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Retailers address employee mental health in response to mass shootings

Mass violence incidents have prompted retailers to reassess not only their crisis response preparedness plans but also take a closer look at how they address their employees' mental health and emotional stress related to these events.

6 min read

Food Retail

Retailers address employee mental health in response to mass shootings


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On May 14, store managers, employees and shoppers at Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, N.Y., found themselves facing the horrific reality of an active shooter situation inside the store — a tragedy that resulted in the deaths of 10 people and injured three others. 

The shooting was one of more than 350 mass shootings thus far this year in the US, according to the Gun Violence Archive, and more than 150 people were killed or injured in workplace shootings from 2015 to 2021, a Statista study found — realities which have prompted retailers to reassess not only their crisis response preparedness plans but also take a closer look at how they address their employees’ mental health and emotional stress related to these events.

“The tragedy at Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo sparked an almost universal review of crisis management protocols among food retailers,” said David Fikes, executive director of FMI — The Food Industry Association Foundation. “Food retailers are responding to the increase in active assailant incidents in a variety of ways; some are preventative in nature, others are more preparatory; some focused on securing the physical safety of their staff and customers, while others are aimed at addressing the emotional and mental anguish created by incidents of domestic terrorism.”

The sheer number of mass violence incidents alone has a detrimental impact on mental and emotional health, according to Jonathan S. Comer, PhD, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Florida International University.

“The more catastrophic events we’re exposed to as a nation, the more impacted we’re going to be on a psychological level,” Comer told the American Psychological Association.

According to the National Center for PTSD, it is those most closely connected to a mass violence incident who will almost definitely respond with a “stress reaction.”

“For most people, these reactions will gradually decrease over time, but some survivors and responders—especially those with specific risk factors—may experience longer-term or severe responses,” the center said in a report . “Those affected by disaster and mass violence exhibit a wide variety of psychological, behavioral, physical, and emotional reactions. The most common mental health diagnoses reported in research samples are posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, acute stress disorder, and complicated grief.”

Engaging employees, assisting the community

To better address those responses, food industry human resources departments have been actively engaged and making sure that company employees — and in some cases members of community — are aware of professional services available to them to deal with workplace stress, emotional upheaval or even just the higher level of anxiety everyone is experiencing, FMI’s Fikes said. 

“In cases where the community has been directly touched by overt violence, food retailers have been instrumental in mobilizing the religious community, professional therapists and other help agencies,” Fikes said. 

Assisting the community has been paramount for grocery retailers, in particular, Fikes explained, since, oftentimes, the retail locations are seen as community gathering places and an integral part of community life.

“Supermarkets have long been known as the emotional centers of their communities and they have again demonstrated that noble quality by working diligently to ensure counseling, emergency assistance and emotional support was readily available to all traumatized by the senseless tragedy of lives lost at the hands of an active assailant,” Fikes said.

Structuring crisis response plans with mental health in mind

In regard to the physical protection of employees and customers, some retail chains have opted to hire off-duty police officers or professional guards, Fikes said, while others requested local police to more frequently patrol the neighborhoods where their stores are and provide a more visible presence in the community. Following the Tops shooting, FMI partnered with the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI to offer an active assailant briefing for the grocery industry that included motivations, tactics, techniques and procedures that shooters take and helped inform strategies employees could take to reduce casualties in future attacks.

Even those precautions, though, need to take into account the potential impact on mental emotional health.

“Retailers want the shopping environment to feel safe, secure, and inviting so they had to deliberate the pros and cons to every approach, seeking to strike a balance of assuring their actions to secure safety on one hand didn’t have the adverse effect of raising alarms and ratcheting up anxiety on the other,” Fikes said.

After the shooting at Tops, the grocer offered grief counseling to all associates and their families — an important step when it comes to supporting employees not only through the trauma of the event but through the loss of a colleague, according to Cheryl Raudenbush, executive director of Mazzitti and Sullivan EAP Services in Harrisburg, Pa., who said companies’ Employee Assistance Programs can play a significant role in that process.

“Any time your employees are impacted to the point where they are not able to function to capacity, it can be helpful to bring in an EAP counselor [or a grief counselor] who can help organizations respond to the death in a timely manner,” Raudenbush told to the Society for Human Resource Management.

Cultivating a culture that encourages open discussion and support can also make a difference.

“How we show up for our employees during the most painful and traumatic periods of their lives is something they will never forget,” Mita Mallick, head of inclusion, equity and impact at San Francisco-based financial firm Carta, told the Society for Human Resource Management. “These are the moments that matter in a workplace, and sometimes we need to throw out the playbook and acknowledge that someone we know has died.”


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