How to cope with work after experiencing a traumatic event

There is a perception in the legal profession that you have to be strong, ruthless, calculating and powerful.

But what happens when – boom! – a traumatic event happens in your life?

Maybe you witness a murder, lose a child, sustain life-changing injuries, are diagnosed with a terminal illness, or are mugged or raped? How do you carry on, put your life back together and still go to work?

We all have different emotions, feelings, rules, values and beliefs. The meaning we attach to a traumatic event shapes how we feel about it and how we are able to function. When such an event happens, humans may react in many different ways, for example; go into denial, blame ourselves, become angry, despair, blame others, or become depressed or anxious. This may result in turning to drugs or alcohol for comfort, having suicidal thoughts or running away. These examples show why someone might find it very difficult to return to work.

Ruth Fenton
Ruth Fenton

The first challenge a person faces is deciding who to tell, what information they should disclose and what support they need.Some people throw themselves into work to take their mind off what has happened. Others want to be at home in a safe environment. When employers are told of a traumatic event they often don’t know how to react or what to say. Being shocked they may blurt something out, not say anything, burst into tears themselves or even laugh (unintentionally of course). Understanding this and being prepared for strange reactions from colleagues will make transition into work easier.

Colleagues may talk behind the person’s back – not to be nasty but because they are trying to process the event. Sometimes people feel comfortable sharing what has happened. This helps them accept the event and put it behind them, rather than keeping it a secret which is tearing them apart inside. They might address their colleagues face to face or write an email.

It’s important to let people know how you want people to react to you, because everyone is different. Some people will want to carry on business as usual and not have it mentioned. Others want to be asked how they are doing or talk about it.

Getting through the day:

  • Take as much time off as you need. Speak to a doctor or healthcare professional to get the medical support you need.
  • Create an environment where you feel safe and relaxed. Maybe you can work from home or move to an individual office until you feel settled.
  • Often thoughts go round and round in our heads like a hamster on a wheel, we lose sleep, can’t concentrate, constantly worry and get flashbacks. To stop this take out your diary and book those thoughts a 10-minute appointment. During that time you are only allowed to think that one thought. Now every time that thought comes into your head remind yourself you have booked it an appointment for later in the day. This should help you become more productive and focused on the important things you need to get done.
  • Ground yourself in the here and now. When things are starting to get overwhelming, stop what you are doing, take a deep breath and focus on what you can hear, smell, taste, feel and see. It often helps to do this on a walk or run. Often so much is going on in our head we need to check in with the real world and notice the amazing small things around us.
  • Feeling constantly stressed, resentful, angry, anxious or frustrated leads to burnout and physical illness. Relationships are affected, we may feel alone and unable to get back to life before the event happened. This might sound strange but forgiving the person to blame, ourselves, or the event helps us to move forward. As we release the negative thoughts which have trapped us in this state we are able to replace them with positive thoughts for the future so we feel relief, hope and happier.
  • Before going to sleep at night write a gratitude diary of three things you are grateful for. Feeling grateful changes your physiology and feel-good chemicals are released into the brain to make you feel happier and more relaxed. This helps you get a good night’s sleep.
  • Do check in with supervisors and make sure your workload is appropriate, as the last thing you need is overload.
  • Take one step at a time. You might experience a rollercoaster of emotions and feelings. There are all sorts of support groups out there. LawCare supports legal professionals in difficult times and can help you find the support you need.

Be kind to yourself. Remember you are not alone; people care about you and want to help if you let them.

Ruth Fenton is a solicitor, executive leadership coach and communications expert who specialises in helping junior and mid-level lawyers excel in their careers.