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Your Employees Are Probably Feeling Triggered at Work

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9 min read

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Feeling triggered at work is no fun for anyone. It’s not fun for the employee triggered by an inconsiderate comment from a colleague. And it isn’t fun for the employer who’s scratching their head about why so many of their staff are feeling angered, withdrawn and unproductive at work. 

There are real reasons why the employees at your company may be feeling especially prone to triggers at this time. With the current health crisis, persistent racial and social injustice, political unrest, and personal health issues, showing up fully at work without carrying the baggage of the outside world can be a real challenge. 

Although these challenges are happening simultaneously and the employees at your company may be feeling physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted, there are some things that leadership can do to support their employees if they’re feeling triggered at work.

But first, it’s important to recognize the signs of someone that may be triggered. 

Common behaviors to look for if a colleague is feeling triggered

Here are just a few ways that someone who’s triggered may express their feelings in the workplace: 

  • Behaving defensively or having low energy after a meeting where they were heavily criticized or pointed out. 

  • Isolating oneself in their cubicle or office after a failed project.

  • Being withdrawn after an uncomfortable interaction with a colleague or manager.

  • Outwardly blaming other people in the company for projects that went wrong and expressing a lack of control when it came to the outcome.

  • Expressing feelings of or sadness from perceived unjust treatment by coworkers, leadership, or managers.

  • Behaving defensively when one’s beliefs or personal values are challenged in a group setting. 

These situations happen all the time, but you may have never noticed. It’s important to note that many people of color, women, LGTBQ people, and folks with disabilities experience triggers more often than you think. 

Keep in mind that your colleague isn’t just an “angry black woman,” “loud Latino man,” or “withdrawn introvert.” If you think “microaggressions” are just people being overly sensitive, you’re probably not a minority. You’re probably white, or a man, or heterosexual, or all of those things. Members of the cultural majority don’t have the lived experience of minorities, but your lack of understanding doesn’t change the the fact that minorities in your company are human beings who may be experiencing microaggressions and triggers on a daily basis. 

One study found that some black men experience up to 7x more workplace discrimination than white men. And that workplace discrimination was higher for women (12%) than it was for men (8%). For minorities, women, and people of color, triggers can happen just by existing in a company. 

These statistics can feel daunting. But the truth is, there are plenty of things leadership, , and even fellow co-workers can do to lower the temperature, express compassion, and support people who are feeling triggered.

Here are three ways to support employees if they’re triggered in the workplace.

1. Acknowledge them

The first thing to do is acknowledge that your colleague may be triggered by something that happened at work. Using the signs and scenarios mentioned above, you can get a sense if someone may have been triggered by a particular interaction at work. 

If you notice someone’s behavior is “off,” don’t judge the person’s reaction or jump in to save them so quickly. Simply acknowledge that something is coming up for them.

One mistake businesses make is that after a difficult and traumatic experience — whether global, local, or within the company — leadership wants business to carry on as usual. This is a mistake, and plainly put, it’s insensitive. 

Part of acknowledging that someone is triggered is allowing space for people to stop what they’re doing, take a step back, and reflect on what just happened.

Notice if colleagues are disengaged, fatigued, exhausted, or have trouble focusing after a major event. Always be mindful not to draw conclusions about why or how they’re feeling.  Just acknowledge that something isn’t right with your colleague and it’s okay to give them space to process, decompress, and relax. 

Related: 7 Ways to Cool Your Emotional Hot Triggers

2. Check in with them

Now that you’ve acknowledged something has triggered a fellow colleague, you may wish to check in with them. That’s fine, but be sure to tread lightly. Perhaps HR, leadership, or a manager is a better person to check in with this employee. But if you have a positive relationship with a colleague that you notice is triggered, you may wish to check in with them yourself. 

Sometimes people in leadership shy away from asking how people are feeling in the workplace. Leadership may not want to interfere in the interpersonal relationships happening in the company, or they may not notice a problem from their perspective. But that shouldn’t stop them from checking in with their employees frequently. 

Check-ins should be a company norm at all levels. Colleagues should check in with each other. Managers should check in with leadership. And leadership should check in with their employees. 

One way to check in as someone in the is to offer self-care days to employees. Offer the afternoon off after a hard global event. Or, encourage people to take their PTO to decompress from a difficult week.

One company whose executive team is modeling self-care for the entire company is

LinkedIn recently decided to offer a paid week off during which the entire company shut down and its employees were encouraged to practice self-care. The goal was to avoid burnout amongst employees who were experiencing higher levels of stress. The company’s executive team is promoting self-care, time off, and stress management in a way that other companies can model. 

But if you’re not like LinkedIn, you can always host smaller check-ins internally. Offer to meet a colleague who’s triggered over coffee or have a private one-on-one conversation in a conference room. 

When you’re in the situation where you can check in with a colleague that was triggered, allow the person to fully express what was going on for them at that moment. Before jumping in to validate or invalidate their experience, just listen. Listening with the intention of understanding and not diagnosing can allow the person who was triggered to fully process, reflect, and feel heard. 

While someone is sharing their experience, you can ask deeper questions to demonstrate you’re actually listening and express genuine concern. You can ask: 

As managers and leaders in a company, there’s a desire to fix issues and solve problems. But the goal here is to be attentive and open. This is a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) skill that everyone should learn. 

Check ins are a powerful tool. They allow you to assess where your colleagues are and support them during difficult times. 

Related: 10 Ways to Have Better Check-Ins With Your Employees

3. Engage in genuine conversations

Now that you’ve acknowledged something isn’t right with a colleague, you’ve listened to them and heard all about what triggered them, you can now engage in a genuine conversation about the event. 

Many people get tripped up in the conversation piece. Leadership may wonder what they could say to help deescalate an existing trigger. Leadership may even struggle with inclusive language and how to use it with an employee that’s experiencing negative emotions.

As much as language matters, the more important endeavor is showing up with authenticity. By that I mean, expressing vulnerability and a willingness to fully dive into the topic with the colleague.

Leaning into your own vulnerabilities is another DEI skill that everyone should learn. You can do this by sharing with your colleague what came up for you at the moment they were triggered. How it made it you feel. And what you thought about when it was over. Modeling vulnerability creates space for others to be vulnerable and show up authentically, too. 

Modeling vulnerability also unlocks new levels of trust and comradery in a company. It opens up a well of empathy and compassion by which both parties can benefit from. It validates the facts of the event that you both may have witnessed or that a teammate experienced. And it allows the colleague to be fully seen, heard, and acknowledged.  

But if someone is feeling triggered, they may not be in the mental space to offer vulnerability just yet. Being vulnerable yourself and opening the door to conversation helps the other person feel safe to do the same. 

Most importantly, vulnerability models allyship, solidarity, and respect. If you choose to go down the rabbit hole with your colleague, know that it’s not so important that you show up “perfect” with the best inclusive language and rapport. The most important thing is to show up authentically. 

Related: 4 Ways to Cultivate Inclusion and Compassion In the Workplace

Being present for triggered colleagues can be a difficult challenge. But it’s worth the effort. Supporting someone who was triggered by an event in the world or workplace can build new relationships and build a stronger company rapport. These three steps can revolutionize how your company approaches the hardest issues that occur in the workplace and beyond. By engaging in these crucial steps, you can turn a bad situation around and lead with compassion and understanding.

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