Supporting your team’s mental health after a violent event


As a mother of a kindergartener and a sophomore, the devastating news of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas hit close to home. Both of my children’s classrooms are close to the entrance to their school, which has worried me more than once this year. Some have called the tragedy unimaginable, but unfortunately it has become too imaginable.

This happened on the heels of the Laguna Woods church shooting and the Buffalo Massacre targeting the black community. The weekend after Uvalde saw alone at least eight mass shootings in the USA. It’s 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 fear of violence causes both trauma and toxic stress, which contribute to mental health problems. All this does not magically disappear when we are at work.

As founder and CEO of Spirit Sharing Partners, a non-profit organization promoting culture change around workplace mental health, my job is not only to help employers navigate the field of workplace mental health, but also to nurture my team. Here are ways managers and leaders can support themselves and their staff during violent and devastating events.

Recognize the tragedy immediately.

It is important that your team hear from you as soon as possible. Simply naming that a tragedy has happened is a key first step that many leaders fail to take. I released my team to share how devastated I was, especially as a mother of two in elementary school, to express my sadness at the state of the world in general, and to encourage everyone to do what he needed to take care of themselves and help each other. Make a statement in any communication channel that makes sense to your organization.

Make room for compassionate conversations.

Be intentional about creating opportunities for one-on-one and group conversations. First, consider your own identity as well as those you are talking to. Are you talking to a team member whose demographic has been the target of violence? Are you part of another community that has been targeted recently? Consider how you might adapt your approach accordingly. DEI and mental health are inextricably linked, and each tragedy affects us differently based on our intersectional identities. These experiences and emotions come to work with us.

When you start a conversation, lead with your own feelings and be vulnerable. Even if you share something small, it can make others feel more comfortable opening up. Don’t assume how your team members are feeling. Be rather curious. Pair an observation statement with an open-ended question. In a one-on-one, you might say, “I realize you have a lot of deadlines to meet in the midst of all this going on. Follow that with a question like, “How can I support you?” Then, be an active listener and gently invite the person to say more. You could simply say, “Tell me more about it.” Finally, validation of the offer. Thank the person for sharing, confirm their experience, and offer accommodations and resources if needed.

Depending on the culture of your organization, it may seem abnormal to have a group discussion. Do it anyway. Try to build a culture of trust and connection over time so these conversations become easier. Create as safe a space as possible. If people are remote, proactively give them the option to turn off their video. Despite a close-knit team, our meeting in the wake of the Uvalde shooting had moments of silence, which some may have interpreted as awkward. Its good. The most important thing is to show up for your team with compassion and empathy.

Proactively propose specific solutions.

Everyone on your team will likely need or want something different. Some may tell you what it is, but most will probably be afraid to ask or won’t know what they need or what options are available. In your initial post, suggest people take some time off if they need it, like I did, but follow up with specific questions and suggestions in your one-on-one conversations. Introduce the full menu of options, ideally shifting priorities and deadlines, offering flexible work hours, and offering paid time off that doesn’t come from 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 putting the onus on your employee to ask for or find a solution they may not have. It also avoids making assumptions about what people need. For example, at least one member of my team usually finds work to be a positive distraction during difficult times.

Remind everyone about the mental health benefits of your business. Frankly, this should be table stakes, as employees often won’t get even the best benefits if a mental health-supportive culture isn’t in place. Even – and especially – as a workplace mental health organization, we communicated all of our mental health benefits, and our team leader offered to help anyone who was struggling to find there. Ideally, your plan will have culturally competent providers.

Also, share other available resources, both inside and outside your organization. Mental Health Employee Resource Groups and other types of affinity groups can provide much-needed peer support to specific communities. Over the past two years, Mind Share Partners has unfortunately had reason to curate a wealth of articles, organizations and resources that we share widely, including when it comes to mass shootings and the war in ukraineas well as resources for Black, AAPIand LGBTQ+ employees who experience violence and discrimination against these groups.

Keep fighting the stigma.

An unfortunate byproduct of the mass shootings is that many are quick to blame them on the alleged mental health issues of the perpetrators. That couldn’t be further from the truth. According, “only 3% to 5% of violent acts can be attributed to people living with serious mental illness. In fact, people with serious mental illnesses are more than 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime. Many other factors are real violence predictors against others.

To reiterate: Mental health issues definitely don’t cause hate.

Using mental health issues as a scapegoat for gun violence has the terrible side effect of exacerbating stigma and leading fewer people to seek treatment. Make sure your employees know that mental health issues are common — almost all of us will experience a diagnosable mental health issue 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 and preventative lens for leaders, managers and individuals. This should help define what mental health is and is not, how it manifests at work, and how to address workplace factors that can contribute to poor mental health. Tools and strategies on how to navigate mental health in the workplace, such as how to show vulnerability, have difficult conversations, and create inclusive and sustainable cultures, are ultimately best management practices. with a mental health and DEI angle.

Remember to take care of yourself and your own mental health at work.

The last few years – even before the pandemic – have been many. While it has been a privilege to render service in these difficult times, it is also exhausting and a heavy load to bear while simultaneously processing my own feelings, fear and upset. I’m tired.

I know many leaders, educators, therapists, healthcare workers and many more can relate. My psychiatrist sometimes reminded me that I should treat 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 social change efforts?

Just as you support your teams, be sure to support yourself as well. An added benefit is that modeling mentally healthy behaviors will also help your employees. Just as there is no one right way to feel after a violent current event, there is also no one right way to take care of yourself. I’m often relatively numb in the aftermath of a tragedy, though exhausted from making sure my kids and team members are okay. For me, self-care is usually as simple as getting enough sleep, keeping to my regular therapy appointments, talking with friends, and watching wellness TV shows.

. . .

This quote from Mr. Rogers always comforts me: “When I was little and saw scary things in the news, my mother said to me, ‘Seek the helpers. You will always find people who will help you.’”

Please be a help. Take care of yourself and your teams today and every day, whether there is a tragedy or not. Ask him sincerely how he is doing and be vulnerable in return. Give time off to your direct reports and shift priorities and meetings as needed. And don’t forget to check your leaders too – we’re all human and try our best to stumble.


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