How to Care for Yourself at Work After a Loss or Trauma

Katie Huey August 30, 2018

When catastrophe strikes or trauma bluntly shakes us into unknown territory, our culture allows for approximately two to six weeks of understanding. We’re expected to address urgent demands, spend time with family, and quickly return to the office. But conscious companies understand that wounds from traumatic change take much longer to heal.

If you’ve broken a bone, the markers of physical healing are obvious. Remove your cast and do your exercises to return to full mobility. If your heart breaks from the chronic stress of caring for a loved one, if you’re tending to a grieving spirit, or if you are overcoming the spiritual challenges of change and re-birth from a divorce or a new move, the timeline for healing isn’t as clear.

I lost my dad unexpectedly in the spring of 2016. Shortly after, my husband lost his job, and then I was let go of what was, on paper, a dream job. Our foundations were shaken. Our paths were muddied and full of thorns. I set out on a harrowing adventure toward healing these new emotional wounds. All the while, I had to find a job, support my husband in his unemployment, and attend to demands of my grieving extended family.

Here are four lessons I’ve learned as I continue healing as a working professional.

1. The hardest one: Start with what you need.

When I lost my dad, a caring individual wrote me a letter and said: “The hardest part of this grief journey is that it is yours alone. No one can know what you are feeling or experiencing and, unfortunately, you alone oversee navigating this new space.”

This valuable lesson is also true at the office. Your boss and your co-workers can’t read your mind, nor do they know how to help. They may be uncomfortable and fail to approach you in your new space. You need to lead conversations with your boss or your direct reports, and wisely choose how vulnerable you can be in sharing what happened and explaining what you need.

Start by making a list of your current duties. What feels manageable to continue, and where may you need help? Is working remotely an option, or does it feel better to come into the office to be surrounded by people? Can you delegate to others who are hoping for more responsibilities? Your list serves as a guide for hard conversations and puts you in a position to self-advocate in negotiating your current position.

2. Know it’s okay to take a step back.

“Don’t make a big life change within a year after a significant event occurs.” Advice like this is common, but I didn’t find it helpful. Instead, you must tune into what you want and what you’re realistically capable of accomplishing.

While I was extremely disappointed at being let go from my dream job, I knew the emotional toll of my new situation would prohibit me from providing the caliber of work they required. In searching for new jobs, I gave myself permission to take a step back. I hopped off my “career track” and took a less demanding position to pay my bills and leave work at work. Fourteen months later, I took a different position and am now back to using my skills in more personally rewarding ways.

If you are in a management position, your direct reports will inevitably encounter trauma in their personal lives. When this happens, look for duties that could be reassigned, changed, or made easier to help your employees as they heal. Make decisions together to assess what is realistic and still helps your company reach its goals. Set short-term timelines with check-ins, and ask your employees how they feel along the way.

As an employee, if you are working with people who lack compassion, are unwilling to compromise, or fail to work with you to find new solutions, the most compassionate thing to do for yourself may, in fact, be to find a new job. Your healing may lead to you to new working environments and new relationships — and that’s okay.

3. Maintain healthy boundaries.

I have been in three working environments since I lost my dad and felt a natural urge to share my experience with my co-workers in all of them. After over-sharing and receiving uncomfortable blank stares, I started to realize that I needed to censor what I shared with these folks – not to protect them, but rather to protect myself. Before sharing your struggles or the personal progress you are making, ask yourself three questions:

  • How will what I want to share add value to what we are accomplishing at work?
  • How will what I want to share impact my relationship with this person?
  • Will this cause either party discomfort or awkwardness, and is that okay?

While we all want to bring our whole selves to work, having healthy boundaries between personal and professional lives remains important. If you don’t have clear answers to these questions, consider keeping your thoughts to yourself. Seek out professional help in the form of a therapist. Many companies offer access to mental health benefits or free sessions with a community counselor.

4. Find comfort.

The best advice I received during this time was to find things that brought me comfort. I made a list – yes, another list – of items I could call upon when the waves of grief and customer demands felt overwhelming. I had boxes of Sleepytime tea, a favorite blanket, and a case of Diet Coke at my desk. I kept three trusted friends on speed-dial and called them on my breaks. I attended a yoga class after work and wore comfortable shoes.

These types of self-care practices — coupled with tangible, actionable items I could bring into my own space — made my time at work more bearable. Few will notice the tokens you bring to your desk as grounding reminders of your okay-ness, but they can make all the difference to you.

What all of this means for you

Each day when you wake, walk into work, and sit down to accomplish great things, remember that all humans hurt. I’ve found it essential to create my own time and space for healing. This process can be scary, yet my loss has given me the gift of relating to people in new ways.

New insights and opportunities may present themselves as your shaken world settles, but your healing experience has the potential to make you a more aware, more compassionate, and, yes, more conscious professional.

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