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9 min read

How trauma affects your work—and what to do about it

Plus, ways managers can support their employees.

By Liz Melton · April 24, 2024
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I lost my father in college. 

What they don't tell you about grief is that you don't just grieve someone once—you grieve them over and over again. You might feel an ache in your heart when you hear a song they loved play on the radio; perhaps a crushing blow every time their birthday comes around. Or, if you're "lucky," nothing in particular triggers the sadness—you just feel sad. 

Another thing they don't tell you is what to do when you're hit with those random waves of sadness while working, rendering you unable to get any work done. Do you tell your boss the truth? What if they think less of you for it? 

There's no right way to address grief when it impacts your work. But there are a lot of different ways to help you mitigate the disruption. I reached out to other professionals who've experienced some sort of trauma in their lives—the loss of a loved one, financial fraud, a toxic relationship—to find out how they navigated it. Here's what they had to say. (If you're a manager looking to support your employee through a difficult time, I have tips for that, too.) 

Table of contents:

  • How trauma affects your work 

  • 4 ways to address trauma when it impacts your work

  • How managers can support their employees

How trauma affects your work

Before I get into suggestions on how to navigate trauma when it impacts your work, it's important to understand the many ways trauma can manifest itself. 

By no means is this an exhaustive list—these are just some of the common ways I and a handful of my peers have noticed how trauma affects our professional lives. 

Inability to concentrate 

When you're experiencing all the complicated feelings that come with trauma—grief, anxiety, confusion, anger, fear—it's near impossible to focus on the task at hand. Physically, you're at work, but mentally, you're running in circles, wondering "What if?" and "Why me?"

This hamster wheel you're running on can also cause you to fumble over your words, lose sleep, and forget how to do simple tasks—all of which impact your ability to participate at work and be productive. 

Feelings of isolation

The funny thing about the trauma club is that despite having an unfortunate abundance of members, it's not uncommon to feel alone.  

Elisha Gada, a Global Small Business Marketing Manager at Meta, switched jobs after the loss of her father. 

"There are two aspects of it I found the most challenging: one is dealing with grief itself day to day, and the second is delivering the news to people you're meeting for the first time. It took a lot of effort to build the emotional trust to talk openly about losing my dad. Two years later, I still struggle with it."

Even if you share your experience with your manager or a trusted coworker, if they don't have the resources to support you, you can still feel like you're on your own. That was the case for Sean Valle, Founder of Valle Legal, PLLC. 

"I started my career as an attorney at a mid-sized law firm, right after leaving a toxic relationship and uncovering some mental health challenges. To my boss and HR, it was confusing that I could hit deadlines and feel like I was having an existential crisis at the same time.

I needed space and time to process my experiences that large companies weren't willing to provide—even though I knew I could take that time (or work from home) and still meet professional deadlines. I don't think they really understood what mental health struggles felt like or how to balance flexibility and accountability for people who have them."

Fellow writer Anna Burgess Yang—whose post on LinkedIn inspired this article—says many parents who suffer pregnancy loss "suffer in silence" while trying to navigate the gray area of workplace bereavement policies. 

Constant fear of being judged or misunderstood

Trauma is deeply personal. You also never know how someone else is going to react if you tell them about it, which often prevents us from sharing.

After my father passed away, I switched from pre-med and opted to pursue tech instead. When it came time to interview for jobs, I often struggled with how to explain why I pivoted without mentioning my father's death because I worried if I did, it would seem like I was playing some kind of pity card. 

Elisha still hesitates to show signs of processing her loss at work. 

"At the back of my mind, I always have this thought that I will be perceived negatively for showing emotion. So I struggle with being vulnerable in general, which is important for building emotional trust."

Fear of being perceived as weak

Trauma has a unique way of messing with your otherwise rational brain. It might convince you that needing time to work through your emotions—instead of just getting over it the way you would if you stubbed your toe—is a sign of weakness.  

Immediately after college, I worked at a big consulting firm. There, I felt like asking for time off around my dad's birthday or on his day of passing would signal that I wasn't cut out for the job. Turns out, consulting is far from the only industry with this reputation.

Despite being her brother's primary caretaker, Nimrah Khan, Senior Manager, Senior Counsel for Governance & Securities at Capital One, told me she avoided discussing his stroke because it felt too personal or that it would negatively impact her job prospects.

"When I was interviewing for various in-house counsel positions, I would just tell recruiters I was looking for a role with 'more work-life balance' and 'flexibility in my schedule.' Being in corporate law for over five years, I felt like no legal department would want to hear a prospective employee say they wanted to work less to focus on family."

The fear of being perceived as weak can be enough to convince you to put your feelings aside. 

4 ways to address trauma when it impacts your work

Much in the same way trauma manifests itself differently from person to person, the strategies you use to address your trauma will also differ. 

Here are some suggestions on how to address trauma when it impacts your work—all based on strategies that have worked for me and others. If a suggestion resonates with you, try it out. If it doesn't, leave it behind. Do what works for you. 

1. Embrace the uncomfortable

When I used to tell coworkers that my dad passed away, many would gasp and say, "I'm sorry." I never knew how to react—I would just turn red. 

After years of getting this reaction, though, I've learned that when I do have to let someone know, it'll be uncomfortable for a few seconds, but then we'll both move on. 

2. Do a gut check 

Fellow writer Leanna Lee suggests gut checks, which are just like they sound—literally checking in with your gut to identify what feelings are bubbling up and why. 

Take time to identify what you're feeling: anger, sadness, a lack of focus, panicky—anything. After a few minutes, ask yourself broader questions like, "Why am I feeling this way?" Perhaps you're feeling panicky because an important deadline coincides with the anniversary of a traumatic event. Or maybe you're feeling unfocused because you were up all night. 

Based on your answer, that gut check can tell you different things. For example, maybe you're experiencing a traumatic response and you need to take a break or clock out for the day. Or maybe you need to do self-care. Take a walk, do some breathing exercises, or try chatting with a colleague

The answers aren't always clear, but just acknowledging your feelings is a helpful way to address what's going on, which allows you to shift focus back to your work. 

Several years ago, Debbie Moran, Marketing Manager at RecurPost, lost almost all of her life savings due to financial fraud committed by a close friend. Now, when conversations about finances or friendship come up, she does a gut check. 

"In these moments, the pain can feel as raw as it did initially. But I've chosen to focus on moving forward with my life. I've learned to recognize and acknowledge my feelings when they arise, but I refuse to let them define me or hold me back."

3. Use it as an opportunity to educate others

Traumatic experiences are often out of our control—that's part of what makes them so unsettling. One way to regain control after the fact is by addressing your traumatic experience when and how you want to. 

Whenever I'm pressed about how my dad died, I share that he died by suicide. But then I use the conversation as an opportunity to talk about the importance of mental health. 

Michael Lacharity, a Heavy Equipment Operator at Agnico Eagle Mines, had a stroke a year ago, leaving him with a deficit in his left leg and arm. He takes people's questions in stride. 

"I'm constantly asked about my situation at work. Often, people have the best of intentions and are genuinely curious, so I politely indulge them using the interaction to educate them. This puts a positive spin on things and eases my anxiety."

Of course, your decision to share your experience is entirely your own. If you do share, though, it could strengthen your relationships at work and foster a more supportive environment. 

Here's how Harry Asche, Marketing Manager at How to Stream, approaches this.

"I believe open communication with trusted peers or managers can foster a supportive environment. When choosing to disclose personal experiences, I approach it with caution, considering the impact on professional dynamics and seeking advice from HR if necessary."

4. Take time off

It's tough to process your trauma when you're constantly in meetings or under the pressure of deadlines. If you have the flexibility to take time off, this time away can give you the room you need to cope. 

Kate Ross, PR Specialist at Irresistible Me, took a week off after her mother passed away. 

"This [time off] was invaluable for me to start processing my grief without the immediate pressures of work. Upon my return, I was not scheduled for any meetings right away, giving me space to ease back into the rhythm of work gently."

Some people want to throw themselves back into their day-to-day life—it offers a sense of "normalcy." If this is the case for you and what you really need is a small breather, take a small breather. You don't have to announce it to the world, either.  

Elisha suggests coming up with a code word with your trusted teammates that indicates you need to take some space. This way, you can discreetly step away from a conversation or meeting when you need to without worrying that your coworkers will be offended. 

How managers can support employees

Despite your best efforts, nothing you do can magically heal your employees' pain. But there are things you can do to support them through a difficult time. 


  • Let your employee lead the conversation. Mustering up the courage to share about a traumatic experience is a big hurdle in and of itself. If an employee trusts you enough to share, listen. Use it as an opportunity to strengthen that trust. 

  • Ask what your employee needs. Not sure how to help an employee going through a challenging time? Ask. A great question is "What would be the most helpful to you right now?"

  • Talk to your HR business partner. If you're not sure how to handle a situation, request guidance from your HR business partner. They'll be able to suggest appropriate solutions—for example, taking a leave of absence—and help you navigate any gray areas like workplace bereavement policies. 


  • Say "Why didn't you tell me?" if you find out later on. There are many reasons why an employee may choose not to disclose what's going on, and those reasons are none of your business. This question may reinforce an employee's worry that they can't come to you with their concerns and receive the support they need. 

  • Share personal information with the whole team. The decision to share a traumatic experience is up to the individual. There's no reason the team needs to know the intimate details about why someone has taken a leave—no matter how understanding your team is. 

  • Treat the employee like they're fragile. Just because an employee is dealing with something hard, it doesn't mean they've lost all ability to function. Treating an employee who has disclosed sensitive information like they're fragile can be ostracizing. 

Do what works for you

It bears repeating: everyone experiences trauma differently. And what you need to navigate your trauma may change from day to day. I'm not saying it'll be easy. But having at least one tool to help you work through this challenging time will empower you to regain some sense of control. And that can make all the difference. 

Related reading

  • How to set mental health boundaries as a business owner

  • Why mindfulness makes you more productive—and how to make it work for you

  • Ways to manage your energy at work throughout the day

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