Handling Personal Trauma at Work

We all experience trauma at one point or another. It’s an inevitable part of our lives. How do you handle it when a co-worker or a boss is experiencing something traumatic? How can you be supportive yet follow workplace guidelines? To be clear, in this post we’re discussing outside trauma, not trauma that stems from the workplace itself. We’ll talk about that in a future post.

1. Let the other person take the lead.

When dealing with personal trauma, one important thing is to let the person experiencing the trauma define boundaries. It’s good to show concern and ask if you can help, but some people going through a major life change such as cancer or other major illness, an accident, or a death in the family may not want to be open about it at work. That means you as a colleague or employer need to create a space to navigate the trauma that’s as big as that person needs it to be.

Realize that as the person involved processes and progresses through different stages of their trauma, their willingness/need to discuss it may change. For example, imagine that a colleague is dealing with cancer. They may move in and out of how much they want to talk about it depending on the day, especially as their body reacts to chemo or other treatments. Giant mood swings are a common reaction to cancer treatments. Be prepared for mixed signals and make sure you accommodate them. Remember that it’s not about you and don’t take things personally.

2. Follow empathy to compassion.

Muster as much empathy as you can for the person experiencing the trauma. It can be challenging when adults are having a hard time, but one way to be empathetic to a colleague, supervisor, or subordinate is to think of them as a child going through this traumatic event. We give so much space to children going through trauma and judge so much less – try to afford the same level of understanding to adults who need it just as much but may not know how to ask for it.

But empathy should not be the end goal. We all need people in our life to sit in the hard feelings with us, but your colleague will most likely benefit the most from you relating and then taking compassionate action. Staying in empathy – feeling how they feel and walking in their shoes – can be draining and becomes counterproductive.

Related Side Note: If their trauma hits too close to home and triggers memories of your own trauma, take care of yourself. Seek help of your own and practice compassion without losing yourself in your own struggles. Always put on your own oxygen mask first!

3. Don’t assume anything.

Thankfully, as opposed to in years past, there’s a pretty robust cultural discussion about dealing with trauma. Don’t assume that you know what the person is experiencing. Research the illness so you can be more supportive and understand what they’re going through. Raise your awareness of the crisis (whether it be death, drugs, family issues, etc.) they are encountering. Look for other opportunities to broaden your understanding. Sometimes, even when you mean well, your best intentions can sometimes create additional distress for the person when you don’t know the landscape.

Ask them what they need. Or if you don’t feel comfortable with that or know the person would rather not talk about it, look for their close helper. Most people at work will have at least one person they confide in and trust to help them. This person may be the one to organize a Meal Train and set up home care or child care and is the one who knows what the person needs. Try to coordinate with that person, or even be that person for your close colleagues.

4. Eliminate barriers.

The employee experiencing the trauma does have a responsibility to ask for consideration or help, which can be extremely difficult. While it could expose the trauma in the workplace, if someone is suffering, they need to seek out some kind of relief if they’re not able to be fully present at work. Make sure there’s an easy, clear process to request such help. Mention it in all-staff meetings every quarter so your employees know you’re sincere about the offer of assistance.

We have an associate currently undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. Most of the time she wants to and can be at work. She wants to be treated normally and not coddled or tiptoed around. She communicated this to those in her workplace and told them that she wouldn’t do anything she couldn’t, but that she needed to be able to proceed as she usually would without them questioning her actions. Sometimes her health takes a turn and she needs to leave at a moment’s notice. Sometimes she needs to see doctors. Her employer and colleagues are in the loop about her situation and have been incredibly supportive, which removes that concern from her plate. They’re supportive in the way she needs them to be supportive so she can focus on her own healing and recovery.

Not every person will feel safe asking for accommodations as needed and not all employers will be responsive to it, but to the extent that they can work together, that’s the best possible outcome.

5. Take advantage of resources.

Professional mental health care is helpful for not only the person experiencing the trauma but the people trying to support them. A lot of companies have wellness benefits you may not know about. Check with your boss or HR to see what wellness supports exist and make sure to take advantage of them.

What happens when trauma occurs on a larger scale?

Big tragedies are different. Public grief is really hard. Whether dealing with something like the COVID pandemic, a local or national tragedy such as 9/11 or a mass shooting, or even a contentious election, employers and HR managers need to create a wide space for many people to experience the trauma differently. It’s on the boss to make sure everyone experiences the trauma as they need to, whether that’s giving time off as needed, providing access to mental health resources, or something more individualized to your organization, the widest possible response is necessary.

Hopefully, the trauma will resolve positively, as with improving health. Some traumatic events, such as a death in the family, may require more ongoing support and understanding. The best you can do is find out what they need and provide support accordingly. Make it easy for them to ask for help. Remember to also take care of yourself if need be. This too shall pass.

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