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Tragedy and the Workplace, Part 2: What Can Employees Do?

Young man with a pensive look on his face.

A sudden illness, loss of a loved one, an accident or an assault, or a natural disaster - these are all traumatic experiences that can upset and distress us at work. The fact is that whenever people face these kinds of trauma, they need to talk about it in order to heal. Unfortunately, many of us shrink from listening to people in pain. We may feel like we have enough troubles of our own, or be afraid of making matters worse by saying the wrong thing. It is natural to feel reluctant, or even afraid of facing another person's painful feelings. However, it is important not to let this fear prevent us from doing what we can to help someone who is suffering.

Suggestions for how to support a coworker:

  • Simply be there and listen and show you care.
  • Find a private setting where you won't be overheard or interrupted.
  • Ask questions which show your interest and encourage the person to keep talking, for example: "What happened next?" or "What was that like?"
  • Give verbal and non-verbal messages of care and support.
  • Don't be distressed by differences in the way people respond.
  • Don't offer unsolicited advice.
  • Don't turn the conversation into a forum for your own experiences.

Once you have finished talking, it may be appropriate to offer simple forms of help. Check about basic things like eating and sleeping. Inviting the person to share a meal may help the person find an appetite. Giving a ride to someone too upset to drive may mean a lot. Ask what else you can do to be of assistance.

After you have talked to someone who is hurting, you may feel as if you have absorbed some of that person's pain. Take care of yourself by talking to a friend, taking a walk, or doing whatever helps restore your own spirits. Congratulate yourself on having had the courage to help someone in need when it wasn't easy.

For additional information read the full guidance from the Office of Personal Management and the National Institute of Mental Health:

Read Part One: “Tragedy and the Workplace, What Can Organizations Do?” – The Manager’s Perspective