'I Was Horrified': The Team Building Trend Traumatizing Workers

Emma*, 33, was teaching at an elementary school in Arizona when she was asked to join a team-building session. She agreed, hoping it would be a chance to bond with her colleagues in a safe and constructive way.

"We were asked to bring in an object from our childhoods and talk about why we picked it," Emma told Newsweek. "I thought that seemed innocuous enough and chose to share a picture book my father used to read to me as a child related to my cultural heritage."

The session, however, was nothing as she had imagined. Instead, she and her colleagues were expected to share personal and traumatic experiences, including instances of abuse and rape.

"No one was allowed not to share," she said. "It went off the rails very quickly as people shared deeply personal and, in my opinion, inappropriate things about themselves—including the principal who shared a very long and detailed story about her abusive ex-husband raping and beating her."

Group session and crying
This undated stock photo shows a group of adults having a difficult discussion with an inset of an upset woman with her head in her hands. Workers shared their workplace team-building horror stories with Newsweek. bernardbodo/fizkes/Getty Images
I barely knew these people and I couldn't believe they wanted to share such things with colleagues, many of whom were basically strangers.

Others in the group also shared stories about childhood abuse and trauma, and Emma was left feeling extremely uncomfortable.

"I did not find it useful. I was incredibly uncomfortable," she said. "I barely knew these people and I couldn't believe they wanted to share such things with colleagues, many of whom were basically strangers. I was also horrified that my first real boss in my first post-college job shared such a story."

Instances of team-building sessions with serious undertones have been shared in multiple online forums, including a Reddit post on February 4 that has since received over 25,000 upvotes. In the post, one Redditor said their manager had asked them to share a difficult childhood memory in the name of "team bonding."

With thousands of replies, others shared similar experiences. Similarly, a recent post on the discussion site Mumsnet recalled another instance of sharing in the workplace that they said left them feeling "disturbed."

Resulting in discomfort and upset among employees, stories are rife online of individuals feeling pressured to share personal information—or left feeling uncomfortable as a room of colleagues discusses topics including sexual abuse, death and other trauma.

What Is Workplace Team Building?

Workplace team building is a popular exercise in improving employees' experiences and creating a strong unit of workers.

According to multiple studies, including the 2009 paper Does Team Building Work? published in the Small Group Research publication and the 2018 paper Team Development Interventions: Evidence-Based Approaches for Improving Teamwork, team-building activities can increase motivation, encourage collaboration, and build trust and respect among employees.

There are several types of team building that are frequently used in professional settings, whether they are hour sessions during a normal workday or a day out to completely concentrate on team building activities.

Different team-building activities are designed to offer different benefits. Examples include activity-based exercises such as team lunches or company outings to create friendly connections, communication-based team building like ice breakers that can help build personal bonds in the office, and skills-based team building that aim to promote creative thinking within the office.

As well as creating a fun and out-of-routine experience for employees, team building can be incredibly valuable to all kinds of businesses.

Lucy*, 31, is an HR professional from Washington. She was also involved in a team-building exercise with colleagues that left her feeling uncomfortable.

"I was 25 at the time," Lucy told Newsweek. "It was an HR team meeting for a newly formed team to do training and team building."

But during the team-building session, Lucy quickly started to feel on edge as her new colleagues shared personal stories.

"One coworker talked about how her mother died when she was a teenager," she said. "My other coworker told a story about how her father molested her as a young girl. She was crying and I remember everyone praising her for being 'resilient.'"

A young woman, Lucy said she did not have the skills or confidence at the time to decline to share, and even started to panic as she didn't have a story to tell.

"I had a great childhood with two loving parents in a stable, middle-class home. I felt a lot of pressure to share something vulnerable, but my mind was blank. I think I said something about not being popular and not having many friends," she said.

I felt a lot of pressure to share something vulnerable, but my mind was blank.

"When I got home, I remembered my mom is a recovered alcoholic who got sober when I was 5," she added. "I thought, 'Damn it, that would've been a great excuse for a trauma story,' but now I'm glad I didn't share and use my mom's journey to recovery to score points in the session."

Matt*, 51, a high school teacher from New Jersey, experienced an uncomfortable training session at his workplace during what was referred to as an "icebreaker" activity.

"It happened more than 10 years ago but it sticks out in my mind clearly," he told Newsweek. "The point of the activity was to share something that was difficult for you and explain how or why you think it might help your students."

As the room started to share though, Matt noticed that things were quickly becoming very personal.

"People talked about traumatic experiences that happened to them in college or the sudden loss of someone close to them. It was designed to make you emotionally vulnerable," he said.

After their experience with trauma sharing at work, the employees all overwhelmingly felt it was inappropriate.

"I think these sorts of things are highly inappropriate," said teacher Emma. "There was no reason to take it there, and I did not consent to be part of a series of traumatic stories or to trauma bond with my colleagues. This is a job. These sorts of past traumas are things you should share with family, close friends and therapists, not virtual strangers who are trapped in a room with you at work."

"I think trauma sharing is very inappropriate in the workplace. It also opens up employers to risk because it can make managers aware of disabilities or other protected demographic statuses and open the company up to discrimination claims in the future," said HR professional Lucy.

"The fact we were an HR team is terribly ironic. The situation would be a cause to write up a manager for creating a hostile work environment and opening the company up to risk."

Matt echoed this and said that he felt discomfort after his session.

"Being forced into a situation where you were required to share things that you normally wouldn't share really set me off. There is never a reason to have any form of 'trauma-sharing' exercises in a workplace," he said.

"These kinds of despicable activities need to be brought out into the open and stopped. As an untenured teacher, I got taken advantage of entirely too much, and once I wised up I learned how to say 'the line must be drawn here,'" he said. "I've been labeled 'not a team player,' a 'troublemaker,' and 'a disruptive influence' because I will tell anyone willing to listen their rights and how not to be bullied."

Should You Share Trauma in the Workplace?

Katharine Manning is the author of The Empathetic Workplace: Five Steps to a Compassionate, Calm, and Confident Response to Trauma on the Job. A former senior attorney advisor, she has been working on issues of trauma for more than 25 years and helps organizations respond to challenges involving employees or clients who may be suffering trauma.

Manning told Newsweek: "I can see how this could end up happening in the workplace. There is definitely a push for more openness, compassion and empathy at work. Trauma is the air that we're breathing right now—it's all around us."

Facing shared trauma of the past few years—a global pandemic, racial violence and environmental disaster to name a few—Manning said that acknowledging the trauma from the start of the 2020s is important.

"If we pretend that it's not happening, that can almost feel like gaslighting," she explained. "I feel like part of what is going on is people are trying to have those important conversations more. The other thing is that when we open up about difficult things, it can build trust in a relationship.

"There is something really bonding about sharing experiences that are hard, and I think that a combination of wanting to create this bonding and to open up conversations around trauma may be encouraging these sessions in the workplace," she said. "But forcing everybody to open up and talk about their feelings at work? That is not a step we want to take."

There was no reason to take it there, and I did not consent to be part of a series of traumatic stories or to trauma bond with my colleagues.

Employment attorney and managing partner of Lieb at Law, P.C. Andrew Lieb told Newsweek: "The nature of the employer's business and the specific job really matters here. For example, there is no situation where a janitor at a science lab should be asked to share trauma. That could easily turn into a discriminatory event supporting a lawsuit.

"However, there are many businesses and jobs where sharing trauma is the name of the game," he said. "Think about a program director at an LGBT youth advocacy center—shouldn't that program director be prepared to share trauma given that the job is to liaison with youth in combating their trauma? There isn't a one-size-fits-all answer."

"The key is always clarity and choice," Manning explained. "You're letting people know that there is room for you if you want to talk about this, but it is up to you."

"I think sharing a 'boring fact' is a great icebreaker and much lower risk for people sharing something inappropriate in the workplace," said Lucy, who noted that today she would feel more comfortable politely refusing to participate in a team building session like this.

Similarly, Emma said she would be quick to express her concern.

"If I was asked to attend a similar session, I would express my misgivings and clarify that we would not be sharing traumatic stories. If it happened again, I would walk out and let my administration know that I was uncomfortable," she said.

*Names have been changed in this story to protect anonymity.

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