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The Secret Tragedy of Working: Work Abuse - PTSD
An Interview with Chauncey Hare, family therapist
2000 Marge Mueller
Reproduced with permission

With graduation behind them, students will embark on new careers for the first time. Most will ponder the best job offers, work scenarios or office perks.

For many it will be their first experience as victims of work abuse.

Whether verbal or psychological or even physical, abuse of any form is traumatic for the victim. Chances are you or someone you know has been or will become victimized on the job by maligning supervisors -- or worse. Others you've known have been or will become perpetrators of work abuse.

"Work abuse is so prevalent," says Chauncey Hare, co-author of Work Abuse: How to Recognize and Survive It, it's always a shock for someone coming out of school to go into the workplace."

Like child and spousal abuse 30 years ago, work abuse is still ignored by society.

"It's everywhere and it's highly denied," Hare says. "Right now, there's no way for a person to make the distinction between something that's not work abuse and something that is----until he or she goes through an enormous, highly traumatic situation."

"In any organization that is authoritarian work abuse is prevalent. But because of denial people aren't acknowledging it."

Hare and co-author and wife Judith Wyatt, both licensed psychotherapists in San Francisco, coined the term work abuse in a 1988 report to the California legislature's task force team on self-esteem. According to The University of Michigan Institute for Social Research's statistics, 95 percent of all work organizations are authoritarian.

"That's where work abuse happens" says Hare "In those 95% of organizations that are authoritarian."

Four Types of Work Abuse

According to Hare, four types of work abuse exist. Neglectful or ongoing abuse occurs when employees' basic needs are not met or they are blamed for expressing these needs. Ongoing abuse often happens in the midst of the other three types of work abuse.

In chronic scapegoating one person is chosen for abuse by the group. Everyone joins in as a way to vent negative feelings that can't otherwise be addressed in the work system. If the scapegoat leaves the company, another employee usually assumes the scapegoat role.

With acute scapegoating one person receives the negative treatment--usually because the person's behaviors don't match group norms. The scapegoating stops when this employee leaves the organization.

Denial of due process, the fourth type of work abuse, occurs secondary to the other forms of abuse. With denial of due process the employer prevents or undermines appropriate means to resolve conflicts. Most work "horror stories" are cases of scapegoating resulting from unresolved conflicts.

Why Managers Abuse

Two reasons compel managers to abuse subordinates, according to Hare.

"One is the normative source, which comes from pressure by other managers to abuse," Hare says. "The other is from the internal source that is an accumulation of past injuries that they now have an opportunity to offload."

Hare attributes these injuries to childhood shaming experiences suffered by the manager that continue to manifest through school and into adulthood.

"Even at their last level of education, they've been abused and they've been hurt," Hare says. "So when they move into their profession, they have an opportunity to unload their shame on other people."

Origins of Shame

Hare describes two origins of shame that supervisors offload onto subordinates. One is "depriving shame" where the supervisor was not supported or validated as a child. Shame accumulates, and the child develops a sense of self-worthlessness.

"Punishing shame" is the other type. Managers who use this were often severely corrected as children. As managers they become highly abusive toward employees.

Shame and Self-worth

According to Hare, shame and self-worth issues play major roles in these individuals' drives to become managers. They climb the social status scale, placing themselves in a position of superiority and self-entitlement.

"Their shaming is an unconscious pattern," he says, "and there are very few people that would admit this. Even most therapists won't admit it."

Denial and Mental illness

The denial of work abuse as a cause of mental illness remains widespread in the mental health community. Hare says this view is due to most psychiatrists and therapists aligning with corporations and management.

"There is this feeling that goes on that working people are "less than," Hare says. "So when the psychiatrist communicates with management there's this underlying current of, 'my client is "less than." My client can't accommodate your workplace.' "

Furthermore, Hare says psychiatrists view the workplace as normal and healthy, and they blame the victim, also. Few psychiatrists are aware that most work organizations are authoritarian and the cause of mental health disability.

"Mental health professionals then communicate to the workplace that there's some problem with this employee," Hare says. "Never that there is some problem with that organization."

Post Traumatic Stress

Hare and Wyatt have documented work abuse as causing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in victims.

Some become disabled because of their abuse by supervisors. Most work abuse victims suffer from some symptoms of PTSD, including flashbacks, nightmares, irritability, insomnia and poor concentration.

Work Abuse and Disability: Who's to Blame?

Receiving a PTSD disability claim resulting from work abuse is rare, according to Hare. He says one reason is because of the financial support the mental health field receives from employers through insurance payments.

The main reason for denial of PTSD-related disability is that, like society, mental health professionals blame the victim for his or her symptoms. Often, the psychiatrist will diagnose the illness as depression, anxiety, adjustment disorder or borderline personality disorder. The victim's illness appears to be an inherent problem with the abused individual.

"I've run into many people who have these kinds of diagnoses," Hare says. "Sometimes they've been in therapy a couple of years with these erroneous diagnoses."

Blame by One's Support System: Self-preservation and Denial

If work abuse is so widespread one may wonder why society, coworkers and even family members blame the victim. Hare says most people do not want to believe work abuse exists, especially if they have worked many years.

"After 40 or 50 years they don't want to now discover the truth," Hare says. "You don't like being reminded of your pain. You can't afford to break the denial on it after so many years."

Denial and Stigmatization

The denial of work abuse stigmatizes the victim. Other employees may ostracize an abused coworker to protect their own sense of denial.

"There's ongoing, neglectful abusive behavior happening all the time," Hare says. "So, when a scapegoat is chosen, he or she is really a stand-in or diversion so that people don't have to confront the problem inherent in the work system. Everyone participates in scapegoating the one individual in order to avoid focusing on the deeper systems problem."

The Media's Role

Society also perpetuates the denial of work abuse through the media, according to Hare.

"They want to keep this entire thing a secret," Hare says. "They're aligned with the top management of these corporations because they are funded by them. So they don't dare call attention to work abuse."

Excellent Workers and Non-conformists

Hare says victims of work abuse are usually not selected at random. Those at greatest risk are employees who do not conform to a company's norms, which are the unique and unconscious rules of each work system. Norms are enforced by members of each workplace. Employees may not even be aware when they are not conforming and then wonder why they've been chosen to be the group's scapegoat.

Abusive work systems often mimic dysfunctional families, and employees adopt similar behaviors at work that they maintained in their own families.

"If their personal behavior patterns are far different from the norms," Hare says, "then these are the people that get picked on the most.

"The people who have their own ideas and speak out, they can be pretty severely abused. So it's very possible for an excellent worker to be abused."

How to Determine if You Are Being Work Abused

With ongoing abuse, basic work needs are denied. This includes not obtaining validation, information, encouragement and communication from management or fellow coworkers. Most employees experience work abuse like this and fail to recognize it, because it's "normal."

"People just get used to this treatment," Hare says. "It's like fish in water. They can't see it because they are in the middle of it and used to it."

With scapegoating, victims also exhibit personal behaviors vastly different from the organizations' norms. Hare uses the example of women who enter predominantly male professions, such as the police department.

"In order to stay there you have to take on a lot of male kinds of behavior," Hare says. "Otherwise you wouldn't be allowed to stay. You would get pushed out."

You May Not Recognize That You Are Being Work Abused

Work abuse is so prevalent, victims often do not realize they are being maligned. Hare says most cannot break the denial that prevents them from seeing their own work abuse until they experience a severely traumatic situation.

"You get a gut-level interest when you've been beaten to hell and then you break denial; it may take that much." Hare says.

"Beaten to hell" can be literal or figurative. Hare, formerly an engineer, experienced work abuse so severe, though not physical, it led him to become a therapist in order to help others recover from their abuse.

How People Adapt to Abusive Work

Most workers remain in abusive work settings because they have not experienced that traumatic experience yet. Workers stay in abusive organizations by adapting to their companies' norms. Hare says there are three stages of adaptation.

Observing and assessing the behaviors of others in the organization is the first step. Next is changing one's behaviors to align with others behaviors. This is difficult because it involves the new employee changing his or her own beliefs. Lastly, the employee starts enforcing these behaviors -- enforcing the norms -- on other employees.

"In the adaptation process," Hare says, "you finally say to yourself, "Hey this is reality. Up to now, I didn't know what reality was."

"The funny thing is if you visit lots and lots of companies as I have, you'll see so many different combinations of norms, and you'll see all these different realities." Hare says he has visited more than 1000 workplaces during more than twenty-five years of study of this problem.

In authoritarian organizations systems problems are blamed on individuals. And task accomplishment is secondary, even if it means the company loses money.

"They'd rather have that exercise of power than productivity and money," Hare says. "If that weren't the case, those organizations would change because the technology (to change) is known."

Collaborative Organizations Not Authoritarian Ones

Hare refers to collaborative organizations, where everyone works together making decisions. Communications are honest. Task accomplishment is foremost.

"Usually in a collaborative organizations, you'll find the people at the top have a lot of empathy and really align with the workers," Hare says.

"Once people have felt and experienced a collaborative work group, they never forget it. You never want to go back (to an authoritarian system). If the public had enough awareness --- less ignorance --- about the work abuse issue, there would be a demand for collaborative organizations."

Surviving an Abusive Work Situation

Since there are so few collaborative organizations currently, abused workers must survive within an authoritarian system. Recognizing what work abuse is makes it possible to survive.

"You have to go through almost a spiritual transformation," Hare says. "You are looking at people around you, recognizing that they are in ignorance. They don't know what you know. They haven't been through the trauma, and they are hiding out. So, you have to get very compassionate toward them rather than getting angry at them."

Hare says the most effective tool in surviving an abusive work setting, besides becoming more aware about work abuse, is to maintain self-control at work. He warns against adopting feelings of injustice or of the need to act out against the employer.

"People don't understand that the whole situation is unjust from day one," Hare says. "When you understand why this is happening, then you can let go of needing to react."

Healing from Work Abuse

Hare says there are four steps to healing from work abuse. Release of hurt feelings and validation of one's experiences is the first step. Next is "ordering of events" or developing an explanation of what happened. Then shame healing or getting beyond self-blame can be addressed. Integration of the trauma into one's life journey is the final step.

This final integration step often involves the survivor dedicating a part of his or her life to addressing the work abuse issue in a more global way. This is the route Hare has chosen.

"The way forward is to have more and more people acknowledge work abuse," Hare says. "The technology of successful change already exists, it's not a secret. Management will be forced to change work systems when workers and the public demand the change."

Interview by Marge Mueller, Bloomington, IN 47403, USA, phone 812-330-1303, email

Chauncey Hare is co-author (with Judith Wyatt) of Work Abuse: How to Recognize and Survive It published by Schenkman Books, 1997, $19.95, ISBN 0-87047-109-0, email

Chauncey Hare's web site is at or you can email him at or write to him at: Work and Family Resources Center, Fair Oaks Street, San Francisco, CA 94110-3619, USA.

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