Workplace Wellbeing

Employees Are Shocked, Scared, and Angry: What to Say and Do in the Aftermath of Racial Violence

Racial violence can cause trauma and psychological distress. Here are steps you can take to process these violent events, and then support your teams and your entire organization.

Written by
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Amy Cirbus
Head of Clinical Content, Spring Health
Clinically reviewed by
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A woman wearing a facemask and holding a sign that reads End Racism,

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    The impact of racial violence in our communities, our cities, and the world is increasingly difficult to navigate. The collective heartbreak we feel as the result of gun violence and racial violence can feel insurmountable. 

    Whenever these events occur, it’s important to take stock of our mental health. Emotional reactions and mental health needs will vary greatly at your workplace, depending on personal experiences, background, and vulnerability to racism or violence. 

    Here are steps you can take to help you process in a healthy way, and then support your teams and your entire organization.

    Defining racial trauma

    Racial trauma (or ‘race-based traumatic stress’) refers to the mental and emotional injury caused by encounters with racial bias and ethnic discrimination, racism, and hate crimes. 

    It can be the result of an event an individual experienced firsthand, or indirectly by witnessing events where others are experiencing racism.

    Examples of traumatic stressors can include:

    • Viewing videos or photos of racial violence
    • Hearing stories of others who experienced a racist attack
    • Repeated exposure to news of racial violence via the media

    This vicarious exposure, especially when experienced on a regular basis over a long

    period can take a major toll on one's mental wellbeing.

    It’s okay not to be okay

    Hate crimes send a message to members of the attacked group that they’re unwelcome and unsafe in the community, decreasing feelings of safety and security. 

    Being a victim of a hate crime or witnessing discrimination against one’s own community can lead to psychological distress and lower self-esteem.

    It’s normal to experience:

    • Shock, sorrow, numbness, and fear
    • Anger, disillusionment, or grief
    • Disrupted sleep or eating
    • Difficulty concentrating 

    Take care of yourself first

    It’s essential for you to process what you’re feeling and any toll this is taking on your mental health first. Here are four ways you can do this:

    • Talk about it with trusted friends or loved ones. Sharing helps you process the tangle of thoughts and feelings. 
    • Give yourself time to recover your sense of equilibrium. Expect ups and downs as part of the healing process. 
    • Avoid repeated media coverage. Overexposure to media coverage can lead to re-traumatization and increased feelings of anxiety and distress. 
    • Help others. Supporting others who are struggling can help you feel connected and productive. 

    How to support your team and organization

    Addressing racial violence with employees can feel overwhelming, and you may be concerned that you won’t say the right thing. Remember that effective allyship begins with speaking up, and an imperfect statement of support is better than silence.

    During times like these, employees who are experiencing racial trauma are seeking support, empathy, and a reminder that they are not alone. Leaders must be ready to speak up often in support of their teammates, while ensuring they’re taking the steps to create an environment of healing in the workplace. 

    Here are some practical ways you can do this.

    • Acknowledge the racism, and that it impacts team members emotionally, mentally, and physically. It seems simple, but it starts by acknowledging the issues at hand.
    • Listen, and let individuals decide how and when they talk about it. Don’t force participation. Some may not feel comfortable discussing their experiences with racial trauma at work, and others may need to. Both are normal. 
    • Allow people to grieve in their own way. There’s no right or wrong way to move through this. Take their lead and keep showing up for them.
    • Host community sessions with impacted groups and allies. These sessions can take many forms. Providing a safe space for individuals to share their experiences with others can help foster a sense of community, while laying the groundwork for healing.
    • Partner with outside experts to lead discussions on racial issues for those who want to join. Clinical experts who specialize in racial issues and trauma may be particularly helpful, especially when it comes to hosting community sessions like those mentioned above.
    • Encourage mental health breaks. Allowing flexible working hours and the ability to take time off can provide individuals with the space they need to heal.
    • Create employee resource groups to improve working conditions for marginalized employees to help foster a sense of support and community within the workplace.
    • Empower allies to take action. Allies can show support, help develop policies, and educate others, so those who are experiencing trauma don’t feel like they must play the role of racial ambassador. 

    The start of conversations and connection

    The past two years have surfaced deep and ongoing struggles against racism, which still run rampant globally. The fight for racial and social justice does not rest in the hope for a more equitable and peaceful world.

    As employers, leaders, and teammates, we can each play a role in supporting one another during this challenging period of collective reckoning, and become true allies. 

    Our intention is for these steps to become a starting point for important conversations, connection, and a greater sense of belonging in your workplace. 

    Learn more about how you can effectively and holistically support your employees’ diverse mental wellness needs, especially during these times of crisis. 

    About the Author
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    Amy Cirbus
    Head of Clinical Content, Spring Health

    Amy is a Counseling Psychologist with over 20 years of experience in direct clinical care, organizational consultation, and telemental health. She is passionate about providing equitable access and raising awareness on the importance of investing in our mental health and wellbeing. For the past four years, Amy has focused on supporting the evolution of telehealth— previously at Talkspace and currently as the Head of Clinical Content at Spring Health. She is a contributor to national podcasts and publications, most notably the New York Times, Wall Street journal, Forbes, Thrive Global, and Business Insider.

    About the clinical reviewer
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