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Supportive workplace key to recovery after tragedies like parade shooting, expert says; ‘Crises like these can create a huge sense of loss’

An expert and consultant in workplace mental health said in the wake of critical incidents, like a mass shooting, a caring and supportive workplace culture should be continuous and theoretically “forever.”

“People need to know and feel that unwavering sense of support from their employer, where for many people that’s their community and their immediate support system,” said Bernie Wong, principal knowledge lead at MindShare Partners, a nonprofit organization focused on creating mentally healthy workplace cultures.

In the weeks following the Highland Park Fourth of July shooting, the city’s Park District sent numerous email resource guides to employees, directing them to a first responder’s wellness center for therapy sessions and free counseling at Highland Park High School and Deerfield NorthShore Hospital, according to emails obtained by the News-Sun through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Support services continue to be offered today, including free confidential counseling services provided by the Park District through the Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

Districtwide email communication of resources for Park District employees who survived the shooting, or were otherwise affected, changed in 2023.

Direction of communications Liz Gogola said it was a trauma-informed approach to limited districtwide email communication in 2023 about support services related to the Highland Park shooting, to “(promote) an environment of healing and recovery rather than a practice that may inadvertently re-traumatize.”

Employees were reminded of support services at monthly staff meetings, including a peer support group started by Executive Director Brian Romes in November 2022 that continued through June 2023.

Additionally, no employee was required to work on July 4, 2023, the one-year anniversary of the incident, Gogola added.

Creating healthy work culture

Clinical care and cultural changes are two effective resources for employers to support employees long-term who experienced a workplace crisis, Wong said. Creating cultures of safety can greatly influence how employees recover from a crisis incident.

“Culture is the air we breathe, and the water we swim in, within which these (clinical) resources exist,” Wong said. “Hopefully a crisis never happens, but before a crisis, creating a culture of safety and the sustainable culture of work is something employers should always do.”

A supportive culture from the employers should continue in perpetuity. Things like additional clinical benefits could be rolled back if employees indicate it’s no longer necessary, Wong added.

After an incident, cultural shifts could look like making sure the volume of work creates time for employees to navigate their care.

Gogola said the Park District engaged, and continues to engage, with employees through an interactive process regarding their health and wellness, and to provide reasonable accommodations to staff.

“With many clients we’ve worked with, and we’ve seen and read about many employers, make the mistake of operating as usual, going back to business,” Wong said. “These events in particular can have lasting impacts on people.”

Wong added it’s important for employers to empower personal choice among their employees, which can be accomplished by offering a variety of resources that can look like clinical care, peer support groups, time-off, adjusted work and sharing what legal resources are available.

“Crises like these can create a huge sense of loss, not just in actual lives, but in agency and in community,” Wong said. “Managers and employers alike can play a role in really facilitating that semblance of safety and security.”

chilles@chicagotribune.com