Given the scale of information released, it may be hard to believe that Russia invaded Ukraine only one week ago, Feb. 24. In the days since, cable news and social media have teemed with dramatic photos, surreal memes and moment-by-moment updates of happenings on the ground, often with little context or warning. For some who returned to work Monday, the events may be highly personal.
To learn how employers can help meet the needs of staff affected by the invasion of Ukraine — as well as other global conflicts — HR Dive spoke with Tiamo Katsonga-Phiri, director of the University of Denver's Trauma Disaster Recovery Clinic, and Thomas Barrett, clinical professor emeritus at the University of Denver's Graduate School of Professional Psychology.
1. Understand where different responses may be coming from
Depending on their personal experiences, background and relationships, employees are likely to have very different responses to the situation unfolding in Ukraine. Some may have family, friends or other connections in the region. Some may have past traumatic experiences in conflict zones or past memories of violence that are triggered by the war. Some may find it compounds already-existing feelings of anxiety or depression. Many may take the news in stride.
"What we see is, a lot of our clients will start to feel — even if they had become stable in our work with them — they may start to feel destabilized," Katsonga-Phiri said. She has worked with populations from a broad diversity of regions affected by conflict, including Kyrgyzstan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Palestine, Papua New Guinea, Ethiopia and Venezuela. "I think it can be very triggering for people who have known that kind of sudden destabilization in their home country," she said.
People who have experienced the kind of trauma in their life that co-occurs with war — even if they have not lived through geopolitical conflict — may feel similarly destabilized. In other words, employers simply don't know enough about employees' lives to know who may or may not be affected by events.
2. Be aware of how trauma responses manifest
Employers can help themselves respond to employees' stress by understanding the mental health symptoms that tend to appear in response to global conflict.
Common responses to past trauma include post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression and generalized anxiety, Katsonga-Phiri said. Common symptoms outside of work may include nightmares, difficulty sleeping, difficulty eating and flashbacks. In the workplace, symptoms might look like difficulty concentrating, an unexpectedly slow pace, excessive worry, sudden panic and difficulty building relationships with co-workers. Employees may become withdrawn or irritable.
Keeping in mind that all of these responses may be related to current events (or other trauma) rather than workplace dynamics can help employers take a step back and look at the situation more holistically. Often, affected employees benefit and rally with a little space and support.
3. Connect employees to workplace-sponsored resources
Speaking of support, make sure all employees are aware of the resources available to them, both Katsonga-Phiri and Barrett noted. Some of these may be directly related to mental health, such as a stipend to use for counseling available through employee assistance programs. Given potential privacy concerns employees may have, employers may want to emphasize the element of confidentiality.
But other resources and workplace flexibility programs can help as well. Employees may benefit from more flexibility in breaks and hours worked. Even just providing the time and private space during work hours to call family who live in another time zone may be a major benefit for some workers, Barrett noted. He also suggested employers could subsidize gym memberships or provide access to a worksite gym.
4. Give employees a break from the news
Employers may be tempted to let their workers know they're aware of and concerned about what's going on and how it may be affecting them, which is fine. But be wary of inundating workers with news about the conflict or allowing it to take over communication channels like Slack, Barrett said.
Many workers are likely already consuming a lot of conflict-related information. People with friends or family members in Ukraine may be receiving an influx of images and soundbites from WhatsApp and Facebook. Others may simply be newshounds, absorbing NPR on their drive to and from work, checking Twitter during the day and flipping on the news when they arrive home.
"The immediacy with which information is available now when a conflict like the one in Ukraine happens — it affects people so immediately, so directly and so quickly because they can get visuals very fast," Katsonga-Phiri said.
For some people, perhaps counterintuitively, work can be a welcome structure and oasis from the chaos happening in the world outside. While the pandemic has shown there's less of a clean break between employees' professional and personal lives than society imagined before, workers — even those closely affected by the events — may appreciate the normality of working without the constant interruption of news.
"Obviously, getting information on what's going on is fine," Barrett said. "But these days you can get 24/7 news about what's going on and it's really not helpful to have that level of exposure."
5. Organize an action in response to the conflict
Finally, it is appropriate to take or offer a workplace action that can help employees feel less powerless in the face of conflict — particularly one that is happening half the world away. When employees are able to do something that helps them make "even a little bit of difference," it is "very helpful," Barrett said. Joining fundraising drives for those displaced by the conflict, organizing volunteer activities related to supporting refugees and sharing information about item donation drives are all potential actions employers can take.