When Tragedy Strikes: How HR & Employers Can Support Their Employees

Viewing tragic events through the impact they have on people isn’t a new concept—finding this level of empathy is a struggle as old as civilization. But while there’s nothing new about the idea of a tragedy, there is something to be said about how the information age has increased the speed, frequency, and amplitude of bad news to an unprecedented point. When Russia attacked Ukraine, the rest of the world knew within hours, and when a shooter opened fire in an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, the news spread in seconds.

Thanks to technology, we’re constantly informed about new threats and crises of every kind and size, whether we want to be or not. And while it isn’t always easy to recognize how deeply your employees’ mental health is being affected by tragic events, there’s no excuse for thinking it isn’t. Even if a majority of your people keep mum about what’s going on in the news, it’s likely to have an impact on their ability to focus or be productive. Research shows that frequent exposure to troubling news creates a cycle of negative emotions that contributes to burnout, depression and anxiety.

HR can’t control the news cycle, but as guardians of the employee experience, HR leaders have an obligation to help mitigate the impact of tragedies and support employees so they feel safe. To guide you through some potentially delicate conversations, we’ve compiled a list of concrete, actionable ways to support your employees’ health as they process tragic events.

1. Ask Questions

If your team is distributed, your first priority after a tragedy should be to reach out to those employees who are in closest proximity to the occurrence. If you can, the best way to show concern is to contact them individually to determine what they’re in need of most.

But even if your resources don’t allow a timely response at the personal level, you should still meet with select individuals, with managers, and with all teams to determine how your employees and their loved ones are affected. Even those without personal connection to the tragedy may find themselves feeling more anxious or in need of emotional support.

Proximity doesn’t only mean physical distance, either. Consider, for example, how parents of schoolchildren everywhere are affected by news of yet another school shooting, or how news about racially motivated violence in one city feels to people of color nationwide. How you respond to events like these and more should take emotional proximity into account too.

If you’re finding employees are reluctant to discuss their feelings with you, consider sending an anonymous survey or opening a suggestion box. You may learn things that employees weren’t ready to share at the time, or that they felt too vulnerable to share in person.

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2. Share Resources

When employees are going through an emotionally difficult time, they may not have the bandwidth to navigate their way to mental health resources, even if those resources seem readily available. This is the time when HR can step in and offer help, but as you do so, be sure to look for solutions that can offer immediate relief. For instance, HR can give employees information for the company's EAP, which is especially equipped to give quick, short-term support.

Additionally, look for ways to give aid proactively and broadly. Some examples include:

3. Provide Ample Time Away

Consistent exposure to tragedy is draining. Some of your employees will likely have difficulty processing their work responsibilities if they’re preoccupied with the emotional fallout of a catastrophe. Especially given the stress many have already been feeling over the last two years, this is the time to let empathy lead and recognize that employees always benefit from a mental health break.

But even the concept of a “break” has evolved recently. For many of us, home is now also the office, and feeling like we’re always “on” can accelerate burnout. Giving your people time off proactively is a great way to create space and help them regain perspective.

That could look like:

One thing to consider is making these “time away” changes permanent, not temporary or unexpected. Otherwise, you risk bringing what the company perceives as a “worthy-enough tragedy” into the equation, and that gets messy fast. Plus, it might not be feasible to give everyone the afternoon off when there's a tragedy, so the next best thing is to build plenty of flexibility and space into your permanent policy.

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4. Encourage a Culture of Listening

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, you may have noticed a rise in off-topic chatter during your meetings—between the stress of rising cases, testing, and lockdown, human contact became a precious commodity. That trend may be continuing in the wake of seemingly nonstop public tragedies.

Managers will be your first line of support in this situation. They’re the ones that can create space for employees to express their anxieties and make openness an integral part of the team culture.

Train your managers to become active listeners and create that open culture. Here are some tips to get your managers started:

Remind managers to approach these conversations with compassion and attentiveness and to allow room for the conversation to flow in a healthy, expressive direction.

5. Promote Action

The role you play as an HR professional during times of crisis is so important. It’s a chance to take action and offer support as a leader in your organization.

Here are a few tips to help you support your employees in their efforts to feel more involved:

No matter the tragedy, there are always people who need help or who need resources to be able to help those in crisis. By donating either time or money as a team, your employees can feel like they’re making a difference. That shift from helplessness to action can be a powerful tool in helping people cope with the turmoil around them.

6. Have a Plan in Place Before You Need It

While there’s no predicting what kind of tragedy might come next, we know with certainty that something will happen. And while we can’t stop bad things from happening, HR pros can alleviate the impact tragic events have on employees and help guide their teams through the healing process.

Listen to your employees, give them space to talk and to heal, give them the resources they need, and help them take action. These simple measures will go far to support your employees on an individual level, which helps your entire work environment become more resilient in turn.

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