How to help workers struggling after a mass shooting

Originally published in 2021, this story has been updated after three separate shootings in California left 19 people dead over a three-day period. One of the incidents was allegedly carried out by an employee at a farm and trucking facility.

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The pair of mass shootings in the U.S. over the past week–the Kroger shooting in Boulder, Colorado, and the spa killings in Atlanta–are the latest disturbing events for Americans in a year defined by a pandemic, economic uncertainty and racial and political unrest.

And it’s all contributing to employees’ worsening mental health and making employers think about how they can help struggling employees. In short, experts say, company and HR leaders should check in on their workers and encourage them to prioritize their mental wellbeing during times of crisis and turmoil.

“At a time when employees are already tapped out physically, financially and emotionally, each of these events–the most recent with the mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder–take an additional toll on employees’ lives,” says Carolina Valencia, vice president in the Gartner HR practice. “Business leaders need to remember that employees are not just workers, they are people. It’s an organization’s duty to support its employees as best they can while they try and cope with all of these crises.”

Here are six ways that company and HR leaders can help employees in wake of mass shootings.

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Tout available mental health resources. The shootings only add to the skyrocketing rates of stress, anxiety and depression employees are already experiencing in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of that, informing employees of the company’s available mental health resources and benefits is a very important–and simple–strategy for HR leaders to embrace. An email reminding employees about resources, including employee assistance programs, crisis management counselors or any available wellbeing apps–as well as how to access them–would be beneficial, experts say.

Related: ‘Now is not the time’ for employers to back off mental health focus

Acknowledge employees’ stress. Simple messaging acknowledging employee stress and angst–from the company CEO, managers or team leaders–is both easy and effective, experts say. “I think we live in a society where there’s a real stigma around mental health. [You can] destigmatize it by saying, ‘If you’re human and you’re awake, this is a difficult time.’ It’s thing on top of thing on top of thing, and it’s really complicated,” says Jaime Klein, founder and CEO of consulting firm Inspire Human Resources. Klein says it’s not about having the answer, but about listening. “As a company leader, if you hear that your employee is struggling, then try to strategize with them–move a timeline, redelegate some work when people are trying to feel like themselves.”

Check in with employees. Klein similarly says that leaders should check in–both in team meetings and individually–to ask workers how they are doing and how they can help. “Following tragic events like the recent shootings, employers must remember that they are humans first. Realize that their employees are feeling pain, fear, even depression,” she says. “Be sure to check in formally and informally so your employees know they are supported. As we’re passing the one-year mark of the pandemic, a lot of the early human-to-human check-ins may have subsided, but it’s time to refocus our energy there.”

Give employees balance. When a traumatic event happens, like a mass shooting, it serves as another important reason why employers should encourage balance and time off to decompress and cope with stress, says Carrie Bevis, managing director of communities and partnerships at i4cp. “If there is a persistent culture of long hours and wearing burnout as a badge of honor, then even the most sophisticated programs are unlikely to provide support,” she says. “In fact, underutilized well-being programs do more harm than good since a stigma builds around using them at all.” She says that HR leaders must look to models that use better communication and effective training to help build individual and team resilience. “We need to empower all employees by establishing and evolving cultures of collective support that emphasize sharing the responsibilities of self and team care.”

Think about diverse employees. The shootings that occurred in Atlanta–which killed eight people, six of whom who were Asian women–may trigger fear and pain for Asian employees, in particular. Coupled with a wave of anti-Asian violence, it’s important for employers to reach out to Asian employees to see how they are coping. Employers and company leaders may want to have special listening sessions for these employees and make sure they are offering the support they need.

Utilize managers. Managers, Valencia says, are in a unique position: They carry a significantly higher level of burden as they juggle the thoughts and feelings of their direct reports, as well as taking care of themselves. “Organizations need to equip managers correctly so they can support and empower those around them without overlooking their own health and safety,” she says. “This means making sure organizations are providing adequate training and support. After all, managers are critical for ensuring employees can access available resources more easily. Manager training should focus on helping them find the right balance between being empathetic and understanding, without trying to take the role of mental health counselors, which they are not trained to do.”

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.