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Workplace Compassion Amid Conflict: A Guide for Employers During the Israel-Hamas War 

The war between Israel and Hamas is an immense concern for people worldwide. As an employer, it’s crucial to recognize this situation’s potential impact on your staff and employees.  

Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel caused significant destruction and devastation, opening the door to further violence in the region and a declaration of war.  

War carries varying levels of anguish. Employees might be worried about their safety as there are many companies with employees living in the region, worried for the safety of loved ones, or those with concerns about how the violence might grow worldwide. 

Constant access to social media and internet news updates can be distressing, leaving people upset, uncertain, and fearful. It’s natural for these emotions to spill over into work life, making it harder for employees to stay focused and productive. Their mental health is likely to suffer. As employers, it’s essential to be understanding and attentive, supporting your employees during these turbulent times. 

As a global employer ourselves, we understand the importance of balancing empathy and support with feasibility and flexibility. We acknowledge that not all employees will require the same level of support, and it may not be possible to offer every form of support you desire or that staff requests.  

With this in mind, we have created a comprehensive list of actions to help you care for your team members and yourself during this crisis. These suggestions are intended to help you navigate this difficult time and provide support in the most effective ways possible. 

How to Support Your Employees 

Start with a Leadership Strategy 

Navigating through difficult decisions with limited information is a challenge that leaders have always faced. However, in times of uncertainty, the stakes are even higher. This is when employees look to their leaders for guidance and compassion, even if it may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable territory for the C-Suite. 

Before making any communication decisions, gathering your leadership team together to develop a strategy is crucial. This strategy should prioritize empathy and compassion, with business considerations coming second. 

As a Virgin Pulse leadership team, we approached this challenge by following these principles: 

1. Creating a Collaborative Environment: We fostered an open space where our C-Suite could freely discuss, debate, and learn from each other. This allowed us to form a comprehensive and united response that considers diverse perspectives, ensuring that decisions are made with a balanced viewpoint. 

2. Developing a Strategy focused on Empathy and Compassion: Our approach was rooted in organizational values, placing human compassion above politics. This enabled us to create a communication and messaging plan that authentically demonstrates our commitment to our employees and stakeholders. 

3. Proactive Communication Plan: We developed a proactive communication plan to ensure everyone receives the necessary information. This plan goes beyond traditional methods by providing proactive guidance and permission to managers, empowering them to support and connect with affected employees. 

4. Adapting to the Developing Situation: We understand that circumstances constantly evolve, so our communication plans must adapt accordingly. It is crucial to keep everyone aligned and moving forward together. 

In times of uncertainty, leaders need to lead with empathy and compassion. Starting with a leadership strategy enables the alignment required to communicate and support employees. 

Communicate with Empathy and Deliver Support for Your Employees  

When an employee is going through a personal problem or trying to make sense of a global tragedy, compassion is the key to supporting them and helping them move forward. As a leader, it’s essential to inform your workforce about the support available to them. Whether through a message from the CEO, a town hall meeting, or another form of dialogue, let your employees know that you recognize their difficulties and are dedicated to fostering a culture of empathy. 

In this communication, provide ways for employees to access support. Ensure that employees know resources, including speaking to their managers, utilizing mental health coaching and providers, employee assistance programs, flexible work arrangements, or any other wellbeing solutions your organization has. 

Backing up your commitment by contributing to a humanitarian organization can further unite your employees and show that you’re taking action. Seek feedback from employees familiar with the situation to guide your donation. A company-matching pledge can also unite a diverse workforce, foster a sense of belonging, and combat feelings of hopelessness. 

Remember, one communication is not enough. Compassion means doing what you can and asking your employees what they need. Please don’t assume, but rather, seek their input. Here’s a helpful way to explain the difference between sympathy and compassion:  

  • Sympathy acknowledges pain: “I’m sorry you’re hurting.” (Distant) 
  • Empathy shares in that pain: “I can imagine what this pain feels like.” (Shared) 
  • Compassion takes action to alleviate suffering: “You are hurting, and I will do what I can to help.” (Connected and action-oriented) 

By showing empathy, offering support, and acting, you can create a more inclusive and supportive workplace for your employees in times of struggle. 

Promoting Psychological Safety: Constructing a Trustworthy Space for Employee Dialogue 

Creating a safe space for employees to discuss their experiences is crucial for a healthy workplace culture. Psychological safety means providing an environment where employees feel comfortable expressing their thoughts, emotions, concerns, and innovative ideas without fear of judgment or negative consequences. Psychological safety builds trust and promotes open dialogue, allowing for resolving issues that can impact work performance, such as stress or personal problems. 

There are many ways to create this environment, including open communication, diversity, and inclusion, and emphasizing mental health. To ensure psychological safety, leaders and managers can set clear rules, such as: 

  • Communicate anti-discrimination policies and what will not be tolerated. 
  • Require mutual respect, even when there are differing opinions. 
  • Encourage active listening and reflection before responding. 
  • Establish common values as a foundation for discussions. 

Leaders can also hold space for employees by relying on fundamentals such as active listening, curiosity, empathy, and compassion. Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) and affinity network groups can be valuable in facilitating conversations and providing insights about employee needs and perspectives related to conflict and its impact on different communities. 

Be Aware of How Trauma Responses Manifest and Honor Your Boundaries 

Major events impacting our employees’ lives can create a misguided urgency to be an expert. HR leaders and managers might feel pressured to have all the answers and be a source of guidance for their teams. This can lead to unnecessary stress and a loss of focus. It is important to be proactive with your guidance to your leaders, ensuring they know how to approach the situation empathetically instead of trying to be the ultimate authority.  

The first step is being aware of signs of distress, such as changes in appearance, behavior, mood, and other related issues. This may manifest as decreased performance, frequent lateness, withdrawal, irritability, hyper-vigilance, easily triggered reactions, and difficulty concentrating or sleeping. If you notice these signs in an employee, reaching out, showing that you care, and offering to connect them with internal resources or professional support is crucial. 

To help with language and to honor your boundaries and comfort level, consider these prompts from our Virgin Pulse health coaches: 

  • “Who can you involve to stay connected and supported?” 
  • “You are right, this is incredibly stressful. What has helped you in the past when you’ve been under this much stress?” 
  • “What boundaries need to be in place for you to stay informed yet not overwhelmed?” 
  • “I hear that this is very challenging for you. I think it might be best for you to bring this conversation to your provider, who can give you more information. What do you think?” 
  • “I heard that this is frustrating, and I’d love to bring the focus back to what you can control.” 

Showing empathy and assistance can make a significant difference in their wellbeing and ability to navigate challenges effectively.  

Flexibility in Times of Uncertainty 

In times like these, everything feels uncertain and can change at a moment’s notice. Leaders must understand the impact, remain flexible, and ensure employees know you’re there for them. It is also critical that your managers have permission to take proactive measures. For those impacted, it’s vital to be flexible in accommodating their needs. Consider offering time off, adjusting schedules, reassigning tasks, reprioritizing projects, or a combination. 

It’s also important to recognize that everyone handles challenging times differently. Some may require more support, while others prefer to handle things independently. Normalize manager check-ins with employees impacted by conflict and guide them on caring for these needs while being ready to adjust as circumstances and needs evolve. 

Unfortunately, in the worst-case scenario, conflicts may arise where employers need to grant time off for various reasons, such as annual leave, sick pay, bereavement leave, or parental bereavement leave. In these circumstances, employers must know the legal or contractual rights available to themselves and their employees while acting compassionately. 

Remind employees of the resources available to them 

Don’t assume that employees remember the resources available, especially if they are struggling – their minds may be elsewhere. Daily standups, 1:1 meetings, and in-the-moment conversations that may arise about the conflict are all opportunities for managers to continue to share reminders about your company’s wellbeing program, mental health benefits, employee relief fund, stress and resiliency partners, DEI programming, and Employee Assistance Program (EAP) offerings.  

If unsure about your offerings, engage your partners for tools or resources for affected populations to share through your health and wellbeing program, company emails, or other distribution methods. 

You can also refer employees to expert resources such as coping tips for traumatic events and disasters and six ways to look after your mental health during times of conflict and global crisis. For caregivers, resources such as how to talk to your children about conflict and war resources and how to support young people during a crisis can be meaningful.  

Check-in with Yourself Regularly 

Employees know they can turn to HR for guidance and support in times of crisis, stress, and uncertainty. But who can HR turn to? HR practitioners may not have a designated point of contact to go to for support. Still, many resources are available to help HR find a sense of community, support, and wellbeing despite the crisis stressors. 

  • Connect with an Internal Support Crew: Your manager or other leaders in the organization can provide support. Remember, we are all humans first, and there’s no playbook for dealing with a crisis. 
  • Leverage your External Support Groups: Do you have a regional group to bounce ideas off or learn from? Reach out to individuals within these communities to build a more intimate support group, even simply to check in on each other. These peers can empathize and support one another on HR matters. 
  • Disconnect: Taking time away from devices, encouraging time off, making time for wellbeing activities, and shutting down at an appropriate time each day can help you follow your advice and set an example for others. 
  • Commit to Small Daily Habits: Making time for exercise, lunch, or simply to call a friend while on a walk can make all the difference. Support these daily habits by blocking time on your calendar, turning off teams, and setting alarm reminders. 
  • Boundaries: Ensure conversations start with what support is required. Encourage people to seek additional help from their managers or trained professionals and take responsibility for their next actions. Being clear on personal boundaries is kind to yourself and the person you assist. 

The Israel-Hamas war is concerning to most, especially after several years of global issues. Employees have already been struggling with mental health issues; this latest conflict is personal for many. Proactively supporting them will help you and your workforce navigate this challenge together. 

Crisis Resources 

Employees in crisis can find immediate support here: 

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers 24-hour, toll-free, confidential support for people in distress.

The Disaster Distress Helpline provides 24-hour, toll-free crisis counseling and support to people experiencing emotional distress related to natural or human-caused disasters.

The Veterans Crisis Line: Reach caring, qualified responders with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Many of them are Veterans themselves.