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3 Ways to Be a Shoulder to Lean on for Employees During Trauma

Employees need support now more than ever -- and it's up to leaders to bolster them.

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Being president and CEO of a global company for some time now, I’ve found myself in the difficult position of guiding an organization through multiple traumatic events. Although each presented its own unique challenges, all these events shared a common thread: the need to support employees by not alleviating, but elevating in positive ways.

The current crisis shone a brighter light on the importance of mental health than before. A 2021 report by Mental Health America found that the vast majority of employees (83%) are experiencing at least the first signs of burnout. Likewise, around 90% of employees admitted that their own workplace-related stress impacts their mental health, with more than 65% of workers saying it’s “difficult to concentrate” due to draining work environments.

During this period, our company has done a substantial amount of employee outreach to quell these feelings. We invite doctors to share their experiences with our staff, hold Monday morning meetings to discuss our social responsibility progress, and provide employees with volunteer opportunities.

Each approach is a way to keep people informed, strengthen morale, encourage conversations and unify everyone as we move into this “reentry” phase for our organization. It also provides leaders with an opportunity to engage and connect with employees on an individual level and address the grief, loss or anxiety they might be feeling.

Related: Why Being Resilient Is the First Step to Growth

Elevate every employee

Stress-reducing initiatives can do more than support the business. They can also permeate out into the community at large. One team member shared her family’s volunteer experience, which sparked the entire unit’s interest in volunteering for the same organization. We also have employees educating their children about social responsibility and guiding them toward a better understanding of the issues today. This approach has instilled a passion within their children to follow a similar path.

Although we’re proud of our initiatives and how people have adopted them as their own, we’re also aware that there are lines employers shouldn’t cross. For this reason, we do provide “outsourced” support, which mainly takes the form of partnerships with other institutions and organizations for additional resources. As a company, there’s only so much you can do for employees when it comes to mental health. Access to professional support is often essential to assisting employees in creating an action plan.

Related: Bouncing Back: Taking Care of Your Team After a Company Crisis

Making a move toward wellness

The question, then, is this: What are the best means of supporting staff during times of strife and uncertainty? Here are just a few opportunities to consider:

1. Be ready to offer support

In times of crisis, it’s always essential to make yourself readily available and check in with employees individually to offer support. A Qualtrics study found that staying connected with your team could benefit employee mental health, as people were 23% more likely to suffer declines in this area when managers weren’t good at communicating.

Remember, however, that not everyone copes with adversity in the same way. So take cues from each team member around their comfort level in discussing the situation. Some of your team members might view sharing vulnerabilities as improper due to their cultural norms, and others might find certain events more traumatic. Colleagues might be able to provide insights into the types of support people need at the time.

Our company offers discussion groups so employees can write down and verbalize the issues of greatest concern to guide our conversations. We also organize field trips and outdoor activities to encourage peer-to-peer discussions. One particular exercise that resonated deeply with the team involved planting trees. Employees were asked to record a wish on their saplings and then keep track of those wishes for years to come.

Related: 3 Tips to Communicate Authentically in Times of Crisis

2. Keep school in session

Leadership development is an ongoing process, and part of this process should involve some level of mental health training to help leaders navigate their teams through times of uncertainty. Without the proper knowledge and skill, even the most seasoned leaders can struggle to engage in productive conversations and reduce mental health stigma.

Mental health training can also build awareness among leadership to pay special attention to employees from marginalized communities. For example, the recent shootings in Atlanta could elicit feelings of fear and pain among Asian team members. Leaders might want to hold special listening sessions for these employees to ensure the company is offering the necessary support.

Related: How Should You Be Talking With Employees About Racism?

Of course, not all companies will have the resources to offer such training. If this is the case, you might want to look into mental health employee resource groups, which are often a more cost-effective means of offering peer support.

Related: 6 Ways to Keep Your Employees Learning At Work

3. Provide processing time

The global health crisis alone has left many people more vulnerable to stress, anxiety and depression. When coupled with mass shootings and civil unrest, this only complicates matters for your employees and should serve as a reminder of why work-life balance is so important. People need time off to decompress and come to terms with current events.

Empower employees to step away for longer periods. Also, encourage team members to support one another by sharing self-care responsibilities and help remove the stigma of participating in mental well-being resources.

Just days after taking its entire 145-person staff remote due to the current crisis, New York-based startup Electric mourned the death of James Stepney. Stepney’s unexpected passing prompted Electric to reexamine how it supports employees through trying times. It extended its five-day bereavement policy to 20 days and also adopted company wide mental health days to process trauma.

Support is the key to leading employees through any stressful or traumatic event, and that support can take many different forms — all tailored to the individual. The goal here is to assist people in getting through troubled times by staying connected, offering education and maintaining some semblance of balance.

Kevin Xu

Written By

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Writer

Kevin Xu is the CEO of MEBO International, a California- and Beijing-based intellectual-property management company specializing in applied health systems. He also leads Skingenix, which specializes in skin organ regeneration and the research and development of botanical drug products.