How To Help a Colleague in a Crisis

We have one life, and work is one part of it. We can’t turn off what’s happening in our personal lives once we walk through the office door, because it’s all interrelated. Life is not so neat. What happens to us at the office impacts how we feel at home, and our personal lives also impact our performance at work.

One thing that we all have in common is loss, whether it is the loss of a family member or pet, the loss of a partner such as with divorce, financial loss or something else. Sadly, hate crimes have risen 17% this year, according to the FBI, largely targeting people’s race, ethnicity or religion.

Former wealth management CEO Mindy Corporon knows this all too well after a tragic hate crime took the lives of her teenage son and father in 2014. She is now on a mission to redirect conversations about healing in the workplace. “There is presenteeism and absenteeism,” says Corporon, who started Workplace Healing, a consultancy that helps employees deal with trauma. “If you’re at work and can’t focus, you might as well not even be there. The mistakes that can be made can be monumental and a huge cost to the firm. It’s important to pay attention to the mental health of employees.”

Having workplaces equipped to deal with employee trauma is good for people and good for business: Employee’s grief from the death of a loved one costs employers from $75 to $100 billion annually, according to The Cost of Grief in the Workplace study. Unaddressed grief leads to an inability to concentrate that could cause mistakes.  For example, 85% of managers reported that their decision making ranked from “very poor” to “fair” in the weeks or months following a tragedy, and 60% of those respondents reported that some of their decisions had a direct negative financial impact on their company.

Here is advice on how to help a colleague—or yourself—deal with tragedy at work:

Create a culture of care before crisis strikes. Culture is not a company; culture comes from people. It’s people who have caring in their hearts and DNA, and empathy in their mindsets. Creating workplace environments where employees feel safe, empowered to use their voices and feel like they belong is key in order for workers to thrive and for companies to be most successful. It’s also absolutely critical when it comes to helping a colleague handle a crisis.

“It’s important to not wait until a crisis hits to foster a culture of care,” says Corporon. “A good way to do this is by having a buddy system or emphasis on relationship-building in your team, which can be key if you need a support buddy later on. Take an opportunity ahead of time to create a buddy relationship in order to help the company be more trauma ready.” She says her co-workers stepped in and carried the load for her after the deaths in her family by calling clients and taking care of her immediate business.

Be open about what you’re going through. The old workplace rule was to keep it professional. However, if your performance is suffering at work, it’s better for you and your boss if you’re transparent about the fact that you’re going through a difficult time. “The protocol has been to leave it in the parking lot, but stuffing down emotions means you’re going to make mistakes,” says Corporon. “And then the boss wants to know why you’re making mistakes. Three months after the death of my child, I did not trust myself to do transactions because I had foggy brain, a mental state due to depression, anxiety, and trauma.”

You don’t have to share all the details, but simply making your boss, as well as a trusted co-worker, aware, will help you be able to ask for what you need and allow the team to find solutions to help you through—whether that’s having a flexible schedule or re-distributing your workload in the short term.

two men and women on yellow background

Creating a culture of care at work will go a long way towards making your workplace crisis ready. Photo credit: Rawpixel on Unsplash

Respect boundaries. Navigating personal issues with colleagues can be a fine line. You may feel more comfortable approaching someone junior or who is on your level as opposed to a higher up.

The key is to empathize with them and let them know your biggest concern is about their well-being and less so about the work, suggests Corporon. If you don’t have a relationship with a colleague but think he or she is going through a personal crisis and making mistakes, find someone who they are close to in the office. “Say, ‘I have concerns. Can you tell me what might be going on?’” says Corporon. “If you don’t have a relationship, it’s hard to crack that nut. You can try saying, ‘If you don’t want to talk to me about what is going on, is there someone you feel comfortable talking to because I’m concerned for you?”

Have a re-engagement plan. Give employees opportunities to break the ice and start having those conversations to open their hearts while continuing to do their work. Corporon says something that helped her open up about her grief at work was taking team lunches, which lead to important conversations.  “When people come back to work, they struggle if they are not given an opportunity to re-engage,” says Corporon. “As the person grieving, it’s important to talk about it and be given an opportunity to say, ‘Thanks for coming to my husband’s funeral,’ and ‘It’s okay to say Bob’s name.’ If not given this opportunity, then walls go up and communication stops.”

Make space to grieve. We all need to take time for ourselves, no apologies, and it’s especially a non-negotiable when you’re grieving. “When I came back to the office to reengage, I had lots of flexibility as the CEO,” says Corporon. “When I started crying, I could shut the door to my office or leave. I worry others, such as those in middle management, can’t do that. Workplaces should have a designated grief space, a room to cry, pray,  journal or do what you need to in the moment to deal. You can’t breathe or focus, but once you cry, your body is released of the tension and cortisol and you’re in a much better place to focus.”

Feminine strengths that make us such great leaders, such as compassion, nurturing and empathy, can also make us especially equipped to help a colleague during a difficult time. By leading with generosity, you’ll help transform workplace culture into a place of caring where workers can grow and contribute, both in good times and in bad.


For more on creating cultures of care, check out:

Rewriting the Rules of Work to Create More Inclusive Cultures

8 Ways To create a Culture Of Care Where All Workers Feel Like They Belong

Want To Be Happier At Work? The Secret Lies In the Power of Connections