Does Workplace Trauma Affect Intimate Partners?

Unhappy couple and sad woman upset after argument or conflict with her man on home sofa. Angry girlfriend or female thinking about disagreement or ignoring partner, tired of relationship problems

When workers encounter traumatic experiences, from military combat exposure to civilian sexual harrassment, we expect negative impacts. But what about their intimate partners — spouses or life partners? Does trauma affect them also? How, how much, and why?

In “A Meta-Analysis on Crossover of Workplace Traumatic Stress Symptoms Between Partners,” published December 2022 in Journal of Applied Psychology, Culverhouse’s Drs. Michael T. Ford and Peter Harms, along with collaborators Yi-Ren Wang of the Asia School of Business and a PhD graduate from Culverhouse, Marcus Credé of Iowa State University, and Paul B. Lester of the Naval Postgraduate School explore these questions through a meta-analysis of relevant research. Meta-analysis is a research method that involves aggregating across all existing studies on a given topic in order to determine average effects and trends across contexts.

The researchers found that, yes, workplace trauma does indeed affect intimate partners.  The results suggest that the worker’s PTSD or distress symptoms can be as distressing for the partner as the worker’s exposure is for the worker, with implications for the quality of the relationship and the well-being of the spouse.  Military-related combat exposure was unsurprisingly more likely than less severe exposures to cause post-traumatic symptoms that are then transferred to one’s partner. But other, less life-threatening stressors, like bullying or harassment, can still carry over to the partner, just to a lesser degree.

All of this research implies that organizations should work to reduce situations where traumatic stressor exposure might occur. When trauma is present, it is a mistake to focus solely on the traumatized worker. For situations where trauma is inevitable (like military combat), organizations should offer couple, or even family-based interventions. Organizations should also invest in education for workers and family members about the communicable nature of trauma, and offer programs that build family life, like the “family day” in a military context, where service members work half a day, once a week, and spend the other half with family. Finally, organizations can encourage community-level resources like family advocacy programs or support groups.

“This study serves to highlight how permeable the barrier between work and family life is,” Harms said. “What happens in the workplace carries over into one’s personal life and vice-versa. Workplace trauma represents an extreme case of this, but one that clearly shows how the effects of workplace experiences, particularly negative ones, echo through our relationships and across time.”

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