Supporting Reports through Trauma
A second-aid guide for how managers and leaders can support colleagues through traumatic events and trauma recovery
Content Warning: high-level discussion of traumatic events without details, including SA, hate crimes (Pulse 2016, Minneapolis 2020), and grief/loss. The discussion centers validation and empathetic action but may surface survived trauma.
I’ve been through personal trauma and community trauma. What I needed and how I felt varied wildly day to day. Some days, work provided routine and a sense of control. Some days I just couldn’t. I had managers whose empathetic support touched me deeply, and I had managers who hurt me through ignorance.
This is a resource for supporting our colleagues and direct reports through traumatic events. What can we say, how can we help, what should we avoid? How can we prepare, and what should we learn about trauma, hate crimes, and empathy?
This is NOT a resource for providing crisis support.
I am not a therapist. I am not Black. I speak from my personal experiences with hate crimes, trauma, PTSD, and C-PTSD, and I speak from my experience supporting reports and colleagues through traumatic events. We are not therapists for our reports or colleagues. We can provide empathy, flexibility, and support for their needs as relevant to their work life, to help each other heal.
Take care of yourself first. As therapists and managers have reminded me: “Are you going to stop caring about or advocating for others?” Advocacy is a lifelong passion.
The idea of “put your own oxygen mask on first” isn’t appealing to everyone — if you are also one of those people, try thinking of caring for yourself and others. If you are affected, talk to your team about what you need — your reports, fellow managers, and your own manager. Remember that all of this applies to you too!
Two days after the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting (a hate crime targeting Hispanic queer people), I was a zombie at work. In shock and dissociating, I did my work on auto-pilot. I desperately wanted any of my colleagues to acknowledge what happened, to understand why I was so deeply affected even though I had no direct connection to the event.
My colleagues could have helped me in a few ways:
- Learn about the event, and about how hate crimes impact marginalized communities
- Avoid triggers such as directly asking how or why I feel affected: let me decide if I want to discuss the event or my feelings
- Demonstrate humility by avoiding assumptions that they understand how I feel
- Validate that my response to trauma is okay and reasonable, while encouraging me to have patience through my recovery
- Comfort in; Dump out: offer support and comfort without exploring your own feelings or venting — don’t make me feel like I have to support you
The Practical TLDR: Support in 1:1s
Lara Hogan outlines a superb guide for how you can provide support in 1:1s
Quote from Lara Hogan, Managering in Terrible Times:
As a manager, you’re in a position of both power and familiarity. Because of your experience with your reports, you are able to notice behavior that is out of character. However, because of your position of authority, your reports may feel unsafe and burdened by talking with you about what is happening in a 1:1. Don’t create an extra burden on folks by springing the topic on them.
Instead, here’s what I recommend saying, in order:
1. As an aside, I wanted to check in and see if there’s anything else I could do to support you right now.
2. There’s a bunch of stuff in the news right now on X Topic (where X is changes to ACA, or revoking visas for immigrants, or reproductive rights, etc.). I wanted to make sure that you know that it’s okay for us to talk about this stuff in one-on-ones.
3. And, I want you to know that it’s also okay not to talk about this stuff with me.
4. As your manager, I want to make sure I’m supporting you as best I can. Is there anything that would be helpful to you to chat about?
Or something else to make it SUPER EASY for your direct report to say “no thanks” and move on. The burden shouldn’t be on them to have an awkward conversation with you that they’re unprepared or uninterested in having.
Remember: marginalized folks are repeatedly called on to explain These Terrible Times to others, and this is a way in which well-intentioned people exacerbate the burden on already-oppressed people. Some members of marginalized groups may see what’s going on as a continuation of structural discrimination, and not as a massive system shock. They are not new to this conversation, and they have likely been having it with people like us (white people) for many years before today.
What is a traumatic event?
Aside: This is a heavy topic. Take your time to feel your feelings. We can support our colleagues through trauma, but we have to start with our own self-care and learning.
Trauma can come from any acutely distressing event. Survivors of traumatic events may experience PTSD. Survivors of prolonged, repeated exposure to traumatic experiences (complex trauma) may develop C-PTSD. PTSD, C-PTSD, and other effects of trauma have physiological components.
Examples of traumatic events:
- Personal: domestic violence (DV), sexual assault (SA), abuse, family separation, medical (e.g., terminal diagnosis), grief/loss, hate crimes (e.g., harassment or assault — but a hate crime can be any act targeting based on membership of a group)
- Community: hate crimes (e.g., homicide or genocide targeting members of a group) or political events (e.g., political acts infringing civil rights)
- Regional: pandemic, natural disasters, political events, or war
Tips for discussing trauma
There is no single, static runbook for managers supporting reports through trauma. There is no one-size-fits-all approach that is applicable to every workplace. Find how you can apply these ideas to your workplace, and know what you can do as a manager or leader in your organization.
After I experienced a triggering event in the workplace, my manager recognized my reaction. They offered a private space, and they acknowledged that I didn’t seem ready to talk about my experience, but they offered to talk. I nodded. They offered a casual story, and as I opened up a little, they shared some personal vulnerability with me. They acknowledged that their struggles are different from mine.
My manager asked if I knew things that helped me in previous experiences like this. They didn’t ask me to share those: they left space for me to decide whether to share. They asked if there was anything they could do to support me in those moments.
Before we returned to the office, they said that they understood that traumatic experiences are difficult to talk about and that we may not have the shared trust for such a discussion. They expressed that they cared about my wellbeing, and that they could support me better if they knew more about my feelings and experiences, if I felt comfortable sharing.
In this situation, my manager supported me and built trust by:
- Recognizing my trigger response
- Avoiding triggers, and without pressure letting me choose when and what to share
- Demonstrating humility, by not assuming that their experiences were like mine
- Validating that it was okay for me not to feel comfortable my experiences or feelings
- Comforting me by sharing a relevant experience — but through empathy towards me, rather than redirecting sympathy towards themself
- Being specific in how they could support me, and why they asked questions
Read about events that may impact your reports. Read the facts — and also look for voices from the community to learn how it is impacting them.
We must shoulder as much of the burden of teaching ourselves as we can, rather than asking our reports from marginalized groups to teach us. In situations when I’ve developed trust with reports and they’ve shared vulnerability, that’s often a good moment to thank them for sharing and to ask for a resource so that you might learn more about how to support them.
2. Avoid triggers
Let your reports or colleagues decide whether they want to discuss traumatic events, and whether they want to share their feelings. Asking personal questions about traumatic events can strain any trust they have. Create space without pressure for your reports and colleagues to choose when and what they want to discuss or share — if anything at all.
As a leader or manager, you hold power: your questions can pressure an answer, your invitations can make it hard to say “no”. Lean towards opt-in offers.
What to avoid:
- “Are you okay?” “How are things going?”
- “How do you feel about recent events?”
- “What happened? Do you know anyone who was there?”
What to prefer:
- “If there is anything you need or anything I can do to support you, please let me know.”
- “You don’t need to respond, but I want to express that I care about you and value you.”
- “I want you to know that I’m here to listen if you want to talk about this or anything, but it is okay not to talk about this.”
3. Demonstrate humility
We don’t know how they feel. We don’t know everything that they experienced. We don’t know what will happen. Even if we’ve experienced a similar event and can relate to what they express, they may feel invalidated by us saying even a simple, common phrase like “I know how you feel”.
Avoid assumptions about their identity/community/family — these are complicated topics for some people.
- “I can’t imagine what you’re going through right now”
- “Do you know some things that you or I can do that have helped you?”
Someone who has been through a traumatic experience may express a spectrum of emotion, including anger! This anger can seem reasonable and healthy — but we can also mistake someone’s expression of pain with a personal attack on ourselves or on someone else. Try to avoid judging an expression of anger, pain, or frustration, and start by considering why they might be feeling or expressing that. If it’s not a good time or place, validate what they express and ask them if you can hear more about that privately.
Survivors who express anxiety or self-doubt may feel relief by validating that it is okay and reasonable to have those feelings. Encourage them to take time off if that’s what they need — but recognize that some people may find comfort in their work routine.
Try phrases and questions such as,
- “That sounds frustrating. I’m sorry to hear that.”
- “Have patience with yourself”
- “Is there anything that’s been relieving or helpful to you this week?”
- “Let’s set a reasonable goal that you can achieve”
Have patience. Encourage your team to have patience with each other and with themselves. There’s no “right” reaction, there’s no “right” feelings. Let them have space to express those feelings. Sometimes those expressions will come in places you may not want them. Continue to give space and have patience. What they express is coming from something that is important to them: focus on that, and how you can provide spaces for that.
5. Comfort in; Dump out
These events may impact you. Supporting your reports and colleagues may affect you. Center the people who are most directly and significantly affected. Offer comfort and empathy towards them. Save your own self-care and venting needs to dump outwards, towards people who are less directly affected than you are.
For more on “Comfort in; Dump out”: How to Respond to People in Crisis: Comfort In; Dump Out
6. Be specific
Strive to be specific in the support you can offer. While important to offer general emotional reassurances like “I support you”, those words do small justice to combat fears or meet material needs.
Don’t offer something you cannot provide: recognize both your personal boundaries and the restrictions of your organization in what you can do for your reports. Adapt these ideas to your workplace, role, and coworking relationship.
- Offer grace: explicitly offer patience and acknowledge that is is okay for them to experience some decrease in productivity, hours, attendance, or mental presence
- Offer to take over responsibilities: take notes during meetings so they can take time for self-care
- Offer to send food: sending meals or groceries can take a small burden and ensure that they are eating regularly
Furthermore, be specific when asking questions. There are times when your work obligates you to ask a question, or when knowing something could be helpful even though the question may raise their trauma. Provide motivation for why you are asking such questions. For example,
- Work hours: “I recognize you’re going through a lot right now, and I want to support you. You have sick leave if you want to use it. Will you be working today? It’s okay if you’re not feeling up to working today, I can find someone else — but I need to page them in the next 30 minutes.”
- Triggers: “I understand that triggers can be very personal and private. I want to create a work environment where you can feel safe, such as by providing a work station near a wall or exit. If you feel up to it, could you share with me how I can reduce the triggers you might experience in the workplace?”
What you can do
In 2018, I had a public, traumatic experience. My manager contacted me to check in. They offered that I could take the day off, talk about it, or walk. We went for a walk. I felt helpless, ashamed, and self-critical. Initially, I didn’t want to talk about my feelings. I questioned my position, and I shared that I was afraid of consequences at work. My manager responded very specifically, about why they hired me, why they believed in me, and what they and others would do to ensure that I am treated equitably.
In this situation, my manager helped me in a few ways:
- Flexibility: They offered for me to take time off, work different hours, or work from home for the day.
- Control: They let me choose what was best for me. I needed familiarity from my work routine, and I needed to find the moment on my own when I felt safe and ready to share my fears.
- Organization Resources: They shared relevant organization benefits such as sick leave.
- Advocating for Change: They shared in detail how they advocate for organizational change — acknowledging that organizations fall short of ideals — and they followed up on their actions and progress.
1. Offer flexibility
Offer methods that your work environment can adapt to their needs. Depending on the organization and role, that may include flexible hours, reduced hours, remote work, or adjusted performance expectations (acknowledge that decreased productivity is likely and okay).
Trauma is a high cognitive load. They may seek familiar, routine tasks. Adapting to their needs allows them to feel more effective in their work — and offers to them a sense of control.
2. Offer control
For someone frustrated by their lack of productivity or focus, offer a sense of control or success such as through choices they can make or tasks they are proficient at. Alternately, offer tasks they can collaborate on where they feel safe and can rebuild trust, maybe where they don’t have to take the lead, such as for someone who is dissociating and operating as though on auto-pilot. “How about I do this part, you do that part?”
A survivor may feel powerless or despairing. By providing a sense of control and success, we can help them recover from trauma without directly addressing their trauma.
3. Offer organizational resources and benefits
Know what you can do within your organization, and share with them what is relevant — e.g.,
- Time off: sick leave (mental health and emotional health are health!), PTO, bereavement, FMLA, disability/SDI — some organizations have leave categories for family care that may apply.
- Formal support programs: EAP, counseling, legal assistance, relocation assistance, expensing standing desk / assistive devices.
Know what you can’t do within your organization.
- Formal boundaries — e.g., from your org on what you can personally do (gifting rules), or on what your report can do.
- Weaknesses in your org’s benefits — e.g., insufficient PTO/sick leave, benefits that don’t cover partners in polyamorous relationships, health benefits that don’t cover their medical needs.
4. Advocate for organizational action
Advocate for immediate action within your organization. E.g.,
- Leadership can send empathetic words, and guidance for colleagues of people affected
- Request supportive and safe spaces for people affected
- Request resources for people affected
Advocate for long-term change within your organization. E.g.,
- Inclusive benefits and practices
- Creating inclusion, equity, and belonging at your organization
- Creating resources for managers to support their teams through trauma, to develop a culture of inclusion and belonging, and to learn about experiences of people from marginalized or stigmatized groups
Personal boundaries are limits that individuals place to manage separations between their personal life and professional relationships. Professional boundaries are rules set by legislation, unions, professional organizations, or workplaces to protect workers and clients.
- Gifts from clients
- Using corporate resources to support a friend
- Contacting a client from a personal device outside your work
- Discussing personal experiences with a client
- Relationships between managers and reports, or between instructors and students
Setting boundaries protects both workers and clients! Boundaries help to ensure that workers can separate their professional work from personal lives for a healthy work-life balance.
As a social worker, Sam met regularly with a group of clients. Alex, a client, asked for a ride, because they were unable to get transportation to the group meeting. They shared their phone number to coordinate. After a few weeks of Sam regularly driving Alex and providing advice by text to Alex, Alex shared Sam’s phone number with Kelly, who was experiencing a traumatic crisis. Sam was not prepared to provide crisis support.
By providing repeated transportation to Alex and sharing their phone number, Sam set up an expectation among group members that they were available outside of the professional boundaries established by their workplace. Instead of driving Alex weekly, Sam could have asked other group members to help with transportation. Sam could also have redirected requests outside of those professional boundaries, such as by providing contact information for counseling resources.
Establishing explicit boundaries is vital for maintaining productive working relationships with colleagues and with clients.
Crossing boundaries can be good!
Traumatic experiences is an important area to understand when boundaries support the wellbeing of everyone involved — and also those moments when a specific, limited boundary crossing can be beneficial and reasonable.
In the previous example, Sam could have defined an explicit exception to their boundary by agreeing to provide transportation once, while offering to support Alex in finding alternative transportation to future meetings.
Sharing personal experiences can also be an effective way to support someone recovering from trauma.
When I was first diagnosed with PTSD, I felt confused and alone. I shared my diagnosis with my manager. I didn’t think I would ever recover from the triggers I experienced. I felt afraid and alone. My manager expressed empathy, and they shared that they, too, had PTSD, and that they were working towards their own recovery. They asked another colleague if they felt comfortable sharing their own experiences. Their vulnerability and support meant the world to me.
Boundary crossing can provide a lifeline at a critical moment or work around edge cases in your professional work. E.g.,
- Sending flowers to a grieving report
- Hugging a crying report
- Providing transportation for a client when an emergency happens
- Sharing a personal story
- Meeting a client at their home when they are unable to leave their home
Examples of boundary crossing can be highly contextual: a boundary crossing that is beneficial in one situation can set up unhealthy expectations in another.
Hate crimes are not a traumatic event in isolation: they are intertwined across the community’s history, and they impact the entire community. The traumatic event itself is only one part of a hate crime. The impact of a hate crime reverberates across a community.
Survivors of hate crimes may have many feelings and thoughts, which I encourage you to learn more about. Some common feelings include shame, guilt, isolation, despair, dissociation, and internalized oppression (“I deserve this because I’m [X]”).
(Note: Some prefer “survivor” rather than “victim”, and some prefer “victim”. Survivor terminology can empower by emphasizing the survival and recovery process. Survivor terminology de-emphasizes the perpetrator, for good and bad. See, e.g., “The difference between ‘victim’ and ‘survivor’”.)
When a hate crime survivor lacks unified support, their trauma can be acutely magnified by ongoing trauma they experience from people who question their experiences, or by feeling betrayed by friends or family that defend perpetrators of violence (e.g., DV/SA). A community affected by hate crime may face ignorance from outside the community of their trauma.
When a community is affected by repeated hate crimes, the trauma experienced by the community is not in response to a single hate crime but to the overwhelming, cumulative oppression faced by the community. The Minneapolis (CW: detailed description of homicide) and Ferguson protests cannot be separated from centuries of intergenerational trauma caused by white supremacy.
We can lay the groundwork so that we will be prepared to support our reports and colleagues through trauma by building trust with our teams, learning about their needs, and learning continuously about communities affected by trauma.
- Listen to your reports. Learn what affects them. Learn their needs. Build trust. Learn what you can do to support them — to do their best in good times, and to help them through the rough times.
- Read about events affecting the communities that you know your reports are part of.
- Read and learn about communities that you do not know your reports are part of: You will not know all communities that your reports are part of, and you should be prepared to support future reports from marginalized and stigmatized communities
- Learn — about trauma, about PTSD and C-PTSD, about dissociation and triggers, about trauma response, and about trauma recovery.
- Learn about experiences of people from marginalized and stigmatized groups. Learn about the cultures within those groups, about their history, about their oppression, and about their needs.
- Learn about allyship. Learn how you can advocate for change, how you can support individuals. Share what you learn: teach others, and grow new allies and comrades.
- Learning is immense and never-ending: spread it out over your lifetime.
- Learning is uncomfortable and distressing: do it with other allies. Process your feelings and learning experiences away from people in those groups.
And most of all? We must advocate for organizational and systemic change to help our colleagues have the best support we can provide as colleagues through all of their experiences.
None of us are free until all of us are free.
Resources for leadership and support after traumatic events:
Resources for trauma and self-care:
- Complex Trauma and Coping Mechanisms
- How to Respond to People in Crisis: Comfort In; Dump Out
- Cooperative Care: Queering Self-Care
- Your ‘Surge Capacity’ Is Depleted — It’s Why You Feel Awful
2020 resources to learn and support your Black colleagues:
- The Support You Need To Give Your Black Employees Today
- One Black employee’s answer to “How can I help?”
- Checking in with your employees during challenging times
- Black Trauma And Showing Up At Work
- Timeline of Events That Led To The 2020 “Fed Up”-Rising
- George Floyd protests: Police erupt in violence nationwide during the third night of protests.
- How to Make this Moment the Turning Point for Real Change
- 75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice
2020 resources to support Black Lives Matter:
Crisis support resources