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Gloria Johns headshot

The Connection Between Trauma in Ukraine and Empathy in the Workplace

By Gloria Johns

A protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine in Bielefeld, Germany, February 2022

Diana Blažaitienė, who works out of Vilnius, Lithuania, recruits women from Ukraine for jobs.

As the recruitment and personnel rent solutions (temp hiring) expert at Soprana Personnel International (SPI), Blažaitienė has unfortunately seen it all. Many of her clients are those who are recently displaced from areas within Ukraine as a result of the war with Russia. SPI provides Scandinavian technical and administrative personnel recruitment services offshore and onshore in different career fields.

While these refugees do need employment, stresses in the form of depressive moods and anxiety, and all the accompanying tentacles associated with grief, can have a 24-hour effect on their mental health. Blažaitienė emphasized the importance of mental health services at work, not as an add-on, but as an essential offering for traumatized workers.

Beyond Ukraine: The business case for empathy

“Empathy in this situation is essential and proves to be one of the most important skills of leaders, nowadays more than ever. So in such cases, leaders need to hear what is the best way for the team members to feel better,” Blažaitienė explained in a recent interview with TriplePundit. “Maybe they need a reduced workload, more days off; to be able to share their feelings and emotions with HR specialists, colleagues, or get professional help. It's crucial not to leave vulnerable people alone and reassure them that they can feel safe at work as much as it's possible.”

For one employee who had recently relocated to Lithuania from Ukraine, Blažaitienė arranged for counseling and local remedies such as manual treatment (think yoga) and “energy balance,” or meditation.

“Therapy, meditation, and communication with my family and friends in Ukraine helped me the most," the employee said in an email exchange with 3p. "It is important to understand that you are the one responsible for your life and wellbeing. It is not a shame to take care of yourself.”

The workplace and mental health

In the United States, issues relevant to mental health in the workplace have been a recurring theme, and the numbers seem to bear out that concerns are warranted.

According to a recent Gallup survey, U.S. workers are some of the most stressed out in the world. Some 57 percent of U.S. workers reported feeling stress on a daily basis, compared with 43 percent of people globally.

And it isn’t just the implications of the war between Russia and Ukraine on U.S. global relations, or even the pandemic that has deflated the mental health of workers, but “all of the above." The visual images of the conflict, job displacement, disruption of the family, family support systems such as schools and daycares failing, and a society faltering under racial tensions and homeland security threats all leave workers feeling unwell.   

Jim Harter, Gallup’s chief workplace officer, suggests five elements employers can focus on to improve employee engagement and help individuals thrive: career well-being, social well-being, financial well-being, physical well-being and community.

Four necessary steps to cope with employees’ mental health

But Blažaitienė suggests a more interactive reaction to an employee who is suspected of being in distress, with four steps to implement in confronting issues head-on.

Acknowledgment of the situation: The message from company leadership should be that of open support and understanding that everyone might be experiencing various emotions.

Teaching employees to recognize the symptoms of stress in colleagues: Changes in behavior, mood or dress can be signs of emotional distress.

Encouraging employees not to “doomscroll:” Motivate people to focus on what they can do: donate, join a support initiative, volunteer, etc., rather than a continuous focus on the headlines.

Reminding workers of the variety of resources available to them: Employers should make accessing information about mental health help easy and confidential for its employees.

It might be said that Harter’s suggestions are strictly “American,” and in keeping with a culture that instructs, “Don’t bring your problems to work.” And although in times past, what was personal and professional was to remain as segregated as church and state, another Gallup poll indicated that younger generations expect their workplaces to provide more support than just a paycheck.

There is, however, a relevant question arising from the comparison between Harter’s and Blažaitienė’s recommendations: Does corporate social responsibility (CSR) in the U.S. extend to concern for mental health in the workplace? CSR easily boils down to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), sustainability and climate consciousness. And no DEI program worth its salt excludes persons based on race, sexual orientation, religion and ethnicity. But will mental health and its associated disabilities ever have a seat at the same table as a person missing a limb?

Nearly one in five U.S. adults lives with a mental illness; that is 52.9 million people — a compelling number that should inspire corporate leaders to find a way to make mental health in the workplace mainstream within CSR.

Image credit: Noah Eleazar via Unsplash

Gloria Johns headshot

Gloria Johns' career has included her work as a columnist for Scripps-Howard, Gannett and Tribune News Service. She writes for the San Angelo Standard Times and the West Texas Angelus. Previously she was a special features reporter for San Angelo LIVE! Gloria also has nearly thirty years of award-winning grant writing experience for federal, state and county funds to support social, medical, educational and arts projects. She has enjoyed a successful career in telecommunications and nonprofit management. "Gloria is a Purdue University graduate. She has also attended Angelo State University for graduate courses and studied Texas Family Law at Sam Houston State University. She lives just on the edge of the Chihuahua desert in west Texas.

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