CM Feature Communications and Organizational Management

How to Support Co-Workers Through Trauma

Demonstrate empathy and active listening to foster support and understanding.

Editor’s Note: A correction was made to the second sentence of this article for factual accuracy. The text read “a client” and it should have read “an attorney”. We apologize for the error.

Trauma is not uncommon at law firms.

Sometimes, a collective tragedy hits close to home, like the recent violence that unfolded in Las Vegas when an attorney killed two during a custody dispute hearing before turning the gun on himself. 

Margo Crawford, LCSW

Other times, trauma comes from the very nature of the work. Many lawyers and legal support staff listen to harrowing stories their clients have gone through — stories of rape, abuse, murder and neglect. Those stories are vicariously felt throughout the trial and remain decades after not only for the client but for those handling the case.

“Even years later, I can think back on what a client told me, and I get chills. What she went through was awful and I listened to every detail,” says Charlene Cabral, an attorney with the Law Offices of Charlene D. Cabral. “We were both crying. Her story helped me work harder and fight for the justice she deserved. Her case and what happened to her was horrible but many of my cases are stories of heartbreak and trauma.”

So what can you do to support legal staff through trauma? And what are the signs?

First, it helps to understand what trauma is: It’s an emotional response to a disturbing, terrifying or life-threatening event. The event itself can lead to stress that dissipates over time. When the stress is severe and continues to linger, it can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). That said, not all trauma leads to PTSD.  

“Many people experiencing trauma will have an inability to concentrate as flashbacks and intrusive thoughts fill their minds. This can make focusing on work difficult.”

The National Institute of Mental Health defines PTSD as “a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary or dangerous event.” The event itself may have you question if your life or the lives of others are in danger. Most people are familiar with PTSD as attributed to those who have experienced combat. Yet PTSD can happen to anyone who has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event like a death, a terrible car accident or domestic abuse. Life-threatening events such as natural disasters or sexual assault in childhood or as an adult can also lead to PTSD.

When stress levels rise during the event and are coupled with a lack of sleep — a frequent reaction — these factors can increase the likelihood of PTSD.

There are several types of trauma:

  • Acute trauma happens when the event is sudden and severe and leads to immediate emotional distress. After six months of experiencing symptoms, it is then classified as post-traumatic stress syndrome.
  • Chronic trauma occurs when there is an extended period where persistent stressors exist such as severe toxic work environments.
  • Complex PTSD or CPTSD is categorized by more than one traumatic event within one’s lifetime or a prolonged series of events.
  • Secondary trauma is caused when a person has indirect exposure to a traumatic event, such as hearing someone’s stories or witnessing a person’s strong emotions related to a traumatic event.


Many people experiencing trauma will have an inability to concentrate as flashbacks and intrusive thoughts fill their minds. This can make focusing on work difficult. People working exceptionally long hours or multiple jobs often do so to avoid focusing on the mental pain they experience.

Other symptoms include memory impairment and challenges with decision-making. Nightmares and insomnia are common symptoms that can lead people to feel groggy or fall asleep at work. A person may appear disengaged from the team when in fact they are exhausted. At times, people can have emotional outbursts and irritability that lead to poor relationships with co-workers, causing conflict in the workplace. Low-level aggression can create fear and mistrust. This can cause a negative company culture and low morale if gone unaddressed.

Fear, anxiety and depression may take hold and the person who experiences trauma is unable to express how they feel or hide their feelings and put up a front. Some people feel the effects somatically — they may experience pain like headaches or have gastrointestinal issues causing missed days at work.

“Trauma is something that someone goes through; it’s not who they are. It is an experience or a set of experiences that they’ve gone through and have had to endure and work through.”

All these issues lead to reduced productivity individually and companywide. Marni Chanoff, MD, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Joy In Health says that people with PTSD may struggle in the workplace because “there is an internalization of the trauma they’ve experienced, that somehow their trauma informs how they see themselves. There can be challenges with esteem, confidence and even in a deeper way, inherently being able to trust themselves — trusting both within the environment and trusting co-workers can be quite challenging,” she says.  


It’s important to note that PTSD has mental and physical challenges that if untreated can have mental health consequences. If you, one of your staff members, or someone you know displays symptoms of trauma/PTSD, or if symptoms worsen, seek the advice of a qualified professional.

The following tips are meant to offer guidance on how to build a supportive work environment for legal staff:

  1. Have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) — and then encourage staff to use it. This vital resource provides a confidential channel to access and report traumatic incidents. Additionally, they can provide mental health resources to employees who have experienced a traumatic event and can assist in finding the right therapist. 
  2. Make sure personal time off is available for medical and therapy appointments. These appointments chip away at personal time off, making employees hesitant to take time when needed to address health care concerns. Working with employees to manage time off and create flexible schedules permits important self-care appointments and will produce decreased absenteeism and increased productivity. 
  3. Offer training on trauma that can support the entire office and provide ways to work with people who have experienced a traumatic event. Providing resilience-building programs will help employees cope with adversity and stress. This in turn fosters a culture that values and promotes well-being and mental health. 
  4. Build an environment that welcomes open communication so employees feel comfortable voicing their experiences. Supervisors and leaders should demonstrate empathy and active listening to foster a sense of support and understanding. That said, wait for a person with a traumatic past to be ready to tell their story. Listen and respond with “I’m here for you”; “I’m sorry they hurt you”; “It’s not your fault”; and “I’m proud of you.” It is important to avoid discrediting the person and their experience. Your role is to support the person to get help and to create a safe work environment. 
  5. Encourage an employee to seek treatment — it’s paramount to recovery. Be respectful of their process, take their lead and allow them to disclose as little or as much as needed. All the while being sure to hold confidentiality as it is their story to tell.

Beyond seeking professional help, self-care is of utmost importance, too. Offering workshops on practices like meditation, yoga and stress management can be crucial to helping colleagues work through trauma.

Knowing the signs of trauma and the symptoms of PTSD can help you determine the next steps to take in helping a co-worker. With empathy and compassion, you can be the guiding light that helps a co-worker or client through difficult times.

“Trauma is something that someone goes through; it’s not who they are. It is an experience or a set of experiences that they’ve gone through and have had to endure and work through,” says Chanoff. “[Trauma] can be extremely painful, hard and challenging, but a lot of growth, wisdom and strength that can come of it may be very beneficial to employers and other employees.” 

Conversations about mental health can be difficult to start. But just as CPR helps even those without clinical training to assist an individual having a heart attack, Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) prepares participants to interact with a person experiencing a mental health challenge or crisis. Mental Health First Aiders learn a five-step action plan that guides them through the process of reaching out and offering appropriate support. ALA offers this training from the National Council for Mental Wellbeing every quarter. Check your inbox for more details or visit