After violent events like the recent ones in Laguna Woods, Buffalo, and Uvalde, everyone’s mental health is affected. Even if you weren’t physically present, the trauma is still real. Combined with a constant news cycle and the tendency to doomscroll on social media, this can lead to increased stress and anxiety. Violence and the fear of violence causes both trauma and toxic stress, which are contributing factors to mental health conditions. All of that doesn’t magically go away when we’re at work. The author, founder and CEO of a nonprofit driving culture change around workplace mental health, offers five ways for managers and leaders to support their people and themselves through violent, devastating events.
As the mom of a kindergartener and second grader, the devastating news about the mass shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas hit close to home. Both of my kids’ classrooms are close to their school’s entrance, which has worried me more than once this year. Some called the tragedy unimaginable, but unfortunately, it has become all too imaginable.
This happened on the heels of the Laguna Woods church shooting and the Buffalo massacre targeted at the Black community. The weekend after Uvalde alone saw at least eight mass shootings in the United States. It’s all too much.
After violent events like these, everyone’s mental health is affected. Even if you weren’t physically present, the trauma is still real. Combined with a constant news cycle and the tendency to doomscroll on social media, this can lead to increased stress and anxiety. Violence and the fear of violence causes both trauma and toxic stress, which are contributing factors to mental health conditions. All of that doesn’t magically go away when we’re at work.
As the founder and CEO of Mind Share Partners, a nonprofit driving culture change around workplace mental health, it’s my job not only to help employers navigate mental health at work, but also to take care of my team. Here are ways that managers and leaders can support their people and themselves through violent, devastating events.
Acknowledge the tragedy immediately.
It’s important that your team hears from you as quickly as possible. Simply naming that a tragedy occurred is a key first step that many leaders fail to do. I Slacked my team to share how devastated I was, especially as the mom of two kids in elementary school, to convey my sadness about the state of the world in general, and to encourage everyone to do what they needed to take care of themselves and support each other. Make a statement in whatever communication channel makes sense for your organization.
Make space for compassionate conversations.
Be intentional about carving out opportunities for both one-on-one and group conversations. First, consider your own identity as well as those to whom you’re speaking. Are you speaking to a team member whose demographic group was the target of the violence? Are you part of a different community that has been targeted recently? Reflect on how you might tailor your approach accordingly. DEI and mental health are inextricably linked, and every tragedy affects us differently based on our intersectional identities. These experiences and emotions come to work with us.
When starting a conversation, lead with your own feelings and be vulnerable. Even if you’re sharing something small, doing so can make others more comfortable opening up. Don’t make assumptions about what your team members are feeling. Instead, be curious. Pair an observation statement with an open-ended question. In a one-on-one, you could say, “I realize that you have a lot of deadlines to juggle in the midst of everything going on.” Follow that with a question like, “How can I support you?” Next, be an active listener and gently prompt the person to say more. You could simply say, “Tell me more about that.” Finally, offer validation. Thank the person for sharing, affirm their experience, and offer up accommodations and resources as needed.
Depending on your organization’s culture, it may feel unnatural to have a group discussion. Do it anyway. Try to build a culture of trust and connection over time so that these conversations get easier. Create as safe a space as possible. If people are remote, proactively give them the option to turn off their video. Despite having a close-knit team, our meeting in the wake of the Uvalde shooting had moments of silence, which some may have construed as awkward. That’s okay. Most important is to show up for your team with compassion and empathy.
Proactively offer specific solutions.
Everyone on your team will likely need or want something different. Some may tell you what that is, but most will likely be afraid to ask or not know what they need or the options available. In your initial message, suggest that people take time if they need it, as I did, but follow that up with questions and specific suggestions in your one-on-one conversations. Present the full menu of options, ideally including shifting priorities and deadlines, offering flexible work hours, and providing paid time off that doesn’t come out of people’s vacation or sick days. We also decided to give everyone a half day off, which in retrospect probably should have been longer given the weight of the world. All of this avoids placing the burden on your employee to make the ask or come up with a solution that they may not have. It also prevents making assumptions about what people need. For example, at least one of my team members usually finds work to be a positive distraction during challenging times.
Remind everyone of your company’s mental health benefits. Frankly, this should be table stakes since employees often won’t take advantage of even the best benefits if a culture supportive of mental health isn’t in place. Even — and especially — as a workplace mental health organization, we communicated all our mental health benefits, and our people team lead offered to help anyone who had trouble navigating them. Ideally, your plan will have culturally competent providers.
In addition, share other resources available — both within and outside of your organization. Mental health employee resource groups and other types of affinity groups can offer much-needed peer support for specific communities. Over the last couple years, Mind Share Partners has unfortunately had reason to curate a host of articles, organizations, and resources that we share widely, including when dealing with mass shootings and the war in Ukraine, as well as resources for Black, AAPI, and LGBTQ+ employees given violence and discrimination against these groups.
Continue to fight against stigma.
One unfortunate byproduct of mass shootings is that many are quick to blame them on the perpetrators’ presumed mental health challenges. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. According to MentalHealth.gov, “only 3% to 5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness. In fact, people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime.” Many other factors are actual predictors of violence against others.
To reiterate: Mental health challenges decidedly do not cause hate.
Using mental health challenges as a scapegoat for gun violence has the terrible side effect of exacerbating stigma and leading fewer people to seek treatment. Make sure that your employees know that mental health challenges are common — almost all of us will experience a diagnosable mental health condition at some point in our lives, whether we know it or not.
If you haven’t already, invest in workplace mental health training with a proactive, preventive lens for leaders, managers, and individuals. This should allow for level setting around what mental health is and isn’t, how it shows up at work, and how to address the workplace factors that can contribute to poor mental health. The tools and strategies around how to navigate mental health at work, such as how to show vulnerability, have difficult conversations, and create inclusive and sustainable cultures, are ultimately management best practices with a mental health and DEI angle.
Don’t forget to take care of yourself and your own mental health at work.
The last several years — even before the pandemic — have been a lot. While it’s been a privilege to be of service during these challenging times, it’s also exhausting and a heavy load to carry while simultaneously processing my own feelings, fear, and upset. I’m tired.
I know that many leaders, educators, therapists, health care workers, and more can relate. My psychiatrist has reminded me at times that I should view my work as a marathon, not a sprint. After all, if I burn out or have an episode of debilitating anxiety or depression, where will that leave my efforts at social change?
Just as you support your teams, be sure to also support yourself. An added bonus is that modeling mentally healthy behaviors will also help your employees. Just as there’s no one right way to feel after a violent current event, there’s also no one right way to take care of yourself. I’m often relatively numb in the aftermath of a tragedy, albeit drained from ensuring that my kids and team members are okay. For me, self-care is usually as basic as getting enough sleep, keeping my regular therapy appointments, talking with friends, and watching feel-good TV shows.
. . .
This quote from Mr. Rogers always gives me some comfort: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
Please be a helper. Take care of yourselves and your teams today and every day, whether there’s a tragedy or not. Genuinely ask how they’re doing and be vulnerable in return. Give your direct reports time off and move priorities and meetings as needed. And don’t forget to check in on your leaders, too — we’re all just human and doing our best to stumble through.