Workplace Wellbeing

Coping during war, conflict and disaster

October 25, 2023

Dr. Max Major

Senior Clinical Psychologist

Unmind Product Spotlight: Calendar Reminders


Everybody has the right to physical and mental health and safety. At Unmind, one of our core values is ‘Be Human’. We believe in the uniqueness and value of each individual and community. We are deeply saddened by the war between Israel and Hamas and the human suffering and loss of life of those caught up in the conflict. 

We recognise the complexity of the situation means its effects will be felt by, and impact on, many more than those currently living in Israel and Gaza. Many people living abroad will have family, friends and colleagues in Israel and Gaza. They may themselves be the target of discrimination as anti-Israel, antisemitic, anti-Arabic and Islamophobic rhetoric and violence increases as a result of the conflict.

The turmoil of war and conflict creates uncertainty and fear, anxiety and anger, sadness and shock, among a range of other emotions – there’s no ‘right’ way to feel. You may be impacted yourself or concerned about employees, colleagues, friends or family, and unsure how to help. With major crises like this, we might also feel an urgency to act, which may lead to well-intentioned but sometimes unhelpful results. We know this is an emotive and challenging time, and we’ve outlined some of the ways that you, as an employer, colleague or individual, can help yourself and those around you.

For those directly affected

It goes without saying that for those living in, or close to the conflict, or who are being targeted because of their affiliation to those involved in the conflict, your physical and psychological safety is of the utmost importance. We offer this information with the best intentions and with the acknowledgement that we can’t know what your situation is truly like and that you will naturally be doing many of these already, and adapting to the rapidly changing situation. 

  1. Seek safety and stability

Whether you’re in the area where the conflict and fighting is happening, or are part of an expatriate community being targeted, the most important thing is to try to find safety and stability. War and conflict by their nature threaten both of these things. Routines, which are so important for our sense that the world is predictable and safe, will be disrupted in minor and major ways. Many things will be outside of your control, which you may notice having its own impact on your sense of safety and security.

As much as you can, try to acknowledge the uncontrollable nature of the situation. Even if you cannot change what’s happening directly, it can help to identify what is within and outside your control to help you start to plan and make decisions about where to focus your efforts. If you can, prepare a list of safe places to help reduce the cognitive load of decision-making in times of crisis, and when in a place of safety try to establish routines. Our brains are designed to seek predictability and patterns, and finding small ways to bring these into your day can help you feel safer.

  1. Connect with supportive people and communities

Humans are social animals and being with and around others has been important to our physical and mental health for thousands of years. Being with others can help share the psychological and emotional load, help with decision-making, widen the knowledge and resources available to you, and divide practical tasks that support you and your group.

If you’re able to, connect with people and communities that support you either in person or online. This can also include connecting with family and friends who may be sharing similar concerns. It’s important to acknowledge that groups can also be a source of stress in some instances (e.g. information overload, unequal division of labour, unhelpful ingroup comparisons), so it can be helpful to get some idea of what support you’re looking for and what your boundaries are.

  1. Engage in self-care practices

During the turmoil of war and conflict, you’ll likely find yourself reacting and may have to let go of some of the tasks and activities you usually do proactively for your health. This is completely normal. As we’ve established, normal routines may not be possible or your priority. When you feel safe and secure to do so, try to bring some of these practices back into your daily routine.

  1. Consider accessing crisis/emergency support if available

If you have access to crisis or emergency support via your Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) or equivalent, consider whether this would be helpful for you. Although therapy and counselling are generally not recommended while a crisis or threat is ongoing, specialised services in responding during these times do exist and can be a lifeline for some. 

Supporting colleagues and employees

It’s natural to feel a sense of urgency to match the scale of the conflict and disaster. This in itself may add to the stress levels of your company or team. Stress can activate your amygdala (the threat detection part of your brain), triggering a ‘fight or flight’ response and effectively turning off or turning down the role of the frontal cortex (the rational decision-making, attention-allocating, and problem-solving part of the brain). As best you can, acknowledge the urge to react if it arises in you and pause to allow the frontal cortex to come back online before you respond. 

  1. Encourage open and proactive communication

To effectively support employees and members of your team, it’s important to adopt an open and proactive communication approach – especially during times of heightened uncertainty. This approach should be top-down, agreed upon by senior leaders and team managers, as well as being flexible and adaptable to feedback from employees and to new developments in the conflict. Communicating in this way does more than just provide people with the right information. It empowers leaders and employees to take action they may find helpful, as well as providing guidance and permission to help reduce uncertainty (e.g. flexible working arrangements, business priorities, permission to say ‘no’).

It’s important to acknowledge the situation and feelings that might arise as a result, which may also have triggered memories of past conflicts. And when speaking about the conflict, be mindful of the language used to avoid bias and ensure inclusivity. Modelling this communication approach will help employees feel safe to share and speak openly about their concerns, which can help provide relief. War and conflict will impact and affect people in different ways, some of which will not be immediately obvious. Keep wellbeing on the agenda and check in regularly with how they’re doing.

  1. Lead with empathy and compassion

We encourage the use of empathy and compassion in the promotion of healthy and productive workplaces in general, and these are especially important during times of uncertainty and distress. As a quick refresher: empathy refers to the shared understanding of the experience or pain. Compassion goes that step further to offer support to alleviate the pain. Execs, senior leaders and team managers all have a role to play here in letting their employees know that they hear, recognise and acknowledge their experiences and are here to help.

As best you can, try to resist the natural urge to react immediately and to try to fix or solve someone’s experience or problem. Also try not to assume what the person may or may not need. Practise active listening, ask what they need and would find helpful, and take action. But be upfront and honest about what you can do, and what is outside your ability and your boundaries. 

  1. Offer flexibility and accommodations

In times of turmoil and distress, uncertainty can be one of the most impactful factors on someone’s mental health. As an employer or leader, you can help alleviate some of this impact by providing certainty on factors within your control, such as sharing flexible working policies or compassionate leave policies. Where practicable and possible, make adjustments and allowances to accommodate the specific needs of your employees or team members.

As a guiding principle, try not to assume what they need. Instead, practise active listening and compassionately enquire about any support they may need. Some may want additional support and others may prefer to manage things on their own. Model and explicitly give employees permission to ask for what they need as well as to say ‘no’ and enforce their personal boundaries. As an employer or leader, it’s also important to be familiar with leave and sickness policies so that you and your employee/team members are informed of their rights and responsibilities.

  1. Provide resources

War and conflict create chaos and misinformation can abound. Information can also overload, especially for those dealing with immediate threats and dangers – in these situations mental resources may be taxed and under greater strain, and too much information can have counterproductive effects. Having access to quality information goes a long way to supporting the wellbeing of staff and colleagues. Share policies and procedures relevant to your company, and have a list of support services or mental health resources available to signpost people to. If you’re a senior leader, you might share the company’s anti-discrimination policy, DE&I policy and other relevant documents that give guidance on what will not be tolerated.

Remind employees what other services and benefits they have available to them. Team meetings and 1:1s are opportunities to share and hold space for emotions, as well as signpost to support if needed. Remind employees about your organisation’s wellbeing programme, financial aid or programmes, parenting support and EAP. Signpost to external services if an employee requests additional support that can’t be met in-house, or if it’s preferable for this support to be provided independently.

  1. Promote psychological safety

Psychological safety is an important aspect of a mentally healthy and mature workplace and will help your team cope during times of stress and turmoil. Keeping wellbeing on the agenda by checking in with team members during team meetings and 1:1s will go a long way to creating safe spaces for others to share and discuss their experiences.

In times of conflict, it might be appropriate to give more space and time for this than usual and consider dropping certain aspects of ‘business as usual’ to accommodate this. Continue to welcome all voices, opinions, questions and concerns, and embed open and reflective conversations. Promote a ‘no-blame’ culture that allows space for differing opinions as an opportunity for growth and learning. Use active and compassionate listening, and offer support that empowers others to take steps that promote wellbeing and provide opportunities for restoration. Model and encourage the use of appropriate and accurate language; don’t exaggerate or minimise the truth – language is a key component of building trust and safety. 

Supporting family, friends, colleagues and employees from afar

If you know people living in or near war or conflict, you may feel particularly unsure how to help. The distance and changing nature of conflicts and conditions, and state of infrastructure, are all additional challenges to providing support. Here are a few suggested ways you may be able to help.

  1. Stay connected

Maintain regular communication with employees and teams who are remote or live in places directly affected by the conflict. Compassion is the guiding principle here – empathise with their experiences and let them know you’ll support them as best you can. Listen to what they might find helpful and consider if this is possible for you to provide – avoid making promises you can’t keep. You might also consider asking them how they want to be contacted – how often, by whom, and give them permission to say ‘no’ (especially if you’re in a position of power within your organisation). 

  1. Gently encourage self-care practices

Self-care is important and, as we’ve acknowledged, is often deprioritised during war and conflict. When encouraging others living in these situations to practise self-care, take a compassionate and curious approach and let the other person lead. How are their basic needs like shelter, food and water, clothing and sleep being met? Adjust your encouragement appropriately.

For example, if these are still threatened or suboptimal it may not be wise to encourage them to engage in mindfulness practices. If it’s not safe to go outside, a walk to get fresh air is not an option. Resist giving this advice as a throwaway comment like, “Remember to look after yourself”. Although these may sound like common sense and be well-intentioned, the person might not have the capacity to think beyond their immediate safety and survival – which is entirely appropriate – and we want to be careful not to overload them further.

If, however, it seems right to do so you can gently encourage them to think about those self-care practices; for example you might say something like, “You’ve been through so much and it must have been incredibly painful, are you able to give any time to rest, restoration and healing for yourself?” or “You’re tired and giving a lot of care to others, what would help you look after yourself as well at this time?” Check in on whether there is anything you can do to support them with this.

  1. Consider signposting to crisis/emergency support services

If available in your company and the person is asking for further support, consider signposting them to your EAP, emergency or critical incident response provider. Have this information close to hand. If your employee or team member doesn’t ask for this information, you can gently let them know that it is available if they would like the contact details. Avoid giving this information without hearing whether the person wants it as this can be seen as judgemental or dismissive. 

Supporting yourself

War is distressing and upsetting, and its impacts reach farther than the places and people in direct contact with the conflict. You may feel the impact of this on your emotional and psychological health straight away, it may show up years later, or you might not feel anything or numb.

Again, there’s no ‘right’ way to respond. However you’re affected, be compassionate and take steps to look after yourself too. It can be easy to devote all of your time and energy to supporting and helping others, especially if you have loved ones directly impacted. As much as you feel able to, we encourage you to practise self-care to give yourself the space to process different emotions and restore your energies so you can continue helping others.

  1. Set yourself boundaries

Be clear on what support you need and where your boundaries are. Setting these and sticking to them as best you can is an act of kindness to yourself and others. Modelling this for others gives them permission to do the same and lets them know that you are not applying double standards when you encourage them to do so.

  1. Disconnect

It’s important not to be online and exposed to images and content related to the conflict all the time. Even though this information may not pose a direct and immediate threat to your life when viewed from afar and through electronic media, your brain still activates the same ‘fight or flight’ response (albeit perhaps to a lesser extent). Repeated or continuous viewing makes it hard for your brain and body to feel safe, which will impact your physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing over time. It’s normal, and at times essential, to want to be informed but try to limit the amount of time you spend consuming this information and think about setting boundaries on it. Ask for help from others to stick with this if you’re finding it difficult on your own.

  1. Keep yourself informed

With the previous point in mind, it’s also important that you have an understanding of the situation to help you feel informed and reduce any sense of uncertainty or confusion from misinformation. If the previous point was a caution about the quantity of information, this point is about the quality of information. Stick to reputable and independent sources and organisations, such as the United Nations, World Health Organisation, Unicef, and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Being informed can help you feel more in control and help you support others too.

  1. Practise self-compassion and self-care

Remember to practise self-care for yourself too. There’s no right or wrong way to go about this, so find what works for you. Build in small daily habits. Be flexible. Connect with those who support and help you (both in and out of work). Try to avoid the urge to self-medicate with alcohol and other numbing substances; instead, give yourself permission to feel and experience what’s showing up for you. There’s no right or wrong way to react, all experiences are valid – acknowledging and giving space to these can help you cope. Be kind to yourself and try to acknowledge and let go of judgements or unhelpful standards. Looking after yourself is an act of self-compassion and benefits others too. It’s also OK to ask for help if you need it. 

We want to further acknowledge that it can be difficult to know how to support others or yourself during these times. You are not alone in this. Asking for help if you need it is a courageous step. Offering support, if you are in a position to, is an act of compassion. At the heart of any conflict, there are people. People that make up wider communities, that make up nation-states, that make up humankind. In these challenging times, offer support and be guided by compassion, understanding, and kindness.