How to Cope With Loss, Grief, and Trauma at the Office
12th February, 2024
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[00:39] - This episode relates to Episode 91 about handling chaos in the world. But handling the chaos of the world and personal difficulty require a slightly different approach.
[01:33] - Employees need to be honest with employers as much as possible about what they’re going through so the employer knows how to support the employee. The story of Moses, Aaron, and Hur in the battle against the Amalekites is a good example of being willing to admit a weakness to get necessary help.
[03:11] - Resetting boundaries, such as asking people to email instead of call, can make the overwhelm of trauma, loss, etc. easier to deal with. It’s OK to make reasonable requests that will help you cope so you can continue to do your work.
[05:12] - Resist taking on more work as a mode of denying your pain. Ultimately, this tactic backfires, because when you finally can’t deny the pain anymore, there’s more on your plate that will crash.
[06:20] - When you are struggling, seek out mentors and others who might be able to lend support. They can relate to you in a way people out of the workplace cannot.
[07:25] - Employers should exercise compassion and respond well to reasonable requests when they see people struggling. People will remember kindness and reward it with loyalty.
[09:02] - Henri Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer makes the point that it’s having one other person you know will wait for you through tough times that makes a person willing to keep going. Employers can be that one person for employees who are struggling.
[11:09] - Being anticipatory about employee needs and offering them as a courtesy — even if the employee does not accept everything offered — goes a long way to convincing employees who are struggling that they are more than just a number at the company.
[12:57] - Employers also can help employees who are going through tough times by encouraging teammates to support the employee in whatever ways they can. This tactic builds a sense of community where all team members know they can count on each other for help, and where no one person has to feel like they must be the only one responsible.
Handling worldly chaos and personal difficulties at work is different in that worldly chaos often provides a rallying point for the entire group.
Being open when you are struggling enables people to better understand and empathize, which enables them to provide better help to you.
Struggles can necessitate the renegotiation of boundaries around work (e.g., communication, working from home).
Avoid taking on more work during struggles, as using work to deny feelings often can backfire. The more you try to pretend like the pain isn’t there by piling on more work, the bigger the risk is that the pain will overwhelm you and lead to personal or team disappointment.
Seek support from others at work even when you have support from loved ones, as those at work will best understand the challenges and demands work puts in your life.
As an employer, being compassionate when someone is struggling is a key way to earn loyalty. Most employees who struggle will more than make up for anything they miss if you give them permission to be more flexible and slow down for a while to cope.
Henri Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer emphasizes that knowing someone is waiting for us provides the courage necessary to keep going even when life is rough. Leaders can show they are willing to be there so that struggles are more bearable.
Leaders can help those who struggle by trying to anticipate what might be helpful. Even if the worker doesn’t accept all the options presented, making some pathways available makes a positive impression.
It’s appropriate for leaders to build a sense of community and social responsibility by encouraging other members of the team to pitch in to care for the worker in need. It’s also necessary from a practical standpoint, because no single person can be everything to someone.
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Hi, there, listeners. I am delighted to welcome you to Episode 93 of Faithful on the Clock, the podcast where every star twinkles to get your faith and work aligned. I’m your host, Wanda Thibodeaux, and because I truly believe you can only fix things you acknowledge are a problem, today we’re gonna talk about getting through all the tough stuff life can throw at you. How can we deal with trauma, loss, grief, and all those types of things while still showing up and performing well at the office? Let’s get started.
So, this episode, to let you know, it piggybacks on Episode 91, which is about coping with all the big pieces of chaos in the world as we work. But dealing with personal struggles is different simply because you don’t have this collective experience piece. Right? Like, with chaos in the world, we are all subjected to those things together. But personal issues, others might be able to empathize, you know, maybe they have been through what you are experiencing at some point, but there isn’t like this rallying point the whole group can simultaneously gather around. And that’s part of what makes our individual problems so stressful — we often don’t have this community rallying, and we’re just kind of expected to handle it alone. You know what I mean? So, that means that we as workers and leaders have to approach personal difficulties at work slightly differently.
So, let’s start out looking at this from the employee side, OK? And the first thing I’m going to recommend hard to you is that you are as open as you possibly can be with your coworkers and your manager about what is going on. Now, this is hard, because often when we’re hurting, we don’t want others to know. We don’t want them to think we’re weak, and especially at work, we don’t want people to interpret our weakness as an inability to do our job. And obviously, you have the right to respectfully withhold details people do not need to know. But I’ll point out the story of Moses and the Amalekites in Exodus 17. Israel went to battle, and as long as Moses held up his hands, Israel would gain the upper hand in the fighting. But of course, you know, Moses gets tired. So, Aaron and Hur, they come and hold Moses’ hands up for him. And so what I take from that story is that we have to be willing to admit and be supported in our weakness. We can’t manage alone. So, I want you to be open to sharing enough big pieces of your situation that people can understand and empathize with. Because if they can’t understand and empathize, they’re gonna be pretty clueless about how best to support you. And I mention that because, a lot of the time, when we’re going through something rough, we don’t know what to ask for, right? We can be so stressed or in such shock that we can’t even think. I think that’s especially true when you lose a loved one. But if people understand and empathize, then they can call on their own experiences to make some good decisions about what to offer or do for you.
Now, once you’ve explained your situation as best you can, I think the next step is to rethink your boundaries. I know sometimes you can’t just table a project or whatever, you know, you have contractual obligations your company is gonna be held to. But what you can do is make some reasonable requests that might help you stay focused. So, for example, you might notice that you start thinking about your trauma or loss or whatever it is later on in the day. And that’s normal, you know, you’re tired, and your brain can only put these tough things on the back burner for so long before they demand attention again. So, you might ask your team or boss if you can schedule meetings in the morning when you have the most energy to cope and aren’t gonna be distracted. Or you might even say, you know, I simply cannot handle being around so many people all the time right now, would it be possible for me to work from home a day or two out of the week? You know, Jesus would take a break from His followers all the time to make sure He could come back to them ready to serve, so if you need a little room to breathe, that’s OK. Another good boundary is around communication. You might wanna say, OK, please email instead of call. Because a lot of the time, when we’re distracted by personal difficulties, you know, it honestly makes it hard to process and remember things. We find reference to how mentally and physically draining grief and trouble can be a lot in the psalms. For example, Psalm 31:9-10 says, “Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye is wasted from grief; my soul and body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my iniquity, and my bones waste away.” So it’s normal to feel tired or achy and foggy and forgetful. And emails, I know no one likes a packed inbox, right? But it can be a lifesaver through tough times because it means everything is in writing so you can refer to it whenever you need to.
Now, within that, I do want to caution you against taking on more work. A lot of people, when the you-know-what hits the fan, that’s what they do. They say, well, I don’t wanna think about these painful things, and they use work to distract themselves and kind of go into this whole space of denial. Now, there is some value in continuing some work so you can understand there’s still some ability to do good and have a sense of purpose through whatever you’re going through. But I think what you’ll find is that if you simply deny something, if you use work to shield yourself from your reality, eventually, whatever you’re denying is gonna break free and come to the surface. And often, that can be incredibly disruptive, because it almost always happens at the worst possible time, and then you might not be able to function at all because it’s so overwhelming. You know, it demands that you stop and handle it. And if you’ve picked up more work trying to cope, you’ve basically just ensured that the negative impact of having to stop is significantly worse, because you’re gonna let yourself and other people down to a greater degree.
But if you can’t distract yourself with work, what you can do is seek out the people in your workplace who can be helpful. That might mean taking advantage of counselors your employer provides. It might mean setting up more meetings with your mentor. You know, maybe you accept that invitation for coffee that a coworker gives you just so you’re not alone. But the idea is that, even if you need to get away from people to breathe a bit, you don’t isolate and that you let those people make sure that you’re not getting off track. And although I’ll encourage you to find supportive people outside of work, too, the reason I say to find some people who can help on the job is because those people are the people who understand what’s necessary to meet work obligations. They’re the only ones who are in the meetings with you, who really know the dynamics of your team, who understand how long tasks take, and so on. So, the empathy and accountability and support they’re gonna be able to offer is going to be different than the empathy, accountability, and support you might get from close loved ones.
Now, taking a look at this from the employer side, if I can tell you nothing else, I will tell you that compassion is the best way to earn someone’s loyalty. It’s the best way to inspire them to keep showing up even when it’s hard. And I say this because so often in an office, the focus when someone has a trauma or loss isn’t on caring for them. It’s on making sure productivity doesn’t drop and work goes on as usual. And I think the tendency is to think that things can never slow down if you wanna stay competitive. But I’m telling you, when you give people enough time to really grieve or process their difficulties, when they know you have their back, in one way or another, they make up for the quote unquote lost time. Because they’ll wanna work hard to repay your kindness. Do you understand that? And so if you take this show-must-go-on attitude, if you push them to work even when they can’t focus, it’s only gonna backfire. They’re not gonna be motivated to see their work in a positive way, it’s not gonna help them heal, and all they’re gonna remember from the experience is how you added to their stress by being tone deaf to deep needs they had. So, right away, give people some time to step away if they need it. Let them know that it’s acceptable to you if they don’t give 110 percent for a little while and that you trust them to deliver down the road. Meet them halfway on the reasonable requests they make to cope and don’t act like there’s no room for them to feel what they feel.
Within all of this, there’s a book called The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen that I’ll link to in the show notes. I’ve pulled from it for some social media posts in the past. But it’s all about the roles and responsibilities of a modern minister. And you might say, well, I’m not a minister. And OK, maybe formally you’re not. But you do lead, and if you aim to lead in a Christian way, well, informally, yes, you are a minister. So there’s application into the office here. But one of the points Nouwen makes is that part of the minister’s job is to make sure that other people know they have at least one other person who is willing to wait for them, who won’t abandon them. People need to know they aren’t alone when they go through struggle. You know, it’s this understanding that someone else is connected to them that lets them get up and keep fighting another day. So, as a leader, when someone on your team is going through rough stuff, that’s your job. You’ve gotta let them know they aren’t alone. And to do that, I really think you have to go beyond just handing them a pamphlet about the counselors you have available. You have to check in and see if they’re OK. And guess what. That’s not a one-time gig, either. I think people do expect others to check in maybe no more than once or twice. That’s the expectation. And honestly, it’s sad, but in the United States, that’s standard fare people will do just because it’s the social script. But when you check in every week, every day, whatever it is, that’s where people start to think, OK, maybe my boss doesn’t just see me as a number or cog in the wheel. Maybe they’ll really wait this out with me to the bitter end. So, show up for the person who’s suffering, and show up over and over again. Even if they never ask you for anything, even if they never give you details about what’s happening, just don’t leave any doubt that you care enough to wait.
The third thing you can do as a leader when someone has something rough they’re going through is to be as anticipatory as you can. And what I mean by that is, you know, the old saying is to put yourself in their shoes. Well, if you were in the shoes of the person suffering, what would you probably need? What would you ask for? Because remember, sometimes people are too embarrassed or scared to ask. And of course, you’re not that person, so you might have to adjust a little to help in the right way. But if you’re at least trying to think about what would make it easier to cope and work, and if you’re setting those things up for the employee as a courtesy, that’s gonna go a long way in terms of building rapport and showing them that they matter. Sometimes they won’t take or use everything you offer, but I’m telling you, they’ll sure remember that you tried to make a genuine gesture. You just wanna try to see through their eyes and give them as many options as you can to take the edge off. You know, we talk all the time about how workplaces need to be flexible. Well, this is an example of that, where you can offer different pathways and then let the employee decide what’s gonna be most helpful to them. And one verse I can give you to stay in this anticipatory mindset is Isaiah 65:24, which says, “And it shall be, before they cry, I shall hear; yet while they speak, I shall hear. And it shall be that before they even cry to me, I shall answer them.” Now, clearly, we are not God. We do not have His depth of foresight and listening. But as His followers, we at least can observe and try to prevent suffering that doesn’t have to happen.
As you put those pathways together, something you might want to consider is discreetly asking the employee’s coworkers to pitch in. You know, you don’t require anything of anybody, necessarily. But you propose some things. You explain where you think the employee who’s hurting could use some extra help. And then you let people pick up whatever they’re willing to pick up. And what this does if you do it right is it really helps foster this sense of community, because remember, one of the things that makes individual difficulties different than going through chaotic world events is there’s less sense of group unity around everything. So, essentially, you have to proactively ensure that people have the opportunity to support and understand each other. They have to know it’s OK to rally around an individual member of the team when it’s appropriate. And if you do it consistently for everyone, they’ll learn really fast that this isn’t a preferential thing. You know, every single person on the team is gonna get the same protection and care. Everybody pays it forward. And the person who needs help, they’re gonna learn that they have multiple people who are rooting for them, and that’s important, because nobody can be everything to someone. Right? Like, we all have our strengths and weaknesses, so to get someone through something that’s rough, we all kind of have to put in what we’ve got at the right time. Especially when you’re in leadership, it can be really hard to give people a lot of one-on-one time the way you want to, meaning that you might have to deputize a little bit to make sure that the employee in need has enough care. So, don’t be afraid to call in the cavalry a little bit.
So, those are my main suggestions for employers and employees who have to handle difficult life circumstances through work. I know we can’t always predict what’s going to come at us, but we can make a conscious choice to seek help and be helpers through it.
Let’s go ahead and pray.
Heavenly Father, this world can be so unkind. And even though we cannot be in a perfect world right now, even though we can have so much pain, I thank You that You’ve set aside room for us in a better world that we’ll have forever. And Lord, I pray that when we see opportunities to reach out or help, we don’t let those opportunities go. Let’s be there for each other just as You are there for us. In Jesus’ name, I pray, Amen.
That’s the show, everybody. The whole thing. On the next episode of Faithful on Clock, I’m gonna be talking about how to find the ideal job that matches the gifts God has given to you. If you’ve ever wanted to have employment that feels a whole lot less like work, make sure to subscribe and sign up for our email list at faithfulontheclock.captivate.fm so you don’t miss the episode. Take care, everybody, and until next time, be blessed.
Faithful on the Clock is a podcast meant to get your Christian faith and work aligned. You won’t find mantras or hacks here--just scripture-based insights to help you grow yourself, your company, and your relationship with God. If you want out of the worldly hamster wheel and want to work with purpose, then this is the show for you. Hosted by freelance business writer Wanda Thibodeaux.
Wanda Marie Thibodeaux is a freelance writer based in Eagan, MN. Since 2006, she has worked with a full range of clients to create website landing pages, product descriptions, articles, professional letters, and other content. She also served as a daily columnist at Inc.com for three years, where she specialized in content on business leadership, psychology, neuroscience, and behavior.
Currently, Thibodeaux accepts clients through her website, Takingdictation.com. She is especially interested in motivational psychology, self-development, and mental health.