Understanding micro-trauma

June 16, 2023

For plan members, sponsors and administrators

Sophie1 is 33 years old. She’s married, has two children, and works in the call centre of a national company. She enjoys her job. She likes the set hours, the freedom that comes with having work nights and weekends off and, most of all, she loves working with the public. Well, most of the time. Sophie’s noticed that her calls can quickly take a nasty turn when people don’t like her answer. She finds this frustrating. She’s just doing her best to try to help people, but everyone seems to be angrier lately. Yesterday, two different customers were really yelling at her. One lady even said, “Oh my god, you’re so stupid!” When Sophie hung up the phone, she felt deflated. Would she get in trouble? Isn’t the customer always right? She worried about it for days … 

This is an example of micro-trauma. It’s a term that you may not be familiar with but, once you understand it, you’ll realize that you may have been on both the giving and receiving ends of micro-trauma.

According to Dr. Claire Harrigan, micro-traumas are subtle incidents that can seem minor or insignificant in the moment and, as such, their emotional impact can often be minimized or easily ignored. However, when micro-traumas accumulate over time, they have the potential to inflict longer term psychological harm. Examples of micro-traumas include interacting with disrespectful customers or staff, dealing with aggressive drivers, and even seemingly simple things such as a back-handed compliment – all experiences that leave you feeling a little less self-assured and deflated. Death by a thousand paper cuts, so to speak.

Dr. Harrigan, MD, FRCPC, is a psychiatrist and a member of Cleveland Clinic Canada’s Medical Director Program. According to Dr. Harrigan, micro-traumas are more prevalent than ever, and are causing us to be angrier more than ever, negatively impacting both our personal and professional well-being.

Why now? What’s triggered all this anger? There are a lot of reasons, but the lingering effects of the pandemic have definitely contributed to this in a significant way, says Dr. Harrigan:

When the pandemic first started, there really appeared to be a sense of social cohesion in the face of shared danger. We banged pots, we did zoom concerts, we did everything in our power to stay connected. But there was also a great deal of anxiety, grief, and social isolation.

Then, during the later phases of the pandemic when the acute fear and anxiety had passed, some people transitioned from worry and anxiety into a phase of being angrier about things that had been lost, experiences that had been sacrificed, and felt that individuals or groups were to blame. In response to this, some individuals decided that it was time to prioritize their own needs and wants over those of others.

Additionally, people were tired of having to adapt their behaviours to constantly changing information and became resentful when they were asked to continue to do so. For example, while it may have been challenging initially, many people adapted to working from home and even saw benefits from this transition, such as having an improved work/life balance. So, when some have been expected to return to the office, this may have caused more anger and frustration as well.

This pandemic anger, or ‘panger,’ is exhausting. Humans crave structure and predictability. Constantly having to re-think decisions (for example: test/don’t test; mask/don’t mask) takes time and energy. And, in the end, all of this added up to us becoming mentally fatigued by having to weigh options in a landscape that was constantly changing. And it also made people less patient, frustrated, and angry.

Sophie drove into work the next day not feeling her usual upbeat self, but not really knowing why. Just “the blahs” she thought. There was a lot of traffic on the way to work, and maybe she wasn’t paying very close attention, but another driver thought she was going too slow. He blared his horn, rolled down his window, and made a rude gesture towards her. Geez, Sophie thought, is everyone out to get me?

Micro-traumas are personal, and everyone processes them differently, says Dr. Harrigan. Some people may be able to shrug them off but, for others, they can cut very deep. In the short term, she adds, most people will minimize the emotional impact of micro-traumas, brush these experiences off, and even cast doubt as to whether they’re interpreting the interaction correctly. In the longer term, however, micro-traumas accumulate and can result in diminished self-esteem, chronic stress, burnout, apathy, anxiety, and depression.

And that, says Dr. Harrigan, can have a big impact in the workplace. “Micro-trauma in the workplace can result in decreased productivity and engagement, increased absenteeism, and strained relationships with colleagues or supervisors, and dissatisfaction with work as well.”

When Sophie finally got to work, she started her day with her regular routine. She grabbed a coffee from the vendor, but she became annoyed when she was asked to wait until a fresh pot was ready. She just paid and walked away, not even saying thank you, which was unusual for Sophie. By the time she got to her desk, Sophie was running late and now she was really annoyed. When her colleague, Karim, asked if everything was okay, Sophie only glared at him. During her break, Sophie grabbed her phone. She likes to follow the news online, but these days everything just seemed so depressing. And the comments! It was unbelievable how nasty people could be online. 

According to Dr. Harrigan, technology does have a role to play in the rise of micro-traumatic incidents.

“We know that screens can create a psychological distance between people,” she says. “This can embolden people to say things or make comments that they likely wouldn’t make in person. People experience a sense of anonymity when communicating online, which can cause them to believe that it is less likely that they will be held accountable for their words or actions. As well, when an interpersonal interaction is depersonalized, as it can be when it happens virtually, it can hinder our ability to empathize with others”.

What can we do if we’re experiencing micro-trauma–or if we find ourselves less patient and understanding, or even acting aggressively with others? 

According to Dr. Harrigan, we need to acknowledge our anger, but then reflect on what may be at the root cause of our emotions.

It can be helpful to take time away from the situation that is making us angry, which allows us to pause, re-evaluate the situation in a more measured way, and re-set our sympathetic nervous system.

How can you help re-set your sympathetic nervous system? Engage in deep breathing exercises, meditation, or go for a quick walk. Most importantly, accept that you can’t change the other person, but you can change how you react to the situation.

After her break, Sophie wasn’t feeling any better. During her one-on-one meeting with her supervisor, Sophie told him how she was feeling disheartened about all the negativity that she had experienced. He said that he was very sorry to hear about the customer calls that had been so upsetting to her. He reminded her that the organization has a zero-tolerance policy for behaviour like that from customers and, if at any time she was feeling uncomfortable during a call, she should put the customer on hold and escalate the call to her team lead. “We’re all in this together,” he re-assured her. Sophie felt like he really meant it and appreciated his support. 


Feeling overwhelmed?

  • Try to identify what makes you feel emotionally exhausted and, if possible, limit your exposure to those people or situations.
  • Bolster your social support network and make time to engage in social activities that you enjoy.
  • Remind yourself of past challenges that you have overcome, and how you have previously adapted to adversity.
  • Give some of your energy to yourself by practicing good self-care (e.g. meditation, exercise, spending time in nature).

Employers play a huge role in supporting people through micro-traumas in the workplace, says Dr. Harrigan. “Employers need to take a pro-active approach,” she says. “Have a policy around the type of behaviour that won’t be tolerated, and make sure that customers and employees are aware of the policy. Very importantly, follow through with consequences if these explicitly stated boundaries are crossed”.

“Our mental health is one of our most precious resources, and employers can bolster mental health and well-being by ensuring that supports are in place and are accessible to all employees. Mental health supports can include resources through the company intranet or organizing monthly wellness sessions, says Dr. Harrigan. “Employees should be encouraged to explore the supports that are available to them through their employee benefits plan.”

Some benefits plans include access to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which is a service or suite of services that you may offer employees as part of your plan. If your plan includes an EAP, remind your employees about the services that they can access, such as in-person or telephone mental health counselling.

Interested in EAP or mental health coverage, but don’t have it on your plan? Reach out to your Manulife representative to discuss your plan design options.

Other suggestions for supporting mental health in the workplace could include:

  • Creating a ‘wellness room’ where customer facing employees can go to if they need to decompress after a difficult customer interaction.
  • Providing training for managers to help them support their team, and to identify signs of mental distress. Check out our free, online mental health training for managers.
  • Encouraging team leaders to hold weekly meetings to discuss challenging interpersonal interactions, and then consider how to address them as a group.
  • Implementing a workplace peer support program.

Sophie felt a lot better after talking with her supervisor. He reminded her of all the mental health supports that the company has in place that are available to her. Sophie also realized that when someone else made her feel bad, she reflexively had the urge to take that anger out on another person. Sophie vowed to learn to take a deep breath when she felt angry. She didn’t want anyone else to experience micro-trauma either, let alone be the cause of their distress. She knew first-hand how it can make you feel.

An organizational culture that has an awareness of the negative emotional impact of micro-trauma on employees’ mental health can then proactively put supports in place to help employees recover mentally and emotionally, says Dr. Harrigan.

“Micro-traumatic events can seem innocuous at the time that they occur. What might look like an insignificant workplace interaction to a manager, could actually be a very significant event for the individual employee,” Dr. Harrigan says. “Leaders should strive to build an organizational culture that acknowledges that the accumulation of micro-traumatic events can have a significant negative impact on an employee’s mental health. The next step is to foster and promote a psychologically safe workplace by ensuring that employees have readily available access to mental health supports and resources.”

Making these changes at work can seem daunting, but we’re here to help. Check out the workplace solutions for mental health that we can offer and reach out to a Manulife representative.


1 Sophie is a fictional character for illustrative purposes only.

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