In the face of tragedy, benefits can make all the difference

LAS VEGAS — In October 2017, a gunman opened fire on a crowd of more than 20,000 concert goers at the Route 91 Harvest music festival on the Las Vegas strip. The incident left 58 dead, 851 injured and thousands traumatized.

As survivors returned to their respective homes, they took their trauma with them — leaving their families, friends and employers to help guide them through the physical and emotional stress that comes in the wake of a mass shooting, said Lisa Murfield, HR manager of Tampa-based law firm Hill Ward Henderson.

“They drove home with their trauma. Once they got home, they came into their workplaces, maybe even your workplace,” she said, speaking to a crowd of HR professionals at the Society for Human Resource Management annual conference Monday. “What do we do? What do we do as HR professionals when our employees experience trauma?”

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While there is no easy way to deal with trauma in the workplace, HR executives need to practice compassion, Murfield said. This includes reviewing policies, procedures and benefits to ensure they are an effective resource for workers struggling with a loss or traumatic experience.

Offerings such as bereavement leave, employee assistance programs, wellness programs, healthcare policies, paid time off and long and short-term disability may all be effective ways to help an employee who is struggling with a loss — if those benefits are working correctly, she added.

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HR executives may need to reassess their benefits to make sure they are giving employees the appropriate amount of time to recover. For example, after suffering the loss of her husband, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg rewrote the companies bereavement leave policy to be 20 days for the loss of an immediate family member and 10 days for other family members and friends, an increase from three days of leave.

Roughly 88% of employers offer paid bereavement leave benefits to workers, according to data from SHRM, but it is frequently just a few days. “So many of our companies expect us to come back like nothing happened,” Murfield said. Giving employees extra time off can actually decrease absences long term, she added.

Counselors provided through EAPs can also be helpful for dealing with tragedy — but only if the program is high quality. Murfield recommends employers ask tough questions of EAP providers, for instance, if the program can immediately send on-site counselors in the event of a trauma at work.

“EAP programs [is not a benefit] you should be skimping on,” Murfield said. “Mental health is far too important to your employees.”

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It may also be important to train HR managers and employees on having difficult conversations. Many are unsure of the best way to handle tragedies in the workplace and it is valuable to implement policies to help employees cope with a variety of incidents, including terminal illness and suicide, she said.

“Resilience training can help employees understand how they react to different kinds of trauma,” she said. “Strategies to work through the negatives to help them heal and then return to work faster.”

Murfield’s interest in how employers deal with trauma stems from personal experience. A few years ago she lost her 22-year-old son to suicide. At the time, he was working for Cabella’s and while the retailer was supportive of her family, Murfield’s own employer was not. Just a week after her son’s funeral, the company laid her off. Compassion, she said, can make all the difference in a time of grief.

“When your employees go through trauma, what happened outside your workplace, doesn’t stay outside the workplace,” she said.

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