Things you should know: Corporate Stockholm Syndrome is actually a thing

Leslie Jones & Sandra Oh on SNL

For many of us, toxic work experiences are nothing new. We tend to keep moving and adapting as we build our careers; but bad experiences at work, including sexual harassment, consistent discrimination, and downright abuse, always leave marks, some deep. Often, we don’t notice these scars until much later, when we’ve moved into another role or when a dull throb endured for years gets to be too much. Many of us wish we’d learned to recognize toxic workplaces or cultures prior to joining companies and teams.

So what can we do to take care of ourselves? How can we become self-aware of the impact bad bosses or toxic workplaces can have and process the experience so we can move more quickly into a more abundant, healthy work life and recognize patterns we want to leave behind?

We sat down with Dr. Lori Davis, a a clinical psychologist with a specialization in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and anxiety disorders and asked her to lend her expertise to this subject.

*Dr. Davis is a clinical instructor of psychology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and has a private practice in downtown New York City.

We’re now in a world where our identity and social lives are very much wrapped up in our work. What’s the best way to separate your own emotions from an employment situation, while remaining friendly and close enough with our coworkers?

There’s no question that many of us are over-identified with work and our professional personas. After all, we spend so much of our time and intellectual resources on work and career related matters, and current technology keeps us more connected than ever. But we can reach a point where we define ourselves primarily in terms of our work successes — promotions, financial status, and how we are perceived by colleagues and bosses. A healthy work-life balance is a continual battle for most of us.

While it is natural to develop relationships with colleagues, it is crucial to separate your work life from your personal life. Seek positive people at work, and avoid those who gossip and get caught up in office drama and politics. While we often cannot choose a boss or coworkers, we can choose how much time to spend with them. Take time out of your work days to touch base with friends and loved ones outside of work to emphasize other healthy, supportive relationships.

Can you explain what “Stockholm syndrome” is — and how it might have a correlation to what goes on in bad workplace situations? How do you (or can you) accurately diagnose this type of situation when you’re in it — and what might be the next steps? Seeking counsel from an objective professional? Taking distance from the situation?

Stockholm Syndrome, which was coined in the 1970s after a bank robbery and hostage crisis, refers to a condition in which hostages develop positive, loyal, even loving feelings toward their captors as a means to survive. Workplace situations akin to this are sometimes referred to as Corporate Stockholm Syndrome. Employees become intensely connected to their bosses while simultaneously feeling mistreated. They can be subjected to verbal abuse, belittling, asked to complete unreasonable tasks, and can even become isolated so that it is difficult to reach out for help. The employee hesitates to speak up for fear of job loss, being passed over for promotions, and financial consequences. Eventually, the self-esteem of the employee suffers, and he or she engages in self-doubt and self -blame, which can only serve to make it more difficult to leave the situation.

Often, victims of workplace abuse tell themselves that the problem will go away. They may think that if they approach HR or higher management, the results will be more destructive than the actual abuse.

Fear is a potent emotion and cases go underreported. It’s often beneficial to speak with someone at work whom you trust to get a reality check about your situation, and also to receive support.

Some experts recommend having a frank sit down with your boss, but some victims report they are too fearful of doing so, or skeptical that their situation will change. One option is to meet with a trained professional such as an employment lawyer who will provide feedback and possibly work with you to develop an effective exit strategy. A psychologist or other licensed mental health professional can help you to process your feelings and to get clarity so that you can move forward into a healthier work environment.

Say you’ve been burned or gas lit in the past, and you’re hyper-vigilant to how future co-workers or managers might respond to you. How do you balance that desire to be careful with not icing out your co-workers or future managers?

Victims of workplace bullying or abuse may feel that wherever they go professionally, they will be unprotected and unsafe. People do recover from trauma, but often need the help of a professional to process the memories and feelings (e.g., fear, distrust, anger, self-blame, shame). When individuals finally extract themselves from abusive workplace situations, they may feel a sense of relief. But stress related symptoms can hang on for a while, including headaches, insomnia, and fatigue. Sometimes, a person takes a time out from work if this is financially viable, or reevaluates work goals before seeking new employment. Some individuals switch careers.

It is understandable to feel anxious, even fearful, as you settle in to a new job. Individuals no longer trust their gut about what feels right and can wonder if they are being too reactive to others’ comments and actions. Friends can give you feedback about this. They can also provide positive reinforcement and remind you of your strengths, which helps to reinforce your identity outside of the workplace. A therapist can help create a plan of self-care, which may include exercise, mindfulness, or anxiety reduction techniques to manage distressing feelings. A short course of cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, can also help to identify patterns of thinking.

This is not to say that individuals are wrong in their perceptions, but it is important to clarify when one may be carrying baggage forward into anew jobs and even on job interviews. And yes, you will forge new relationships, but perhaps a bit more slowly than in the past. It is essential to give yourself time to heal. You are likely more resilient than you realize.

In your professional opinion — what are the side-effects of abusive bosses and management? Both micro (individual) and macro (company, society, culture)?

Abuse in the workplace erodes the morale of employees while promoting a culture of fear and distrust. Many companies and organizations do not include roadmaps for what victims of abuse can do to rectify or remedy unhealthy situations without fear of retribution, additional abuse, and the loss of status. Colleagues and coworkers who witness the abuse may not speak up for fear of negative consequences to their own jobs.

According to research conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute in 2017, more than 60 million individuals in the US have been affected by bullying or abuse in the workplace. Top management needs to take workplace abuse seriously and develop clear and firm guidelines for reporting so that employees feel protected and know that misbehavior will not be tolerated and that consequences will be enforced.

Certainly, life isn’t always fair, the world can be a harsh place, and no employment situation is ever going to be *perfect.* In your mind, what’s the best place to keep reminding yourself that you’re valuable, even if you’re in a situation where others are telling you you’re not?

While we all seek external validation personally and professionally, a healthy sense of self has to come from within. No one is an automaton, so it is easy to fall prey to others’ negativity and perceptions. Reinforce the gains you have made at work. Revisit your accomplishments outside of work. Write them down and share achievements with friends and family. A toxic workplace or abusive boss can make you doubt yourself. Tell yourself that you were OK when you took the job, maybe even better as you made progress, and that you will resume that level of productivity over time.

Why do people abuse or devalue one another? Can this behavior be changed?

Abusive people in the workplace often devalue others in order to elevate themselves. If they perceive an underling or a rising star as a threat, they may begin to criticize, humiliate, mock, or ostracize this person to retain their status. Some abusive supervisors or bosses may have been abused in the past. They may take on the role of a perpetrator as a means to feel empowered because they were victimized in the past. Abuse can be what is familiar to them.

Many abusers lack empathy, are narcissistic, and lack the capacity to understand the impact of their words and actions on others. Do not expect this behavior to change. Companies would do well to reward bosses who value and call attention to up-and-coming high performers.

In your experience, what is the centerpiece to a healthy work relationship? How does a person change for the good or blossom, after they’ve successfully shed some of their past trauma and feel cultivated (or at the very least stabilized) rather than stunted?

A proportionate work-life balance aids in providing a person with healthy self-esteem and a sense of mastery and pleasure in life outside of work. When I work with patients, we often draw a pie chart about the whole of life: career, relationships, family, hobbies, self-care so that one’s identity and sense of self are not only based in work. I often recommend that patients listen to meditation and mindfulness apps to reduce their stress level.

Doing yoga and deep breathing , all serve to reduce anxiety and keep one’s mood level, which will help to navigate difficult moments and people in the workplace. Be sure to find time for exercise — even a fast-paced short walk can help. Plan non-work events that you look forward to and set non-work goals such as running a short marathon, or reading a fiction series.

After experiencing workplace trauma, or any trauma, individuals often have difficulty being compassionate toward themselves. No one is exempt from negative life events and it does not detract from your strengths and the accomplishments you have made through your career and life. Try to provide yourself with the same level of kindness you would easily give a friend.

Thank you Lori, this is subject needs more commentary and helpful expertise like yours.

You deserve to advance at work. We’re here to help you build a more equitable relationship with your employer.

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