for us whenever the work stops. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. [music plays] Our next question is also about leadership, but this one is about helping your team rebuild. This is from Krista. 


Krista: Aside from actual therapy, what is your advice for folks who have gotten themselves through a toxic situation and find that they now have post-traumatic stress disorder related to workplace harassment? How do you rebuild trust and a positive environment with your boss? And if you’re a middle manager with your team? 


Anne Helen Petersen: All right. So first, we should say that if this person has what they think is PTSD related to workplace harassment, they should be in therapy. Nothing can replace that. And yes, it is hard to find a provider. Sometimes it can be expensive, but it is worth making the effort to find a licensed mental health provider to help you work through these things. But for people who either, for whatever reason, cannot access that or want to work also at the same time that they’re working with the therapist, what advice would you give them about rebuilding a team’s culture after a toxic situation like this? 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Well, first, for this particular question, I think I would first want to have a conversation about what PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder actually is. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Because for us to have PTSD, we have to meet the very specific criteria put forth by the DSM–5 which is a diagnostic tool put forth by the American Psychiatric Association. And so for us to have this diagnosis of PTSD, we would have to been exposed to actual or threatened death, serious bodily injury or sexual violence, which is one of the primary criteria for diagnosing PTSD. Now, I make that distinction because I find that for my clients it can be very helpful and actually empowering to have a clear sense, a clear understanding of what it is they’re actually experiencing, what it is they’re actually wrestling with. So when we are discussing having an, an emotional response to navigating a toxic situation at work, we are more likely discussing having a normal stress response to an abnormal or stressful situation. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: And that’s important because what we’re doing is to reframe what we are experiencing as a normal response and not a mental illness or disorder. Now, that being said, normal stress responses can be a lot to deal with. And so while I know the question was for approaches outside or aside from therapy and of course, again, I am biased here [laughed] but I would not dismiss therapy as a tool for addressing this kind of emotional challenge. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: As you mentioned, of course, what that can look like can vary broadly. So, for example, I am currently a contracted psychologist in Deloitte’s Integrated Mental Health Services program, which is a benefit created to enhance psychological mental health within the workplace. But and that’s, you know, unique to Deloitte. But many organizations have been very forward leaning in recognizing the intrinsic value of supporting their staff in mental health ways and have resources already in place to kind of address it. So I would recommend taking advantage of some of those built in employee programs, mental health benefits within the workplace, as they are tools that exist specifically to help staff navigate during periods of crisis. 


Anne Helen Petersen: I just also know from people talking about their conversations with their therapists about workplace situations. You’re going to arrive at some tools through those conversations with your therapist. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Yes. 


Anne Helen Petersen: It might not be prescriptive, right? 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Yes. 


Anne Helen Petersen: It’s not going to like they’re not necessarily going to give you a precise script on here is how I’m going to rebuild trust with my—


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Yes. 


Anne Helen Petersen: —with my boss, or with my team. But they’re going to give you tools to identify exactly what’s broken, right? 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Yes. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Or what has been fractured. And and also to think about, okay, how do I rebuild that? So what do you think? What are some tactics or identifying processes that can get people started on this process of thinking about it? 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: So in the conversation about rebuilding trust, it seemed like as the question was read, it seems like we’re asking how like, how does one, after experiencing a stressful or toxic work environment, keep from carrying those emotions forward into a new work environment? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: And I actually like to think of this from the perspective of a romantic relationship. So when we come out of a challenging or even toxic romantic relationship, we know that it’s important that we process internally what the heck just happened. And we do that so that we’re healed and emotionally available for the next relationship. And I found that this can also be true in our professional relationships. And so after leaving a difficult or toxic work environment or work experience, there can be a need to assess or reinforce one’s sense of self, one’s self-esteem professionally, and to process those residual negative emotions so that those emotions so that we are emotionally available, if you will, for our next professional relationship. And that’s why I’m saying that identifying and utilizing specific resources such as support groups or EAP programs or therapies to actually be able to process the emotions from one toxic work environment and free us up so that those emotions aren’t carried over into a new place that actually has nothing to do with the toxic environment we just came from. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, I like the metaphor of the romantic relationship because it just reminds me too of like you break up with someone and you haven’t processed—


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Mm hmm. 


Anne Helen Petersen: —what went wrong, then the next relationship you’re going to, oftentimes the same patterns are going to be there. Right. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Exactly. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And you’re. You might be trying to avoid them. You might be like, I don’t want this to happen in my next relationship, but because you haven’t really looked at your own behaviors or what happened around other behaviors, you haven’t looked at that like really squarely in the eye and said, like, this is what was happening. This is how this made me feel. This is what I’m grieving. You know, the other thing I will say, and I would love your your thoughts on this, but I found that I knew that I hadn’t processed some toxicity and grief to do with a past job because I kept dreaming about it for years. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Mm hmm. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And I knew that, like, even though I thought I was past it, it was still there. I was still really dreaming about it, and my subconscious was still really grappling with it. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Sure. 


Anne Helen Petersen: I think this person really, as much as they want to move forward and I think a lot of times like self-starters in the workplace, they’re like, okay, I just need a plan for what’s next. They might have to look backwards first. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Exactly. And I think this why I love when we’re talking about our professional life and our personal life. This analogy between romantic relationships and professional relationships really pairs well, because in romantic toxic, let’s say toxic relationships, we can have a lot of self-doubt and our self esteem we can leave this relationship and our self esteem, can be really bruised. The same thing is true within toxic work environments. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm yeah. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: We can come from this toxic work environment where we were let’s say treated poorly and view professionally well, maybe this is about me, or maybe I don’t have the skills or maybe this is, an internalized that toxicity. And by taking the time to actually analyze and process the feelings associated with that workspace, you’re often able to get to a place of saying, oh, wait a minute, this wasn’t about me. This was about a manager with poor managerial skills or this wasn’t about me. This was about a toxic work environment. And so I can go into this new space with this weight off of me and with the more empowered sense of a professional self, because I’ve been able to give that mess back to them. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Hmm. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Back to the to this toxic space and go into my new professional space with the level of self-assurance and confidence because I’ve gone through that work. [music place]


Anne Helen Petersen: That is a really, really great answer. 




Anne Helen Petersen: This discussion tees us up for our last question, which is similar to what we’ve been talking about, but a little bit more about an actual diagnosis of PTSD and how much you have to disclose when you’re starting in a new workplace. So this is from Charlotte. 


Charlotte: I worked for an emotionally abusive boss for a year and a half, and I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD in the wake of that experience. And not surprisingly, it impacts the way that I show up at work in a variety of ways. Sometimes I need or want support from my workplace. That means that I disclose my trauma history in like really broad strokes. But I’ve also had situations where I’ve been upset and disclosed more than I wished I had after the fact. And I’m right now I’m in a professional transition, so I would love your insight into how to navigate a new workplace after experiencing a toxic or abusive work environment. 


Anne Helen Petersen: So Hammad, what options does Charlotte have when entering a new workplace and making sure that she gets the support that she needs. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: So that part about unintentionally disclosing—


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: —more than intended really resonates. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: You know, upon occasion in my therapy sessions, a client will seek to reveal and process a previously undisclosed trauma. Towards the end of the session. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: And in those circumstances, I gently stop the client. I honor their strength for having arrived at this point and say something to the effect of. How about this? Let’s leave that box closed until next session when we have the time to go through it together and give it the attention it truly deserves. And I do this because, among other reasons, once we begin talking about our trauma, it can be very difficult emotionally to stop even when we want to. And that’s kind of what I hear when it said I disclose more than I wish I had. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: And so in such an instance, I would actually recommend finding support, as we’ve talked about before. Therapists, support groups, things, religious spaces, things along those lines to help process the trauma and be actually truly heard and truly supported. Because generally the workplace is not an ideal to seek support of this type. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Do you think it would be useful if, Charlotte is starting a new job, she has a new manager. Is it useful for her to disclose it to her manager that this is something that happened in the past just so that maybe the manager can also be aware of their own behavior? Does that make sense? 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: So if Charlotte starts a new job and she tells the new boss about some of the experiences, traumatic experiences she had in this abusive space before, it depends on the connection that she has with the new boss. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mmm. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Is the new boss open, and will he or she be responsive in an appropriate way? And since we don’t really know that—


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, that’s true. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: —and since oftentimes within these spaces, professional behavior we deem to be professional behavior is viewed a very specific way. We may not get the support we need within those spaces because people within the new space may be trying to conform to the expectation of how to behave professionally. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: And so if Charlotte was my client, instead of saying, well, I’m going to go to my boss and tell him or her about the trauma that I’ve experienced in my previous space, I would want to explore, well, what do we know about this new boss? Is the new boss warm and receptive and welcoming, or will in some ways he or she retraumatize you? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: And so those are some things that we want to flesh out. And that’s why I am more in favor of finding a space, identifying a space that is truly designed to be supportive, truly designed to help you process some of the lingering feelings from that previous experience in ways that the new workplace just may not be able to. 


Anne Helen Petersen: That’s such a good point. I mean, I think in our ideal scenario, she starts at this new job and she discloses, oh, this is what happened in the past. And the manager says, wow, that must have been so difficult. I’m going to be mindful of of that history. I’m not going to treat you any differently. I’m not going to think anything different of you, you know, But that’s not how it always works in. And the point that you make, too, that it could open her up, that vulnerability, you know, showing that vulnerability of disclosing this past experience could open her up to retraumatizing. That’s just that that is not what anyone wants. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Exactly. Because do we know that the new boss is trained or warm and open such that she or he will respond in a way that doesn’t emulate the trauma that she just left. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: And not only that, but by identifying what are the boundaries that we need having experienced trauma. What are the boundaries that we need going into this new workspace? And then how do we implement those boundaries to protect ourselves and to help others identify, well, okay, where are the appropriate boundaries for me?


Anne Helen Petersen: The one thing I want to return to is this place where Charlotte asks, if it affects the way that I show up and work in various ways. And so what I hear her saying there is that she wants to be mindful of how she might have reactions that she might not feel completely in control of and maybe wants to prepare people for those reactions. Well, how do you how do you think about that? 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: I think about it from the perspective of let’s work with Charlotte in order to increase insight and understanding what her triggers may or may not be in a way that she can present in the workplace in a way that she most wants to. Another thing I have to say in therapy is it’s hard enough for us to change ourselves, much less change somebody else. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: And so if we come into this space and say, I need to let you know about my how I may respond to X, Y, and Z, we can’t control how they respond to that information. And a much more empowering approach would be for us to identify what our triggers are, to be able to use self-soothing and breathing techniques and relaxing techniques when those triggers are either on the horizon or we have been triggered. And so my approach would be to empower the individual versus hoping that we have a receptive audience within the workspace, which again, we know is not designed often to provide that level of support. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, because I think as much as we talk about the increase in trauma related management, you know, trauma informed management, it’s still I think is is pretty rare. But I also as kind of a way of closing, I want to know what gives you hope about an increased awareness of the importance of this sort of counseling, the sort of the availability of this sort of counsel at workplaces. But then also just, you know, people understanding that if I’ve gone through something traumatizing at work, it’s really important for me to talk to someone. What gives you hope about this moment? 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: What gives me hope and actually has given me hope throughout the pandemic is organizations recognizing the importance of caring for the mental health of their staff. And what that has looked like is saying, my staff, our staff is struggling. And we also recognize that we may not have the resources or the skill set to address that. And so what we are going to do is we are going to implement design programs to care for our staff intentionally to address these the mental health challenges that they may be facing. And I think that has been something that has instilled a great deal of hope for me. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: When I look at and we’ve done a lot of research and consulting with a lot of different companies, and when they say that we recognize that our staff has been traumatized, that they’ve had a great deal of loss within, let’s say, within COVID. And we also recognize that we want to support them, but we do not want to retraumatize them, which is a key tenet of the trauma informed approach. 


Anne Helen Petersen: MM hmm. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: We do not want to retraumatize them. And so what we are going to do is use our resources to bring in experts to develop programs to support our staff effectively. That is something that is very hopeful as we continue as organizations, companies continue to move in that direction. 


Anne Helen Petersen: That is a wonderful place to end. Dr. Hammad N’cho, thank you so much for joining me today. Where can people find you if they want to hear more from you? 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Sure. They can obviously go to my website and it has all of my social and contact information on there. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Amazing. Thank you again. 


Dr. Hammad N’cho: Take care. Thank you so much for the invitation. [music plays]


Anne Helen Petersen: Thanks for listening to Work Appropriate. If you’ve got a workplace quandary, you need help figuring out. Get in touch. Some episodes we’re working on include issues around parental leave, how to care less about your job, and two more my industry is broken episodes on veterinary medicine and writing for a living. You can find submission guidelines at or send a voice memo with your question to Work Appropriate at Don’t forget to follow us @CrookedMedia on Instagram and Twitter for more original content hosts takeovers and other community events. You can follow me on Twitter @AnneHelen or on Instagram @AnneHelenPetersen. And you can sign up for my newsletter Culture Study And if you’re as opinionated as we are, consider dropping us a review. Work Appropriate is a Crooked Media production. I’m Anne Helen Petersen, your host. Our executive producers are Kendra James and Sandy Girard. Melody Rowell is our producer and editor. Alison Falzetta is our development producer. Music is composed by Chanell Crichlow. Additional production support from Ari Schwartz and a special thanks to Katie Long and Sarah Geismer. Find us back here next Wednesday for everything you ever wanted to know about meetings.