3 mistakes to avoid when a co-worker returns to work after a traumatic event


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I don't know where it all went wrongAt one time it was believed that avoidance was the best way to support a co-worker after they returned to the site of a workplace trauma. It was typical of managers or HR representatives to:

  • avoid the topic and any references to the incident
  • reassign duties so that the co-worker would not work in the same location where the traumatic event occurred
  • tell the co-worker about personal experiences with a similar traumatic event that occurred at another workplace.

We have since learned otherwise. We now know that it is important to be attentive and to foster an environment where the individual who experienced the traumatic event is supported by co-workers through open communication.

Here are three alternatives to the common mistakes we make when a co-worker returns to work after a traumatic event:

Mistake 1: Avoid the topic and any references to the incident.

Unfortunately, this creates moments of awkward silence when a co-worker walks by a group conversation about the trauma, or worse, sees sudden hand gestures to stop the conversation all together. Instead, recognize that the trauma is real for your co-worker, colleague or employee. Neither you nor your co-worker can erase what has happened, and therefore, when it comes up in a discussion, acknowledge the topic and know that it is okay to make references to the incident. Speak directly about what happened, whether it was an accident, a robbery, or the death of an employee, in order to communicate your support and show awareness of your shared experience.

Mistake 2: Reassign duties so that the co-worker would not work in the same location where the traumatic event occurred

After a traumatic event, it is best for a person to return to work and household routines in the shortest time possible, as long as they also receive the right support and meaningful encouragement. Just as exercises are recommended almost immediately after a physical injury or surgery, so should regular tasks and pre-incident workloads be assigned to resume regular duties; it’s important that employees work with machinery related to the accident, or return to their workspace beside the deceased co-worker’s workstation. As the manager, team lead, or supervisor, take time to update a returning co-worker about any changes that occurred during their absence. This will provide you both with the chance to collectively identify any activities that would help them resume their regular duties and routines.

Mistake 3: tell the co-worker about personal experiences with the same traumatic event that occurred at another workplace.

Talking about personal experiences or telling stories of a similar traumatic nature can be seen by some people as a form of ‘sharing’. However, for your returning co-worker this behavior may be viewed more as a competition for the “Most Traumatic Event” award. Hearing about other traumas may not be well received or appreciated by your co-worker who is more focused on getting up to speed and back into their workflow rhythm. Understand that their first hours and days back at work may be difficult and that they may still experience anxiety. Consider helping them by providing work-related information, answering questions and catching them up on whatever else would usually be discussed after an absence. This will show that you respect their need for space and adequate time to get up to speed on their job –as they see fit.

A person who is returning to work after a traumatic event in that workspace is generally interested in getting back to their usual routines. Your supportive actions and reassuring words will be appreciated, but remember that you too may need to cope with personal thoughts and reactions to that same traumatic event. The best mistake to avoid is to try and do it all by yourself.

Reach out to a counsellor for guidance or help if you need more ideas on how to further support a colleague.


By Noi Quao. Noi has over 25 years’ experience working and supporting individuals though crisis situations and traumatic events. A McGill University graduate, Noi has been with Shepell since 2001. Currently, he oversees strategic operations of Traumatic Event Support Services, and the provision on-site response to client organizations and their employees that experience any kind of traumatic event across Canada and internationally.

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