We don’t get to choose when trauma enters our lives. It is always an unwelcome visitor that has the potential to change lives in an instant. People that experience trauma will tend to talk of the impact in different ways. Some will crumble under the strain and struggle with basic daily tasks, while others will somewhat successfully compartmentalise to enable the wheels to keep turning.

Unfortunately, leaders regularly face scenarios where their team members have been impacted by trauma. There are endless examples, but it commonly presents as a family death, a cancer diagnosis, financial loss, divorce, natural disasters, miscarriage, or a life changing illness.

The moment the leader becomes aware of the trauma, they have a critical role to set the tone of how the employee can expect to be supported. This is the space where emotionally intelligent leaders shine as they shift the focus from business inconvenience to how they can provide practical and genuine support.

8 ways leaders can show authentic support

Strong, authentic leadership in times of employee trauma is a ‘make or break’ moment for leaders. It will either build trust and be the what the employee remembers for years to come, or it will break the relationship and fast track turnover. Here are 8 things leaders can do to be there for the employee when it matters the most:

1. Listen with compassion

When an employee shares a private piece of information that they are still processing, it is imperative that the leader can listen with compassion. Give the employee a safe place to share what they need to and acknowledge the news. For example, “Chris, thank you for sharing that with me as I understand how personal and difficult it is. I am so sorry that you are facing these health challenges and I want to assure you up front that you will have the full support of the business to give you the time you need to focus on your health”.

2. Give permission to deal with the trauma

This may seem obvious, but often employees will seek permission to have the time to deal with the trauma. They will be acutely aware that their absence will impact team projects and customer deliverables, so it is the leader’s role to quickly put this fear to bed. For example, “Chris, I know how hard you have worked on project X and that you are probably concerned about not being here to finish it. I want to assure you that we will make certain the project progresses in your absence, and it is important to us that you take the time you need.”

3. Ask the employee how you can best support them

It is common for well-meaning leaders to assume what the employee wants and needs but this is a mistake. Every employee has different needs, so consider asking:

  • How can we best support you at this time?
  • Is there something you would like me to do/not do with your current workload?
  • How would you prefer that I check in over your time away from work?
  • Is there something that the business can do to make this time easier for you?

4. Determine the communication plan

It is critical that the leader establishes the employee’s preference on communicating their absence. They will have shared quite a bit of detail with the manager to ‘justify’ their need to urgent time off but this does not mean the leader has permission to share the news. For example, an employee who has suffered a miscarriage would probably prefer ‘Mark in accounts’ was not told that is the reason the monthly report will be late. Be respectful of the delicate and personal nature and be guided by the employee preference.

5. It's ok to miss a deadline

Sure, the project was due for delivery next week but that was before you knew the project manager’s husband died. Unique situations call for an alternative approach. It is not worth putting other team members under undue pressure to simply hit a deadline. Even if this timeline has customer implications, most stakeholders will cut you some slack when there is an unexpected trauma. It is about adjusting the goal posts and keeping everyone in the loop.

6. Establish a ‘Plan B’ quickly

Once the employee has the ‘permission’ to take the time that they need, a ‘Plan B’ needs to be established for the workload. It is common that remaining team members will want to rally and put in the extra hours to still deliver but that is not sustainable or healthy. Talk to the team about solutions and set up a system that protects the wellbeing of all.

7. Don’t underestimate the impact on co-workers

If you are lucky enough to lead a cohesive, self-motivated team it is likely that the trauma impacting their work mate will cut deep. It is important to check in with the remaining team members and provide a safe place for them to discuss their fears or concerns. Now is a good time to offer the EAP program or to ensure that your diary has the space for extra ‘check in’ conversations. A high functioning team is like a family, and when trauma hits a work mate the flow on effects should not be underestimated.

8. Use the rules as a baseline

Industrial instruments and the National Employment Standards (NES) clearly outline the baseline of what employers are required to do to provide time off for employers for illness, carer’s, or compassionate leave. This is non-negotiable, however, an employer can still choose to go over and above the requirements. For example, if you have ever lost a close family member you would no doubt agree that 2 days compassionate leave is barely enough time to choose a funeral home, let alone begin to deal with the enormous loss. Think creatively and allow this decision for approving additional leave to be driven by the heart as well as the head.

Show up when it counts

When employees lose the ‘trauma lottery’ they need their leader to ‘show up’ emotionally, even if it is uncomfortable to do so. You may have a strong leadership brand but if you drop the ball when trauma hits, it just may create a fracture in the employment relationship that cannot be fixed. Sure, everyone loves an annual bonus, but money alone is not enough to keep good workers. Above all, employees will remember if and how their leader stretched out their hand when trauma came knocking.

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Georgina Pacor

Georgina is Senior Content Writer and HR Specialist – Publications at Ai Group. She is an accomplished Human Resource professional with over 25 years of generalist and leadership experience in a broad range of industries including financial services, tourism, travel, government and agriculture. She has successfully advised and partnered with senior leaders to implement people and performance initiatives that align to business strategy. Georgina is committed to utilising her experience to create resources that educate and engage and is passionate about supporting members to optimise an inclusive workforce culture that drives performance.