The Worst Thing You Can Do At Work After Another Mass Shooting Is Nothing

Supporting each other begins with acknowledging traumatic grief. Even at work.

Yet another terrible mass shooting took place in America this week, an unfortunately regular traumatic occurrence in this nation (and pretty much this nation alone).

On Tuesday, a teenage gunman opened fire and killed at least 19 young children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, a predominantly Latinx community. All of the victims were in the same fourth-grade classroom, a public safety official told reporters.

The Uvalde school shooting is the 213th mass shooting of 2022 as of this week, according to the Gun Violence Archive, an independent data collection organization. It follows a racist massacre at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, that took the lives of 10 Black people.

Even if you do not have a personal connection to victims, it’s normal to feel stressed and traumatized right now. This is true while you’re at work, too.

“As colleagues but also as managers…, we can’t just expect people to just work as if nothing happened, to function at their optimal capacity when there has been this massacre that occurred,” said Natalie Gutierrez, a trauma therapist in New York and New Jersey, adding, “I would assume people are not fine. We do not exist in a vacuum.”

Here’s how to avoid making things worse right now at work, and what you should be doing instead to be supportive.

The worst thing you can do right now is to pretend nothing happened.

Just because your colleagues look and act fine right now doesn’t mean they are fine. Grief trauma psychologists call this mask “social splitting,” when what we feel after a loss is different than how we act on the job.

“People can create protective facades where you don’t see the struggle,” Gutierrez said. “There can be facades people put forth just to get the job done.”

Trauma shows up differently in people. While some colleagues may become extra engaged and productive as a defense mechanism, others may need to withdraw to protect themselves.

Don’t take your colleagues’ or employees’ productivity as a sign that you can just carry on without acknowledging the traumatic violence that just happened.

“You can’t do ‘business as usual’ after a tragic event, which is something that many employers do and fail to prioritize the needs of their staff during such a difficult time,” said Katheryn Perez, a California-based psychotherapist. “The needs and humanity of your staff should take priority over anything.”

“I would assume people are not fine. We do not exist in a vacuum.”

- Natalie Gutierrez, trauma therapist

When a loss is not acknowledged, it becomes “disenfranchised grief,” which grief counselor Kenneth Doka defines as “grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned, or socially supported.” This silenced grief can cause more loneliness, insomnia, anxiety, depression and mood swings.

Many times, people stay silent even when they know a colleague is hurting because they’re worried about saying the wrong thing. But silence can send the harmful message that you don’t care.

Particularly for employees who feel targeted by the motivations of a mass shooter, the silence of colleagues can exacerbate feelings of loneliness and trauma. “You are already feeling othered outside of work and now you are feeling it inside of work,” Gutierrez said. “Mass shootings continue happening and now you are holding this and there is no space for you to share it. It’s lonely.”

And as California-based psychotherapist Deborah Kim previously told HuffPost while speaking about violence against Asian Americans, it can especially send the message that harm doesn’t matter when an organization’s leaders don’t take a stand.

“The clients I have that are in workplaces where nothing is said, that is so hurtful for them. It further increases the injury around the idea of not being seen and not [feeling] like you’re an important person,” Kim said.

Bottom line: Don’t make your colleagues’ stress and anxieties worse by making it seem like you care more about what they can produce right now than you do about their well-being.

An acknowledgment of what just happened does not have to be long or elaborate to be meaningful.

To create spaces in which employees can share their grief after a mass shooting, be open with the fact that the day is not a typical day.

As Texas-based grief therapist Patrick O’Malley previously told HuffPost, the most compassionate response to this kind of violent trauma is not to push your idea of what help should look like, but to listen.

“You don’t come in with knowledge, you don’t try to spin it or direct it,” O’Malley said, speaking about how people could show care to their Latinx colleagues after the racist shooting in El Paso, Texas. “The key word, in terms of how to relate to people grieving and under this kind of stress, is to come in open-minded and curious, and that’s a form of acknowledgement.”

Being open-minded means not assuming you know how someone feels or what they need. If you are a manager, it helps to have options employees can take you up on, such as paid time off or the resources of an employee assistance group, but don’t pressure them to pick one right away.

“‘Just take the day off’ — That might not be the right answer either, because maybe what the person is needing is to be in community. It’s really important to ask the person what they are needing,” Gutierrez said.

She noted that it’s also important to recognize that your co-workers may not know what they need right now under traumatic stress, and that their needs could change over time. The point is to make sure your colleague knows you are ready to support them if they choose to share.

As employees, we look to the top to see how we should model our behavior. If you’re a leader, it helps to share your own personal feelings right now, so that employees feel safer to share theirs.

Gutierrez said this might be as simple as stating, ”‘Y’all, I’m just noticing that I am struggling more today and there is a lot of sadness and heaviness.’”

If you have a privileged identity, you might even say ”’I’m feeling this way and I also know that there are people who are being targeted that don’t share the privileged identities that I share that experience this every single day. And I will never know what that feels like,’” she said.

One word of caution: Don’t assume that you know what someone is going through right now “even if you share the same identities,” Gutierrez said. “You know what it feels like to be marginalized, and you don’t know what it is to be that person, and how that person’s system is responding to their lived experiences.”

If someone does not want to share how they are doing right now at work, respect that boundary and do not push.

But regardless of whether you are a manager or not, you don’t have to be close to a co-worker to make a difference with your support. Care can be shown by thoughtful actions, too. Your offer to bring someone coffee or to sit in on a meeting for them can make an impact.

“A person... that comes up to you and says ‘I want you to know that I’m here’ or ‘I know we’ve never talked before, but I recognize shit is really hard right now and I’m here’ could land so beautifully and make so much of a difference than just a colleague you’re super close to,” Gutierrez said.

“Coming into work pretending that nothing happened is not helpful or constructive for anyone,” Perez added. “A long discussion won’t always be necessary, but a simple acknowledgment and invitation to talk about what other colleagues might be struggling with is always helpful.”

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