How Much Does Trauma Decrease Productivity?

People who suffer major emotional traumas tend to be less productive and put in less effort for perhaps as long as five years after the event. That’s a long time. But how serious are the effects?

Researchers from University of Warwick, U.K., and IZA Bonn in Germany ran a great experiment in which subjects completed a really neat and reliable productivity test (Oswald 2014). It’s the same test that’s been used in other studies before, so the researchers have loads of data about how well people do on the test on average. The test is essentially a series of math problems and GMAT questions. Researchers know how many questions the average person can get right in the time allowed, and then they analyze the results to see whether that average changes among certain groups.

What would the test scores be, relative to the average, if given to people who had suffered a traumatic life event?

Over the course of several years, Oswald and his team gathered data on more than 700 participants, all college students, and divvied them into different slices. One of those slices was people who have had what they call an “unhappiness shock” or “bad life event” (BLE). These are subjects who took the productivity test and then afterward, when asked about their lives, said they had experienced a close family bereavement, extended family bereavement, serious life-threatening illness in the close family, or parental divorce in the last five years. They also were asked to rate their happiness in general.

Parental divorce turned out to have no significant effect, so the researchers scrapped it. When they focused just on participants with a death or serious illness in the family, productivity was down by 10 to 12 percent! They also put in less effort, as the results explains:

“Those subjects who have recently been through a bad life event are noticeably less happy and less productive. Compared to the control group, they mark themselves nearly half a point lower on the happiness scale, and they achieve approximately 2 fewer correct additions. They also make fewer attempts [at answering questions]. These are noticeable differences when compared to individuals in the no-BLE group. The effects are statistically significant in the full samples; they are also statistically significant in the majority of the subsamples.”

A few more details are important. First, the subsample was 179 participants, which is pretty good. Second, the participants were all students from an elite English university, which on the one hand makes them pretty homogenous, but on the other hand allows the researchers to hold constant a lot of other factors, such as their age and economic situation.

What About Natural or Man-Made Disasters?

What the researcher didn’t address are other kinds of traumas, such as surviving a car accident that was fatal to others or losing a limb on the battlefield. Let’s not assume that those kinds of traumas would have the same effect as a death in the family.

Another kind of trauma not analyzed are natural and man-made disasters. I wonder if there is a similar drop in productivity among people who are part of a much larger traumatic event that isn’t necessarily personal.

For example, how did the 2004 tsunami in Japan and other parts of Asia affect personal productivity among survivors? Or how about n New Orleans after Katrina in 2005? Analysts estimated the financial loss due to businesses being closed, people leaving the city, and fewer tourists hopping around Bourbon Street, but did they estimate the drop in productivity among the people who stayed and worked? Fill in any act of terrorism, and ask the same question.

Meeting Basic Needs

When we consider personal productivity (meaning the productivity of an individual for that individual, rather than as it benefits an organization) I see a lot of overlap between this research on bad life events and other research on scarcity and slack (Mullainathan & Shafir 2013).

We have limits on the bandwidth we use to get through life. When conditions are good, we reserve some of our bandwidth so that we can handle unexpected problems, such as accidents, illnesses, and other stressors. When our bandwidth for handling life is exhausted by unforeseen stressors, we need to take bandwidth away from something else, such as our focus and attention at work or our ability to remember to take medication and pay our bills.

What Can You Do?

In my work on this blog and other writing about productivity, I love to recommend actions people can take to increase their productivity based on what we learn from the research. Whether it’s a life hack or just a simple trick to turn the tables in your favor, I like to look for actionable solutions to problems.

In the case of a bad life event or trauma, however, my advice is more along the lines of “don’t push it.”

We all have physical, emotional, and psychological needs. If those needs are not being met or are being heavily taxed, we don’t have any leftover resources to put into our work. We must assign as much of our available resources as possible to reaching a state of overall wellness first before we try to put any resources toward other things.

To put it more bluntly, I wouldn’t worry about productivity hacks if you’re undergoing chemotherapy. Don’t waste your time looking for ways to improve your work output if you recently lost a family member. Not only are those issues more important and deserving of your attention, but also, you won’t get very far trying to increase your productivity if your core needs are not met.



Mullainathan, S., and Shafir, E. (2013). Scarcity: Why having too little means so much. Macmillan.

Oswald, A. J., Proto, E., and Sgroi, D. (2014). Happiness and productivity. working paper. Journal of Labor Economics. 3rd Version: 10 February 2014.

Photo by Beverly, CC.


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