Sophie 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.