How can HR support staff affected by the conflict in Israel and Palestine?

Experts suggest ways to help workers who are directly and indirectly touched by the crisis

Credit: Getty Images

Following an attack by Hamas in Israel on 7 October, the world has been on tenterhooks as Israel has retaliated against the attack, with a ground invasion expected.

Governments have warned of the need to avert a humanitarian crisis.

The conflict is now having global ramifications. The Met Police said it had recorded a 1,353 per cent increase in antisemitic offences this month compared with the same period last year, while Islamophobic offences have increased by 140 per cent following the Hamas attack.

And the scale of the humanitarian crisis is sparking various businesses to take action to support their workers, with the BBC offering greater mental health support to those covering and affected by the news.

Sam Taylor, chief operating officer at BBC News, told staff in an email: “I know from my experience working on upsetting, running news stories over the years that you can be doing fine, but sometimes that can change and you need a bit more help or to talk things through.

“So, in addition to the staff sessions and resources already available, our safety and mental health specialists are offering more targeted support where needed.”

Matt Dean co-founder, director and interim chief executive of Byrne Dean, said: “The war is and will continue to be a massive thing for many people. Your Jewish and your Palestinian colleagues and anyone with family or friends in or connected with Israel or Gaza are likely to be suffering greatly. What makes this situation so challenging in workplaces and in our social lives is the depth of feeling it engenders and the huge range of views.

“We can all address human suffering with humanity. If we focus on workplaces, addressing a colleague’s human suffering is a contained goal; it’s about reaching out and making a human connection, hopefully making the person feel safer and less lonely.”

So how can workplaces support employees who are struggling following the events?

  1. Emotional intelligence is key

Dean noted that empathy and emotionally intelligent leadership is “critical” throughout the crisis “because of both the polarisation of views and the depth of feeling engendered. 

“Leaders often choose not to engage because they think they lack the skill to have the conversation: they don’t know enough or they're bound to say the wrong thing. They persuade themselves that the person would prefer they say nothing.

“The reality is that where there’s something this present in someone’s life, the risks (in terms of their sense of belonging and engagement) of not asking how they are probably outweigh the risks of saying something inarticulately or not getting it quite right,” he said.

“This is about displaying humanity and humility; it’s not about sharing your views because it’s not about you. Humility plus curiosity equal kindness here. This is about understanding what a colleague you believe is suffering may be going through; about a colleague who is hurting and grieving.”

  1. Check in with colleagues who may be impacted

Lisa Seagroatt, founder and managing director of HR Fit for Purpose, said: “It is important that employers understand that the recent events in Gaza will affect many of us. This distressing situation is combined with the existing worries created by other overseas ongoing conflicts just as we try to reach a place of stability, which is further impacted by the continuing problems created by Covid, the cost-of-living crisis and long-term health issues.

“It is reasonable to expect that people’s mental health may be impacted during this time due to any stress and worry caused by the events. 

“We always encourage employers to ensure that they operate a healthy workforce culture which encourages people to seek support if they need it and to check in with their colleagues, paying particular attention to any changes in people’s personality, appearance, attitudes, attendance, etc as these can all be caused by the stress and worry of current events which we are all trying to process and navigate.”

  1. Role model healthy means of communication

Liz Sebag‑Montefiore,​ director and co-founder at 10Eighty consultancy, noted that the conflict generates “strong and passionate views” on both sides and HR should take a lead on role-modelling healthy communication.

“Early recognition of the possibility of heightened tension is key to addressing employee concerns. Publicise policies and procedures for tackling racial or religious harassment. Try to offer support and/or counselling to those affected by the conflict if appropriate,” she said.

“Support HR, team leaders and managers to identify and address any negative fallout arising from the conflict between employees. It is important they model how to talk about sensitive and controversial topics by showing understanding and respect for different points of view and accepting that employees may have strong feelings about the subject.”

  1. Flexible working 

Dean pointed out that flexible working might make some feel more comfortable to process any of the events that may have impacted them. 

“Be more understanding of requests to work from home at this time,” he said. “It’s easier to cry and compose yourself in your own home.

“Linked to this, for those who express their religion outwardly in their appearance, consider greater flexibility so that they can avoid travelling at busier times of day. Similarly for parents who might be worried about their children travelling alone.”

CIPD has produced a guidance document to help its members to offer the support that is needed. Click here