The Empathetic Workplace with Katharine Manning

Trauma comes in many forms. It could be an incidence of violence, sexual harassment or COVID-19. These are uncomfortable topics to address, especially in the workplace. How can you support an employee who’s experienced trauma?

My guest is here to help: Katharine Manning is a lawyer and author of the upcoming book, “The Empathetic Workplace: 5 Steps to a Compassionate, Calm, and Confident Response to Trauma On the Job.” For 15 years, Katharine advised the Justice Department on victims’ issues. That means she was involved in some of the most challenging cases that you’ve heard of, like the Boston Marathon bombing and the South Carolina church shooting. Now, Katharine uses her expertise to advise governments, educational institutions and corporations on how to prepare for and respond to trauma.

If you work in human resources, or you’re a leader and wonder how you can be there for your workforce, sit tight and enjoy my conversation with Katharine Manning.

Acknowledge the Severity of Triggers

Trauma can be a collective or an individual experience, and it’s running rampant in both forms right now. “We’re all seeing trauma writ large in our society,” Katharine says. “But we also are experiencing trauma on a very personal basis.” Traumatic experiences — and reliving those experiences through triggers — negatively impact our ability to function at work.

Feelings of trauma can trigger adrenaline in our brains, Katharine says, preparing us for a fight-or-flight response. At the same time, the rational centers of our brains are numbed. An employee experiencing trauma from having been sexually harassed by a co-worker, for example, can’t perform at the top of her abilities when she’s worried about her safety.

And in a sense, trauma is contagious. We’re empathetic creatures, Katharine points out, so we tend to close ourselves off from someone experiencing trauma to prevent feelings of panic or anxiety from manifesting in us. Which is why creating an empathetic workplace is so important.

Take a LASER Focused Approach

In her book, Katharine lays out her technique for responding to trauma, which she calls LASER: listen, acknowledge, share, empower and return. As a listener, ask open-ended questions. Avoid asking “why” questions because they can come across as laying blame, even if that’s not your intention. Don’t jump straight into offering solutions. “It’s very, very difficult for them to listen, to even hear what you’re saying until they know that they are safe with you,” Katharine says. Acknowledge their story, and thank them for sharing with you.

As an HR professional, the next steps are critical to create an empathetic workplace. Share relevant information with the victim, such as resources, and the next steps in the process of dealing with trauma. Knowing what comes next is comforting and gives the victim a better sense of control. Empower the individual by giving them the tools to deal with their trauma. If an employee tells you her abusive ex is hanging around the workspace, for instance, give her the number to call building security. Finally, return to the victim to check in sometime after your initial conversation.

Take Care of Yourself, Too

Hearing about trauma from others affects us. To ward off compassion fatigue, create — and stick to — a daily self-care practice. Maybe it’s 10 minutes of meditation, playing 20 minutes of piano or going for a run to clear your mind. Whatever it is that brings you comfort and clarity, make it a regular part of your daily routine, Katharine says.

Watch for warning signs that trauma from others is catching up to you. “Those can be things like wanting to drop your self-care routine,” Katharine says. Not wanting to face something is usually a signal that you need to process it, or else it will begin to seep into your daily life. “[If] you’re running a little bit too low, you need to double down on that self-care,” Katharine says.

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