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Supporting Coworkers Experiencing Distress in the Wake of Recent Civil Unrest

A woman sharing her emotions in a support group.

Workplaces right now are complex, whether virtual or physical. Tensions were already high secondary to the pandemic and were amplified exponentially in the wake of the death of George Floyd. Now, every interaction, conversation, and act have the potential to stir feelings that are deeply personal and often quite raw. And the 24/7 news cycle combined with social media means the issues which give rise to those feelings are ever present.

Most of us are not experts in diversity, and more specifically, racial diversity. There is nothing wrong with admitting a lack of expertise. And you may find yourself even admitting that your company does not have an expert in racial diversity. This honesty is required if there are to be meaningful changes in a work culture.

Diversity is a broad topic and even those who are experts in one area may not be in other areas. This does not, and should not, preclude any of us from supporting one another.

  • As a Caucasian, there are things I can do, in the workplace, to support those who have been mistreated based on skin color and or heritage.
  • As a heterosexual individual I can support someone who has faced mistreatment based on sexual orientation.
  • And as someone who has been victim of police violence, I can support someone whose spouse works in law enforcement.

We can never truly understand the life experiences of those around us. Even those who are outwardly similar. That said, there are always some commonalities. Every human being has felt distress; however, we all are capable of supporting those around us who are feeling distress. This does not imply understanding the reason for, or circumstances that have led to the distress. Those things do matter, greatly, but do not prevent us from providing help. Distress is a universal human experience, as is the desire to be rid of the distress.

Here are some things to keep in mind as you support those in the workplace who may be feeling distress in this tenuous time:

  • Listen first—the best tool for supporting someone in distress is to listen. Best of all, listening is easy. Avoid the urge to talk unless asked a question. The 80/20 rule is a good guide (listening at least 80 percent of the time, talking for no more than 20 percent of the time).
  • Acknowledge what you don’t know—Supporting someone does not mean being an expert in their life experience. Prefacing the conversation may help. “I can’t say I’ve ever experienced what you have, or even know that much about it, but I still want to support you in any way I can.”
  • Keep it supportive – everyone has personal opinions and viewpoints, but this is not the arena to express those. This is your time to support them in their need, which means keeping the focus on their need.
  • Do not make assumptions—assumptions can be dangerous, so don’t go there. There is a very wide swath of opinions, differences, stances within any one given group. Every person is an individual, and assumptions about what someone may think or believe takes away some of their individuality.
  • If you make a mistake, own it—it is easy to say something or do something unintentionally. If that happens, own it. “My choice of words there was bad and I’m sorry. What I meant to say was….”.
  • Be genuine – efforts to support those around us that are based on a real sense of concern will likely be met with openness. Half-hearted, or conversely, excessive shows of support will be seen for what they are—not enough or insincere.

Every workplace is complex, but amid the complexity there are simple things that can be done to support those with whom we work. They require only a desire to help.

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