The March 27 mass shooting at a Nashville elementary school was the latest of dozens that have taken place throughout the country in 2023. At least 128 such events have occurred in the United States, according to the Gun Violence Archive—more mass shootings than days so far this calendar year.
The tragedies are taking a toll on employees' mental health, spurring a need for employer support, experts say.
"Even if you are not directly affected, anytime you read or hear about a tragic event like this, it still impacts you," said Judy Grant, vice president of employee assistance programs (EAPs) and work/life services at Plymouth Meeting, Pa.-based Health Advocate. "Especially for anyone with kids in their lives, each time this happens, it chips away more and more at our feelings of comfort and security with sending our children out into the world each day."
Employees' mental health has suffered from a plethora of challenges, from the COVID-19 pandemic to persistent inflation. Data from Telus Health, which compiles a monthly mental health index to gauge how employees are feeling, shows that mental health has declined significantly since the pandemic started and barely improved from the low it hit at the start of the health crisis in 2020.
The problem has only been exacerbated by declining financial health as a result of record-high cost of living and fears of a recession. Meanwhile, recent data from MetLife reported a significant decline in overall holistic health in the past year—now hovering around 40 percent of employees who report feeling holistically healthy, with mental health in particular on a downward decline over the past several years. Just 65 percent of employees in 2023 reported they are mentally healthy.
Repeated headlines about mass shootings take a toll on employees who are already stressed. The American Psychological Association finds that the frequency of mass shootings, alongside continuous access to media coverage of such events, is "harming everyone's mental health."
"These news alerts start popping up, and we ask ourselves, 'How long until we are directly impacted?' " Grant said. "How can it not affect our mental health?"
That's why, experts say, now is a good time for employers to prioritize mental health and tout available programs for their workers.
Employees are increasingly looking for mental health help from their employers, especially in the wake of traumatic events like mass shootings. Following the 2022 elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and the supermarket shooting in Buffalo, N.Y., a Morning Consult survey of 2,226 working adults conducted for Bloomberg News found that 3 out of 10 employees who were emotionally affected by recent mass shootings have sought out their organization's employee assistance programs or planned to do so at least in part due to the events.
E-mails, Slack messages or updated posts to the company's intranet reminding employees about resources, including EAPs, crisis counselors or well-being apps—as well as how to access them—would be beneficial, experts recommend.
"Tying communication about available programs to moments when employees are going to be looking for information is huge," said Tony Guadagni, senior principal in the Gartner HR practice at Gartner.
While employers' investments in wellness programs, including mental health programs, has grown significantly in the past couple years, employees often remain unaware of benefits or are reluctant to use them. In fact, research from OneMedical's 2023 State of Workplace Health report found that just 19 percent of workers have accessed mental health care through their employer.
Open lines of communication between company leaders and employees are also important, including providing stress-relief strategies, asking workers how they're doing and reminding them about the importance of self-care. Equally important is training and encouraging managers and supervisors to proactively touch base with their employees to see how they are doing and offer support when they can.
"Be sure to normalize that struggling with these issues is OK and a natural human reaction," Grant said. "While we each may respond differently, these situations affect everyone. That is to be expected, and seeking help is OK."
Simple messaging acknowledging that employees may be struggling as a result of the news and reminding them about resources is an easy and effective way to show them they are cared for—which in turn will be beneficial to both employers and employees
"It is good business to take care of your employees," Grant said. "Showing that the organization cares and recognizes the impact of these tragic events humanizes leadership and sends an important message. By acknowledging what has happened and providing access to benefits and resources that can help employees and their family members, it demonstrates how much the employer cares and prioritizes the well-being of their team."