How HR Can Heal at Work

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By Susan Schmitt Winchester, Chief HR Officer at Applied Materials & Author of “Healing at Work”


Author’s note: This article might not be for you. But I’m almost 100% certain you know someone who will be grateful to have the chance to read it. And that person will thank you for discreetly forwarding the link. But keep an open mind as you read this anyway. Six years ago, I would have said, “This isn’t for me.” But then I began connecting the dots between my dysfunctional childhood and my struggles as a successful, high-functioning HR professional doing what I do best, even in a cloud of emotional turmoil. Once I began to connect those dots, my life – and career – changed forever. For the better. Much better.

Imagine for just a second that you have just entered your office kitchen to refresh your coffee mug. There are already nine people there, you’re the tenth. Everyone is happily catching up on what they did that weekend, who got married, who had a baby, and how will they distribute the workload that’s coming up with the new product launch. Just another morning. A normal morning. But is it?

Assuming your colleagues represent the average U.S. demographic, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), six or seven of your coworkers carry memories of devastating childhood events. An alcoholic or drug-addicted parent. Domestic violence. Maybe the death of a parent. Or someone was jailed. Or a narcissistic caregiver repeatedly and brutally told the child who is now your adult colleague that he or she was nothing special, with unimportant and selfish needs. And deserved to be punished. Why? Just because. 

The CDC has identified ten categories of this kind of physical and emotional abuse that happens to over 2/3rds of U.S. children before they reach the age of 18. They’re called adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). And they are so traumatic that they negatively affect your colleagues’ peace of mind, ability to focus, ability to feel safe, confident, and even physically healthy for the rest of their lives. 

Therapists and researchers commonly call these adults ACOAs or adult children of alcoholics. But that acronym doesn’t cover abused adults whose parents weren’t alcoholics, or who were alcoholics and abusive in additional ways. So I’ve come up with this: Adult Children of a Damaged Past (ASDPs). And this is who we’re going to talk about in this article.

If 67% of the U.S. demographic can be considered ASDPs, what about HR professionals?  Let’s go back into that office kitchen for your coffee. Instead of colleagues from all over the company, you meet nine colleagues from your HR team. Counting you, there are ten HR professionals killing time waiting for their turn at the creamer. How many ASDPs are there? What’s your guess? Six? Fewer? More? 

I haven’t done an official survey. And I’m certainly no gambling woman. But if I had to lay some money down on an informed estimate, I’d say in any room of ten HR professionals, probably seven or eight can point to at least one adverse childhood experience in their lives before they turned 18.

How could I be even a little bit sure? Because researchers have agreed for decades that as a group trait ACOAs (or, as we will call us, ASDPs) gravitate to “caregiving” professions. The reasons why are multiple. But they commonly point to the drive to soothe the demons from their damaged past by creating an environment where they can play an active role in taking care of others. In their career choices, ASDPs commonly look for opportunities to create order out of chaos. To take care of others. To ease their clients’ discomfort – physical or emotional. To help others reach their potential. To be the secret keeper. To be the diplomat or servant or hero. Consequently, ASDPs become healthcare providers and teachers.

And, of course, HR professionals. After all, what other corporate function can be most likely to be called a caretaking role? You keep the secrets. You resolve interpersonal strife. You volunteer to be the go-between, marshaling and managing the feelings and politics of combatants so that the group remains safe. You work with leaders, who may or may not be personally overly concerned with the emotional reactions to their decisions. You take it on the chin, allowing colleagues to project their emotions – often negative ones – on you. You have chosen the most emotionally political profession inside the company’s org chart. But that’s okay. You can absorb the toxicity. That’s your role. That’s where you feel most familiar, at home, so to speak. 

That Was Then, Then Is Also Now

If you were a victim of one or more adverse childhood experiences, you may not have fully made the connection between what happened to you in the past and the way you experience your day-to-day work. I certainly didn’t until well into my 50s. Then I couldn’t stop seeing the connections in the way I experienced my role as an HR leader. 

Could you be an ASDP in HR? 

  • You are an over-achiever who never rests to enjoy the successes because you feel like you constantly need to prove yourself.
  • You feel personally responsible for your colleagues’ moods, especially their anger. If someone is mad, you can’t help but feel that it must have been something you did.
  • You’re a people pleaser, often at your own expense. 
  • You feel that no matter what you do, or how much you work, it’s never enough. Or good enough.
  • When workplace conflicts happen (and name a day in HR when that doesn’t happen), you spiral into feelings of stress, anxiety, and worry to a debilitating degree. 
  • Your own anger sometimes gets in the way of healthy workplace relationships.
  • Upsetting childhood memories, feeling, and messages about yourself often diminish your confidence, even to the point of threatening your career potential.
  • You feel like it’s your responsibility to make sure everyone else is happy. 
  • You turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as alcohol, overeating, too much sugar, video games, controlled substances, and overwork.
  • You watch your teammates thrive inside a safe setting of belonging, but you feel like you’re on the outside looking in.
  • You feel like you’re constantly braced for someone else’s “crazy,” ready for another shoe to drop and for chaos to take over.
  • You’re often afraid that you may say or do something that will reveal your fears, secrets, and self-doubt.

Can you relate? Keep reading. Here comes the good news.

The Workplace Can Be Your Laboratory for Emotional Healing

As ASDPs grow up, we find ways of coping with our stressful inner life and keeping it hidden from the rest of the world. (Keeping secrets, that’s our job, right?) We’re habitually employing some kind of hiding behavior. Maybe it’s a positive, can-do, smiling mask of false confidence. Or people pleasing.  Or we hide behind overwork or our job title. Or a lifetime habit of moving or changing jobs when we start feeling a little too exposed or at risk. 

Is it any wonder that our work life can feel especially hazardous for many ASDPs? One slip of the mask or one notch below perfection, or someone is disappointed in us – either for real or for a mind game because they know what feelings trigger us, which leaves us open to manipulation – there goes not only our carefully constructed image and reputation but also our livelihood. Our financial security. That bottom layer of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. 

But, in fact, the workplace itself, can be your laboratory for emotional healing. Neuropsychologists and positive psychology researchers are showing us that that very context that can make us feel most exposed and vulnerable can also make us feel supported, positive, and equipped to handle anything that comes our way, even welcome and celebrated. 

If you grew up as an ASDP, your overworked stress response activation system has you on hypervigilance alert, always looking for the next threat. Even long after the most threatening people in your life are long gone. The workplace – assuming it’s a mentally healthy culture – is an opportunity to feed your mind, even your physical brain, with experiences where you have been successful, safe, and created positive outcomes for any challenge that comes your way. Because of the gift of neuroplasticity, your brain can actually physically rewrite its neuropathways to support a more positive experience in your life and career. 

Positive psychologist and researcher Martin Seligman has dedicated his career to studying positive psychology, authentic happiness, and flourishing. He identified five key components to a flourishing life, all of which can be found in a career that’s mentally healthy. 

Positive emotion or, as Seligman says, the pleasant life. In the workplace you experience positive emotion on a day-to-day basis where the culture is congenial, and trusting, you can focus on your work, and able to set aside the habit of hypervigilance long enough to get the work done. 

Engagement – You’re in HR. You know what engagement is. But for your non-HR friends, generally speaking, it’s the experience of doing work that matters, with people who support you, with the tools and equipment you need to get the job done, and an understanding of how your work connects to both the company’s strategy and your own career goals.

Positive relationships – You and the people you work with are mutually supportive. You want the best for each other. The potential for conflicts is reduced because generally everyone assumes positive intent. And misunderstandings can usually be resolved with honest communication in good faith.

Meaning – You care about the work you do because you see how it helps humanity or makes the world a better place in a context larger than yourself. 

Achievement – You are able to see a forward path for your career and life because you can identify meaningful accomplishments along the way. You’re growing. And even if you’re the only one who sees it, that’s good enough. It’s even better when your team celebrates with you. And you celebrate their accomplishments with them. 

Damaged is Not Doomed

Life takes courage for all of us. ASDPs are especially challenged with the need to rise about our damaged pasts and create a life that we deserve, one in which we aren’t continuously harmed by hurtful messages about who we are that we bring with us into our adulthoods. 

To accomplish this goal, this dream of a better life, we need new experiences, relationships, and stories to tell about who we are and what we’re capable of. The gift of the HR career is that it gives us all these advantages and healing tools.

And there’s a bonus:  In our HR roles, we are in a perfect position to extend this gift to our colleagues. Imagine the possibilities of a healing workplace community of colleagues enjoying their morning coffee together.

Bio: Susan Schmitt Winchester is the Chief HR Officer for a Silicon Valley Fortune 200 technology company with 33,000+ employees worldwide. She has 35+ years of corporate HR & management consulting experience, including 15+ years as Chief HR Officer for two Fortune 500 companies.  She is the author of Healing at Work: A Guide to Using Career Conflicts to Overcome Your Past and Build the Future You Deserve, with co-author Martha I. Finney. She is also an adult survivor of a damaged past (ASDP).

Email Susan at to receive a copy of Chapter 5: Why the Workplace is a Laboratory for Emotional Healing (excerpted from Healing at Work: A Guide to Using Career Conflicts to Overcome Your Past and Build the Future You Deserve, with co-author Martha I. Finney).

Written by: Katalin Toth

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