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The Conflict in Ukraine Is Causing Some Workers Severe Anxiety; Employers Can Help

Consider issuing a statement acknowledging how the crisis is affecting employees

A group of people holding flags in front of a monument.

[updated on 3/8/22]

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the spiraling humanitarian crisis has captured attention worldwide. Concern over the tragedy is understandable, but employers should also be aware that for some workers, the levels of stress, anxiety and depression associated with constant news updates about the conflict can be severe enough to require counseling through employer-provided resources such as employee assistance programs (EAPs). Other workers are looking for employers to provide a channel for employees to contribute humanitarian assistance.

SHRM Online has compiled the following articles on how the crisis is affecting employees and how employers can respond.

Offer Ways to Help

Melissa Swift, U.S .transformation leader at HR consultancy Mercer, advised: "It's natural to be distressed by what we're seeing and many people are wondering what they can do to alleviate the suffering of those directly affected. Helping others has been proven to improve mental health and well-being and there are countless ways to help with the crisis in Ukraine. Provide a list of credible charities and organizations that are accepting donations and consider matching your employees' donations.

"While the impact of this crisis will be experienced differently by each employee, employers can make a meaningful difference. Let employees know what you are doing to support the people of Ukraine, even if you don't have operations there. Beyond that, flexibility, supportive leadership, and thoughtful communications can help those affected directly and indirectly know that you care."


Conflict in Ukraine Triggers Fresh Round of Anxiety

After two years of the COVID-19 pandemic and with mask rules easing, life seemed like it might soon return to normal. That thread of hope was snapped when Russian troops attacked Ukraine, sparking fears of a global conflict.

Pain, sadness and confusion have swept across social media, with people expressing shock and frustration at the unfolding crisis and mounting casualty count. Many said they felt powerless to help.

Will the U.S. send more troops abroad? Will the country be attacked? Will we see nuclear war? It's all upsetting and scary.

(Los Angeles Times)

Talk About Fear at Work

Even if employers don't know exactly the right thing to say, they can express their support, said Melissa Doman, organizational psychologist and the author of Yes, You Can Talk About Mental Health at Work (Welbeck Balance, 2021). She advised employers and others to acknowledge what's happening even if the crisis in Ukraine doesn't seem to impact their business.

Doman recommends a statement along these lines: "We're conscious of the fact that this might be impacting people in different ways throughout our company, and we want you to know that it's OK to talk about this."

Ultimately, this creates a space for conversation, she said, and employees can feel comfortable voicing their concerns (especially if they are personally affected by the crisis) so that the doors are opened for action—if employees want to band together to raise money for a charitable organization, for instance.


Encourage Employees Not to 'Doomscroll'

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, says doomscrolling—becoming fixated on monitoring news of an ongoing crisis—is essentially a coping mechanism where you try to gain control over a situation by getting as much information as you can. But doomscrolling can be especially draining when people can't channel the information into direct action.

"Many of us have little to no influence on the conflict in Ukraine at the moment," Mendoza-Denton said. Instead, people can focus on what they can do, even if it's small. He pointed to resources to donate to humanitarian efforts here and in Ukraine, for instance. He also advised setting healthy boundaries with news coverage, which could mean tuning the TV in your office common area to a non-news channel.


Pay Attention to Workers Most at Risk

"We now have compounding forms of trauma impacting us as a general population, with those who have experienced prior trauma more likely to experience severe anxiety or distress," said Susan Rees, a professor in the School of Clinical Medicine at The University of New South Wales (UNSW Sydney) in Australia.

Ukrainian immigrants and others with family in Ukraine, as well as people with refugee backgrounds, may be at greatest risk as they empathize with the imminent threat posed to Ukrainian people.  For combat veterans, the crisis in Ukraine could trigger visceral reminders of conflict, death and destruction. "These triggers can be associated with exacerbation or new onset of anxiety disorders or depressive states," Rees said.

She advised counseling people who are dealing with heightened anxiety over the humanitarian crisis to:

  • Consider limiting your exposure to media coverage of war and conflict. Alternatively, if you feel that you need to know more about the situation, make sure your sources are balanced and considered rather than gratuitous and graphic.
  • Focus on activities you can control. Sticking to a routine can be helpful in times of uncertainty and can help add structure and a sense of predictability to your day. 

(UNSW Sydney)

Take Steps to Support Mental Health and Well-Being

The conflict in Ukraine has many people on edge. The source and severity of reactions will differ, but as an employer, this is an opportunity to show care and concern for workers. Consider these five steps to support employees affected by the crisis:

1. Recognize that workers may be experiencing real challenges and commit to compassion. Whether in a message from your CEO or senior leadership, or through an all-staff town hall or other discussion forum, let employees know you're offering support.

2. Create a psychologically safe environment for workers to discuss what they're experiencing. Encouraging workplace conversations about real-world issues affecting employees can strengthen your company's culture and help workers feel supported. As always, set clear ground rules for civil discourse at work.

3. Educate your workforce to recognize signs of distress in colleagues. Look for changes that are not typical for a person in appearance, behavior, mood and related issues.

4. Provide support to managers and give space for flexibility. Remind managers to check-in with their teams and to be aware that the overseas conflict may be impacting employees.

5. Remind workers of the resources available to them. Use check-ins and conversations that may arise about the conflict as opportunities to share your company's mental health benefits and EAP offerings.

(Health Action Alliance, One Mind, the SHRM Foundation, and the Center for Workplace Mental Health)

Remind Employees to Use Mental Health Benefits

Many workers are still mystified by EAPs and other employer-provided support services. "Communicating about what benefits are offered and how they can be used is the first step," said Kara Hoogensen, senior vice president of specialty benefits at Principal, a global financial investment management and insurance company.

Employers can highlight how EAPs work by providing examples of the types of support EAPs offer and describing how they can be used, she said.

"Often, employees think these services are only available for crisis situations," Hoogensen noted. "However, EAP benefits can help employees navigate stress and anxiety about general concerns they encounter. … It's also important to emphasize the confidential nature of mental health programs accessed through an EAP so employees feel more comfortable using them."

(SHRM Online)

How can you help?
The International Committee of the Red Cross remains active in Ukraine, saving and protecting the lives of victims of armed conflict and violence. Its neutral and impartial humanitarian action supports the most vulnerable people, and your donation will make a huge difference to families in need right now. Donate here.


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