Life gave us lemons 3:—reflections on the workplace experience of child abuse Survivors

Why would I risk revealing the challenges I faced in the workplace as a Survivor of childhood abuse?  I do so because many employers have little knowledge about the subject or are afraid to tackle it. I do so because I want to demonstrate that surviving adverse childhood experiences can make us stronger. I do so because we need to remove the sense of stigma and shame that can prevent Survivors from reaching their potential in the workplace.

Of course, I’m just one of the millions of Survivors of childhood abuse, and each Survivor has a unique experience of the workplace.  Nevertheless, I felt validated when I saw my own experiences reflected so clearly in the early findings of the Independent Inquiry.1  So it seems useful to share my own experience through the lens of these findings.  I hope to offer you a very real insight into the challenges that Survivors can face, and if I may, to speak for the many who do not have a voice.  

If you’re an employer reading this account I want you to remember this: most Survivors, like me, can be assets in the workplace; and if you become aware of “difficult”  situations, know that these can be fixed with the right support and guidance.

Findings of the Inquiry and my personal experience

A large number of respondents spoke of difficulties in either gaining or maintaining employment, including several respondents who had done well academically but who were unable to maintain this into employment.

Yes, I did well academically but looking back, I did a lot of job-hopping after University. I remember when I was in my twenties, a recruitment consultant in Brussels said to me “Will you stay in this job?” At the time I didn’t see what she was getting at—an inability to settle seemed perfectly normal to me.

They spoke of preferring to work alone, or lacking trust of those in authority … which then impacted on building relationships at work and their ability to succeed.

I realise that I do prefer to work alone—though I’m fortunate now because I have options.  My office is about 40 miles away but I mostly choose to work from home.  I’m ambivalent about the social aspect of work and really don’t like socializing in large groups (the dreaded Christmas party has always been a source of high anxiety for me). Years ago I might have been described as “aloof” or even “arrogant”  but I’ve learned to overcome my reservations because of the undeniable value in the social aspect of the workplace.  In contrast, I enjoy meeting new people one to one, or making presentations to a crowd of people I’ve never met—in fact, the bigger the crowd, the better.

Some spoke of not being able to work at all due to their mental health difficulties. Others spoke of the impact of having to take time off work due to their mental health conditions, with some employers being supportive, but others struggling to disclose the reasons for time off or gaps in their careers.

On one occasion I was struggling at work and feeling bullied. With hindsight, I guess I lacked trust and was probably being oversensitive to the words and actions of one of the senior managers. I confided to the Chief Executive that I couldn’t concentrate and that my mind would simply go blank. I know he wanted to be supportive but the best he could offer was: “Make a list”. Chocolate teapot springs to mind! If the right talking therapy or Thrive’s solution-focused coaching had been available it would have made the world of difference (CBT type approaches are not considered suitable for Survivors).

As for unemployment—I’ve had periods of this too. And this was a direct result of a workplace experience. Even today, some employers aren’t aware that Survivors are likely to be covered by the Equalities Act and they should tread carefully and seek specialist advice. In my case, the lack of care in the workplace compounded existing stressors. This, in turn, led to me being shipped around a variety of psychiatric units, and at one stage I spent months in a therapeutic community. When I began to feel I could work again I worried about going for interviews, having to explain my career gap or an occupational health appointment. I also worried about becoming ill again on the job.

Others struggled with confidence and lack of self esteem which meant they held back in their careers, not going for promotion because they felt unworthy or lacked the confidence.

Most people would describe me as “confident” and “outgoing,” and on the whole, I’d agree.  Self-esteem, on the other hand, is something I do not have—though I do know it can be learned. I know, at a cognitive level, that it wasn’t my fault that I was abused but nevertheless the experience has sadly left me finding it hard to believe I’m a worthwhile individual.

I believe employers can do more to build confidence in the workplace, for example through solution-focused coaching or mental toughness programmes.  As an employee, I would never have pushed for promotion. As a social entrepreneur, I also know that my lived experience has shaped an absolute commitment to providing support for vulnerable adults. My team has delivered over 1600 coaching sessions and hundreds of workshops in the last eight months or so. But at a personal level, none of that counts. I’m afraid that’s just the way it is. For now …

Some respondents spoke of being driven in their careers and even over-working, either to focus their attention elsewhere or to provide the stability and security they did not feel as a child.

This, I think, is a perfect double-edged sword. I have an enviable ability to focus because I’m so adept at dissociation. The benefit of this for any employer is obvious—but the flip side means that it can lead to burnout because being able to dissociate means being quite divorced from what my body is telling me— for example, I have real difficulty recognizing when I’m tired.  When I read the Inquiry’s report for the first time wearing my Managing-Director-At-Work hat,  it never occurred to me to relate the findings to myself. The benefit is that I can immerse myself in a difficult content without getting bogged down in subjectivity or the emotional context.

Difficulties with employment then a impacted on respondents’ financial situations with many mentioning they were in receipt of benefits due to an inability to work.

Yes, I’ve been out of work. And yes, I’ve been in receipt of benefits. I remember a time when my goal was to leave the house once a week and volunteer for a couple of hours at my local Citizens Advice Bureau. My job was to register the incoming mail in the post book—it was all I could manage. It was exhausting but it gave me a huge sense of achievement and kept me out of hospital.

Others spoke of difficulties with finances due to poor decision making, some gave examples of getting into debt due to spending on themselves to feel better.

Again yes—I’ve experienced the excesses of retail therapy. I was once told it was my PIG kicking in—the Pleasure of Instant Gratification.  We all have moments of impulsivity and for Survivors, it can be a way of distracting us from uncomfortable emotions. But as long as we have insight we can learn to temper these responses.  There is a high cost attached to impulsivity and poor decision making in the workplace, so I seek input from colleagues when I feel the urge to make a quick decision.

Final thoughts

I hope the above is useful and goes some way to illustrate areas where employees can benefit from your support. I hope, too, that you recognise that a mental health programme will not be enough to support Survivors: however, if you learn to support Survivors you’ll certainly have the mental health needs of your employees covered. by default. And finally, I cannot overstate that with the right support Survivors is likely to be an asset to your organisation. (2018). Consultation on the impacts of child sexual abuse and experiences of support services. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Sep. 2018].

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