A Human Resources Lens into Acknowledging Tragedy and Honoring One’s Whole Self

By Amy Holste, Chrysalis Director of HR and Workplace Wellness

The tragedy of gun violence earlier this week in Highland Park, IL and the news the suspect fled to Madison pausing to consider if they should enact more violence is beyond alarming. With each and every tragedy that happens, my stress and empathy button is pushed. I feel panic and anxiety spread through my body. It tightens in my jaw, throat, upper back, chest, and it gets tighter and tighter until it is harder and harder to breathe. It’s hard to focus on my work or anything else. I notice my thoughts speeding up, senses are heightened…so many different waves of emotions are flowing. 

“What if I were at the celebration with my kids? What would I have done if shooting started? What will I do if shooting starts? These suffering families. So much pain. How do we keep going every week and everyday when there is something new and terrible going on? Is this just going to keep happening again and again? What should I do? Do I talk about this? Do I block out the news? What do we say to consumers and staff? How will mental health be brought up? Are we starting to sound like a broken record? Do we need to have active shooter drills? I don’t ever want to normalize this. I’m so tired. What if I can’t find inspiration or hope to keep doing this? Am I slipping backwards in my mental health … Does anyone notice how much I am struggling? Am I going to be able to keep showing up in my role?

When the last thought crosses my mind I stop! It catches my attention because it is the first time over the last three years I’ve felt this. I lost a job before and for the longest time thought I’d never return to a career in Human Resources. When I was young, I was taught to work hard, encouraged by my parents to go to college and be more financially successful–and I was the first in my family to earn a college degree and pursue a professional career. I studied Psychology and Sociology but I didn’t know how to acknowledge or manage my own struggles with depression and anxiety. I’d regularly utilize coping skills passed down from generation to generation in the form of excessive drinking and binge eating. Often those were the only actions I knew to use to numb my discomfort and temporarily distract me from challenging realities of loss, isolation, trauma. We didn’t talk about deep things and we certainly didn’t share with others the challenges we were having in our minds.

Now twenty-five years into my journey with my own mental health and substance use I’m surrounded by the Chrysalis Community where being here reminds me every day the priceless benefits to advocating for places and spaces where we don’t need to keep ourselves and our mental and physical health challenges a secret.  We can openly share and support people actively experiencing challenges. We can talk about it or just hold space to be there for them. Spaces like our workplaces can actually help us stay committed to better health and wellness practices. 

There are days that are a true struggle. There are times I don’t want to admit I am struggling or want to talk about it. I know eventually to keep getting up each day to another tragic headline or stressor I’m going to need to acknowledge how I am feeling. It does help to choose how and when to process with others, when to tune out the news or social media, and when to re-align even more with my values and strengths to find purpose to focus on.

In this time of tragedy and the ones that will inevitably come after, here is a choice we have to choose what to focus on and what to find purpose in. For me I will continue to advocate and use my work to open more inclusive spaces where people can express the challenges influencing them.  Where people will be welcomed with acceptance and empathy and offered support and encouragement to pursue feeling better in any area they may be struggling with their wellness and use their own voice and choice to make these decisions and changes.

The way I see it from my HR lens, it is going to take more and more organizations and workplace leaders to embody purpose by transforming workspaces for more people to thrive in coexistence  and wholeness. It may take grit and courage to leave behind traditional policies rooted in dominance and compliance to welcome in a culture of caring for people’s physical, emotional, spiritual, social, financial, environmental, intellectual, and vocational needs—-to see, support, celebrate and value the whole person versus compartmentalizing them to only focus on the work related needs they have. 

Let’s agree to stop pretending or holding back parts of who we are that keep us all stuck in our fight, flight or freeze stress responses with each other. Normalize the struggles and let our human abilities to experience empathy and seek connection be our most utilized form of training, OSHA safety practice, or benefit in the workplace.