Excerpted from an SHRM Blog by Stephen Miller

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 and depression associated with constant news updates can be severe enough to require counseling through employer-provided resources. Other workers are looking for employers to provide a channel for employees to contribute humanitarian assistance.

Ukraine War 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. 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.

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.” 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.”

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 Ukraine war 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 war and humanitarian crisis to consider limiting 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.

Remind Employees to Use Mental Health Benefits
“Many workers are still mystified by employee assistance programs 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.

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