#MTtalk Roundup: Supporting a Traumatized Colleague

#MTtalk Roundup: Supporting a Traumatized Colleague

August 13, 2019

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“A kind gesture can reach a wound that only compassion can heal.”

― Steve Maraboli, American Author

When I started posting threads and asking questions on the Mind Tools forums many years ago, the thought never crossed my mind that I’d ever become a member of the Mind Tools team.

Only a year later, I officially joined the Mind Tools community team. And almost every day since July 2008, I’ve logged into the forum to moderate, listen, coach, and support others.

Members often share their funny moments, feel-good stories, and embarrassing situations. But sometimes we receive desperate cries for help from individuals in difficult workplace situations. It could be anything from how to handle a difficult colleague to making a big career decision.

And every so often, there’s a story that stops us in our tracks.

The Effects of Sudden Trauma

John (not his real name) has been a member of Mind Tools for a long time and he often contributes to threads in the forum. He is always generous with his advice and shows much empathy for others.  

But suddenly, about two years ago, John all but disappeared. We’re used to members sometimes going silent for a few weeks so maybe it was no big deal, I thought.

And then, one morning, I logged in and saw John was back. What I read left me breathless.

John is a war veteran who left the army about 25 years ago. However, he explained that he was now suffering from severe PTSD that had manifested literally overnight. It had left him feeling anxious, helpless and confused.

In his many posts since then, John has described what he experiences, the symptoms he has, how they make him feel, and the effect his disorder has on the people around him. He’s also shared the mechanisms he uses to cope on difficult days.

Looking for Help When Traumatized

John isn’t comfortable disclosing his situation to everybody because of the stigma that is still attached to mental health issues. He found this out the hard way.

Early on, John took a few friends and colleagues into his confidence and disclosed his PTSD to them. While he did receive the support he needed from some, he also, unfortunately, experienced a certain degree of betrayal. When someone breached his trust publicly, John felt shame, guilt and fear.

John also taught us that many workplaces, even those with the best intentions, often don’t have managers or human resources personnel who are equipped to deal with traumatized people.

Reactions to a Traumatized Co-Worker

John’s experience has impacted his sense of security, his self-esteem, his family life, and his career. There are only a handful of people John feels he can truly trust and rely on. He has also found an outlet in the Mind Tools forum, where he can write about his experiences anonymously in a safe, nonjudgmental environment. 

When reading John’s posts, I often wish that he had more people around him that truly understood how to support him.

Supporting a Traumatized Colleague

During last Friday’s #MTtalk we discussed how to support a traumatized colleague. Here are the questions we asked and some of the responses:

Q1. Think about your own experiences, your observations of others, or what you’ve read or heard: how does trauma impact a person?

The impact of trauma is varied and long-lasting. It can have emotional and physical manifestations and implications. We were also reminded about the timespan and severity:

@NWarind Trauma has no instant cure – long-term therapy is the answer. Long-term means you have to be patient.

@SizweMoyo Quite often when a person is going through something traumatic, their body slouches to look like a question mark; it shows their uncertainty about everything and anything they say or do. Their view on life is literally shattered and they don’t know what is what.

Q2. What might cause trauma in your workplace?

@MarkC_Avgi What is traumatic is different for each and every person but, in the workplace, harassment, bullying, sudden angry outbursts by a co-worker, a fire, an accident, or certainly an attack or threats at your workplace would be traumatic for everyone.

@itstamaragt Harassment is a huge factor that could contribute to trauma. On a grand scale, any form of abuse – physical, emotional, verbal, etc.

Q3. How might a person come to realize that they are traumatized?

Some people may feel like crying all the time, while others are suddenly hyper-alert and ready to defend themselves even though there’s no physical danger. Sounds startle them, or situations that remind them of the original trauma scare them. They might suddenly find it difficult to cope with everyday situations or their workload, and relationships can suffer. Some helpful reminders from our participants included:

@lg217 It is hard to have that self-awareness so outside help is vital. People with empathy will be able to see the situation with greater clarity. Then they can provide encouragement to take steps to get the necessary help. This might mean leaving that place of employment.

@MicheleDD_MT Having flashbacks or nightmares. Can’t remember parts of the event – memory is blocked out. Fearful of people, places or events.

Q4. How do you know what the underlying cause is when an employee exhibits sudden uncharacteristic behavior?

@TheOnlyMarky Sometimes people are afraid to ask in case they offend the person. And not everyone likes to open up about themselves for various reasons, and they might be scared of losing their job.

@Midgie_MT  I would say that you can never know what the underlying cause is. Sometimes the person themselves does not know what triggered them. You may suspect there is something going on and you may need to ask, yet you can never know exactly for sure.

Q5. What approaches are unhelpful when supporting a traumatized colleague?

@GenePetrovLMC Minimizing the trauma is really unhelpful. Even if we don’t understand all the inner workings of a trauma, we can show an abundance of compassion to people who are working through some really heavy issues.

@iqurattariq Jumping straight in and starting giving the how-to-get-out-of-it suggestions. Start slow: a smile a day is enough for starters. Build trust and then talk.

Q6. What words/phrases is it best to avoid using when interacting with a traumatized colleague?

“It’s all in the mind,” “You need to move on,” and “It’s all part of a bigger plan” aren’t helpful. Other insensitive phrases include:

@BrainBlenderTec What’s wrong with you?

@Dwyka_Consult You should… Remember, you must never… I know EXACTLY how you feel. You’ll get over it. It’s not that bad. Just think positively!

Q7. How can an organization best support someone who has experienced trauma in or outside of work?

It’s important to create a safe space and to educate everybody, but especially HR and managers, to recognize and support a person with trauma.

@chiunya_tendai  Offer extra leave. To show empathy, make follow-up visits at home. This mostly works when you delegate a team of close workmates to do home visits.

@GThakore Give them space to recover.

Q8. How might you handle a situation where a traumatized employee is not performing to the level that is required?

@ot_sheffield Ensure there is nothing adding to their trauma at the workplace. I would then be meeting up with them on a regular basis to see how they were getting on. They may require extra support.

@yuryvelosa Acting assertively and facing the music… I think most of the time a private good talk where you actually listen to them, and giving them time to recover from the event that caused the trauma would be very helpful.

Q9. When is it appropriate to make concessions for a traumatized colleague/employee? What issues might this cause?

@Yolande_MT When people need extra time off, need more attention, need a different workspace, or maybe work from home. It might be perceived as favoritism.

@Midgie_MT I believe it is always appropriate to make concessions. Yet in situations when others’ health and safety is at risk (health care, emergency services, etc), this might need to be reviewed. It might cause resentment from others.

Q10. What will you do from today to better support a traumatized colleague?

@SizweMoyo I’ve already begun by taking a long walk up a hill while listening and talking with a traumatized friend today. She’s feeling better now, but I know that that doesn’t mean she’s through it. I’ll be here for her if ever she needs another walk and talk.

@MicheleDD_MT Practice the golden rule of relationships. Listen with intention. Support with empathy and compassion.

To read all the tweets, have a look at the Wakelet collection of this chat.

Coming Up

Can ambition ruin your career? Does society label women as “too ambitious” more often than men? In our next #MTtalk, we’re going to discuss whether ambition is a friend or an enemy.

In this week’s Twitter poll, we’d like to know which type of behavior you think leads to accusations of over-ambition. Cast your vote here.


In the meantime, here are some resources relating to the topic we discussed (some resources may only be available to members of the Mind Tools Club):

How to Manage a Team Member With PTSD

Empathic Listening

Mindfulness in the Workplace

Dealing With Anxiety

How to Manage Defensive People

What Is Stress?

Physical Relaxation Techniques

Random Acts of Kindness

Handling Long-Term Absences in Your Team

How to Manage an Underconfident Person

Empathy at Work


How to Be Tactful

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