It was a business operator’s worst nightmare. In March 2020, a 31-year-old man armed with a rifle and a handgun drove to a Springfield, Missouri, Kum & Go and opened fire on people inside and outside the store. Police described the man as a well-armed “roving active shooter,” who had been terrorizing the city’s east side.
“He’d been firing the weapon from his vehicle, then got off the interstate and stumbled onto our parking lot,” said Tanner Krause, CEO, Kum & Go. “Unfortunately, we were the scene of the crime.”
Before it was over, one police officer, one Kum & Go employee and two bystanders were dead. Two others, another officer and a store employee, were injured. The shooter took his own life before he could be apprehended.
Signs of stress and burnout include difficulty listening, focusing or empathizing, as well as fear, anger and increased cynicism.
Krause immediately traveled to Springfield with other company leaders and called a meeting with the store team. “We talked about what we knew and what we didn’t know, about victims and events. And we listened to our associates about what was on their minds and how they were feeling,” Krause said.
“We made sure there was double coverage at that store for an extended period of time to make people feel more comfortable,” he said. “We have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which allows our associates to talk to a professional counselor confidentially, and we encouraged people to use it. The associates who worked there were guaranteed their income while the store was closed for the remodel.”
After the crime, Krause experienced a bout of depression, and COVID-19 shutdowns followed several days later. In late 2019, he had begun meeting with a mental health counselor, “and it’s fortunate that I did,” Krause said. “It was helpful to have a professional coach me through those moments.”
Today, Krause still sees the counselor once a week and credits her with helping him manage life’s challenges. “She’s part of my success,” he said, adding he has made mental health a top priority at Kum & Go.
Stress is a part of everyday life, and the pandemic increased anxiety and tension for everyone. But even before the pandemic began, a large percentage of the workforce needed mental health support. A study, conducted between 2019 and 2020 and published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, reported that 60% of people in need of mental health care never seek help, and those that do may wait for as long as a decade to reach out. The researchers also found that more than 70% of the study’s participants were at risk for common, highly treatable mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety and chronic stress.
COVID-19-related issues enhanced that scenario. A 2020 survey of more than 5,000 people conducted by Mental Health America, a national nonprofit, found that most employees were experiencing signs of burnout, concerned about their current financial situation and weren’t receiving the support they needed to manage stress. Those issues are crippling and costly. Mental health disorders worldwide are projected to cost $16 trillion in the 20-year period between 2010 and 2030, according to a Reuters report.
In March, Joni Dolce, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatric Rehabilitation and Counseling Professions at Rutgers School of Health Professions, spoke at the virtual NACS HR Forum. After opening remarks, she polled the audience to determine how well they were dealing with pandemic-related stress. Of the respondents, 55% said they were coping well, 27% admitted feeling overwhelmed, 16% said they were “hanging in there” and 2% said they were unsure because “they’re in the thick of it.”
“As we progress through the pandemic, it’s heartening and hopeful to see that some people are beginning to feel like they’re coping well,” she said. “But there are still people who are feeling overwhelmed. Several individuals in a single household may be working at home. There may be a need for childcare or schooling, but those resources may not be available.
“If you or your supervisors feel a sense of helplessness, this is a sign,” Dolce said. “Maybe in the past—a year-and-a-half ago—you could think of innovative ways to address problems,
to be creative in how you managed certain HR procedures or practices. And now you realize you can’t.”
Other signs of stress and burnout include difficulty listening, focusing or empathizing, as well as fear, anger and increased cynicism. These symptoms can result in increased absenteeism, lower employee morale, drug or alcohol use and lack of cooperation with others.
What Can You Do?
The work environment is an ideal setting to address stress and mental health problems, and HR managers are in a good position to do that. “The employment setting can provide policies and practices, resources and established communication lines. Networks are already in place, and people already have social connections that HR professionals can use and improve upon,” Dolce said.
Tools to support employees in need include flexible work schedules, plus more support and encouragement through texts, emails and personal calls. “Communicate information about EAP and additional services,” said Dolce. “Carve out time every morning, maybe 30 minutes, to communicate.”
She suggests emailing employees a short video of company leaders discussing mental health and expressing gratitude for what employees have done during the pandemic. Share helpful tools and ask employees to submit resources
that have been valuable to them. Schedule insurance company representatives to make presentations on how employees can access health care.
“Have a Motivational Monday, and send out a motivational quote once a week,” Dolce said. “Reach out individually to employees dealing with family situations. Increase your interaction with all staff members, and provide additional accommodations to those who need them.”
She said to use active listening skills when talking to employees. “Let the person know you’re listening. Don’t immediately give advice or try to solve the problem. It’s easy to tell people what to do, but really listening builds the relationship with the individual,” Dolce said. “Today, having workplaces that address and support mental health is critical.”
The Pilot Company of Knoxville, Tennessee, has built a comprehensive mental-health-friendly program for its 28,000 employees with a focus on prevention.
An on-demand EAP is available to all employees and their family members. It provides confidential, no-cost assistance with well-being and mental health issues ranging from stress and fitness to finances, relationships and careers. Currently, each employee can receive three one-on-one counseling sessions, but that benefit will expand to five sessions in 2022.
Mental health issues are not something people should be ashamed of addressing.
Employees can contact a 24/7 online therapy platform with in-person, phone, video or text access to professional counselors, plus access to
24/7 crisis and suicide-prevention support. Pilot also offers a mental health/self-help app and website that provide on-demand assistance in the form of clinical techniques and tools to address mental health issues.
Each week virtual well-being discussions and expert-led panels are made available, and mental health and well-being content is posted in an internal app. Field leaders receive training to help them recognize situations before they become problems.
“The well-being of our team members has always been a priority for Pilot Company, and the pandemic highlighted the need for further mental health resources that are accessible when people need them most,” said Diana Morgan, director of benefits and well-being at Pilot.
“We continue to look at what else we can offer in the future to further support mental health, while ensuring that our leadership is trained to watch for warning signs and help their teams cope with mental health issues,” Morgan said. “We are prioritizing education around mental health awareness, coping skills and resources that are available to our team members. The key is to keep listening and adapting to mental health needs.”
Welcome Uncomfortable Issues
At Kum & Go, talking about awkward issues, such as mental health, is encouraged.
“Create a space where people can talk. That seems simple or rudimentary, but it’s so important,” said Krause. “Not everybody is comfortable being honest or vulnerable at work. They fear they’ll be seen as weak or incompetent, and that fear stems from decades of powerful people not showing empathy when these things arise in the workplace.”
He advises management to “lead with vulnerability. Don’t project what you think the company needs to hear or wants to see. Project your authentic self. In doing so, you’ll be able to connect more easily with your workforce, and you’ll create space in your business for other people to do the same.”
Adds Dolce, “Help people with whatever is going on in their lives. Self-care is not selfish. Mental health issues are not something people should be ashamed of addressing. What is one thing you can do in the next month to help your organization?”
Time and Money
According to Tanner Krause, CEO, Kum & Go, “the best thing that convenience-store leaders can do for employees’ mental health is to provide stability and raise wages.” To that end, Kum & Go has implemented Store Structure, a program designed to simplify work schedules and provide more stability for employees.
“We converted our workforce to 75% full time, and our associates work the same five-shift pattern every single week of the year, so they’ll have stability in their lives,” he said. “They know what days they’ll be off and can plan their life around their schedules.”
On top of the company’s annual merit increases, the chain has added a bonus for all full-time store associates. “We’ll continue to invest in wages over the next three to five years,” Krause said. “Companies can have team-building days and a positive culture. That’s important. But the reality for most workers in our industry is that their economic situation is unstable. There are many risks in their financial situation.
“Making our stores a little more fun to work at is great, but it’s unmatched in terms of the anxiety that some people feel about not knowing if they can make ends meet,” he added. “I know this is the most expensive solution, but if someone can go from living in debt to living debt free, that relief is better for their mental health than any sort of hotline or recognition day that a company can create.”
For More Info
The Centers for Disease Control offers additional information on workplace mental health at www.cdc.gov.