Over the last couple of years, we've watched a lot of tragic events unfold in the news, from mass shootings and racially motivated violence to the ongoing pandemic that's resulted in the deaths of more than a million Americans. And through it all, we've also had to keep going to work or school and try to carry on like things are "normal" — whatever that means.
Following the recent shootings in Buffalo, Laguna Woods, Uvalde, and Tulsa, it's gotten harder and harder for many of us to figure out what to do with our feelings as we try to get through our daily lives. It can be especially tough to get through the workday when you're carrying strong emotions like grief, fear, anger, or hopelessness.
For some insights, I reached out to Melissa Doman, MA — organizational psychologist, former clinical mental health therapist, and author of Yes, You Can Talk About Mental Health at Work (Here's Why and How to Do It Really Well).
I've talked with her in the past about how and why to have mental health conversations at work, and her tips there may also be helpful if you're in a place where you could use some more support or accommodations in your job.
First, she says there are a lot of feelings that may come up for you following tragic events, and they are all okay to feel. "The list of complex emotions that come up for people around the recent shootings, and all the shootings that came before them, are too long to list."
And Doman says that many people are feeling hopeless in this moment. "As we can't get aligned as a nation on this tenuous issue, the feeling of hopelessness could arguably be the toughest emotion people are feeling."
"Because even the second time around when young children were murdered, we still can't get on the same page. What does that emotionally do to a person? Nothing good, or sustainable."
When these feelings come up for us, Doman says that the best thing we can do is allow ourselves to experience them instead of pushing them away. "Don't hide from your feelings, even if they come up at work. I've lost count of the number of clients who welled up with tears in the past week because they just couldn't hold it in."
If it's available to you, you might want to take a day off for your mental health. But if you can't, Doman says that taking a couple of minutes here and there can still really help. "Even if you can't take time off of work, it doesn't mean that you shouldn't be able to take a few moments where you can to give yourself the space to process those emotions, even if it's in front of other people."
Doman says that you might even use moments like these to advocate for openness around emotion in your workplace by saying something like, "I'm being impacted by these events in a significant way and I'm asking that you give me the space to do that, because if I don't, it not only hurts me psychologically, but there's no way in hell I can be mentally present for work either."
If your workplace is what Doman calls "psychologically safe," then it might help to take part in bigger conversations about how people are feeling and how your organization might work to make a difference.
And she says that management in a psychologically safe workplace needs to lead the way in showing people support. "We need to normalize and embed the process of talking about complex events with complex reactions, and being able to move through those together as a workplace community, not just referring people to an EAP [Employee Assistance Program]."
"Whether it's a company-wide town hall, a team meeting, or a 1:1 — if you have a psychologically safe workplace — please be open and encourage others to be open about how these events are impacting them and to vocalize what they need from others in terms of conversational support.
It can also be useful to discuss actions you can take as a community, whether it's calling local legislators or donating to activist groups, so it can promote some semblance of personal contribution or influence towards trying to move the dial towards change."
On the flip side, if your workplace is not so psychologically safe (or even downright toxic), Doman says this is probably not the kind of place where you want to work in the long-term.
"To be really blunt, if you work in an organization that won't even give the space to talk about this horrifying event (or other events that come after it), if you're in the position to look for a new job — run — do it," says Doman.
"In 2022, and with discussions about mental health at work, if you work for a company that won't even let you discuss the murder of 19 children, that company is very clearly telling you who they are and who they won't be for their workforce."
Many workplaces are somewhere between safe and unsafe. Maybe your workplace is trying to do better about mental health but their efforts feel a little misplaced or not completely genuine. Or perhaps there are individuals who feel safer to you than others.
Additionally, once you've vented your feelings a bit and given yourself some space to process, you might find that work can be a helpful distraction.
Just be careful not to overdo it, as overworking can have other mental health consequences, like burnout. And don't underestimate the power of taking a few minutes after work to rest and recover.
Finally, Doman says that connection and support are vital in times like these, and that includes the ways that we show up for others, too.
Though you may be feeling hopeless, there are things you can do right now. The Senate has currently stalled two gun control bills that aim to make background checks for owning firearms more extensive. Please take action on gun violence, call your senator! Here are 11 other ways you can take action to stop gun violence in the US.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline is 1-888-950-6264 (NAMI) and provides information and referral services; GoodTherapy.org is an association of mental health professionals from more than 25 countries who support efforts to reduce harm in therapy.