when an employee is consumed by news of mass tragedies

A reader writes:

I supervise someone who subscribes to news alerts on his cell phone and via email, and he kind of obsesses about news when it’s something like the California shooting. While it’s a tragedy, especially considering it’s workplace violence that could affect any of us, I don’t think it’s worth dropping everything to follow. It usually takes hours or days for the full story to come out anyway. A person can watch CNN on their computer, or keep newspaper sites open and refresh every few minutes, so it really can be a distraction. These things are unfortunately far too common so it’s not exceptional enough to allow it to interfere with work, in my opinion.

If it were within driving distance, I’d be on alert, but if it’s hundreds or thousands of miles away, I don’t think we should let it affect our workday. 9/11 was special because it affected multiple cities and potentially every airplane until we knew it was only four planes. But for localized things far away, I’d rather wait until the 6:00 news, or do my job and then check the news during break. I wouldn’t stop working and sit in front of a TV or stare at a cell phone.

Is that unreasonable?

Oooof. Honestly, my answer to this is different right now than it would have been a few years ago. In general, I think that employers should make allowances for these kinds of shocking events. We’re all humans, and processing this stuff is tough. You can realistically expect people to be unaffected.

But in the current atmosphere in the U.S., where this kind of thing is happening so frequently? With two separate mass shootings just last week? There is a point where someone being consumed by each and every one would start having a real impact on their work and where it’s reasonable to ask people to at least try to return to work.

But the key is communicating that in a way that doesn’t sound terribly callous and insensitive. You don’t want the message to be “work is more important than this tragedy” because work isn’t generally more important (emergency workers, etc. excepted). Rather, the message is more “this is awful and I so understand the impulse to follow it closely throughout the day, but we also need to find a way to keep work moving.”

That’s why the language in your letter probably isn’t the language to use with your employee; when you talk to him, you want to sound more sensitive to why he’s finding it tough to turn away. (Some of the framing is also open to debate. For example, I’d argue that 9/11 was different because it was a large-scale terrorist attack on our cities, not for the reasons you cited, but it’s better to stay away from that kind of thing anyway because it’ll distract from your point.)

I think, too, you want to use your judgment case-by-case. If a tragedy is close to home or hits an employee particularly hard for a personal reason, you might handle it differently. And if someone is visibly shaken and can’t return their focus to work, you could suggest they use PTO and leave early, as well as suggesting that they get in touch with your EAP if you have one. If their work truly doesn’t allow for leaving early (and some jobs don’t), you could say, “I’d love to be able to give you the rest of the day off, but unfortunately I can’t because X. But here’s what I can do (excuse you from that meeting, let you leave as soon as Y is done, or whatever).”

And one more caveat: If this person is an exempt employee whose productivity isn’t significantly affected by this and who can generally be trusted to manage his own time (and who may be working extra hours the rest of the week/month to get everything done), I wouldn’t even address it.

But it’s sickening that we even need to figure this out.  What other thoughts do people have?

{ 330 comments… read them below }

  1. The Cosmic Avenger*

    Considering the OP doesn’t mention anything about their supervisee’s productivity or anything along those lines, I’d say that they need to stop worrying about that person’s focus or interests. If they feel like it is a productivity issue, I’d recommend that they have a discussion with the person about their productivity, or simply tell them their output is down and they need to spend less time checking their phone or surfing non-work websites.

    1. AnotherAlison*

      I’m also curious about the productivity. I thought that the OP was going to mention productivity issues or the employee becoming upset and causing problems with interactions in the office, but I didn’t see any of that.

      I’m a news junkie, too. It started when I was a little kid and forced to listen to talk radio. I was a young teenager when OJ happened, and I watched all that, so I’ve been doing it a while and am not likely to change. I hit my news sites enough to know what’s going on all day, but as the OP mentioned, it takes a long time to unfold, so I do my in-depth reading/watching at home and I don’t really impacts my work (at least no more than AAM or someone else’s online shopping). I wonder if the issue is really the employee gabbing about it, and that being unwelcome conversation to the OP. . .perhaps too political?

      Also, FWIW, my husband was in an armed bank robbery 10 months ago. It wasn’t terrorism-related, but I do tend to be a little on the hey-this-can-happen-to-anyone-anywhere-be-aware side of things. I like to know what kind of climate I’m in. It’s fine if the OP isn’t into it, but I don’t get the judging of others’ news consumption.

    2. OP Writer*

      Workflow in our office isn’t so slow that someone can obsess about anything non-work, so I guess I thought saying “obsesses” conveyed that it’s a problem. Sorry about that.

      1. The Cosmic Avenger*

        Well, we try not to assume facts not presented by the OP. Thanks for joining in!

        So it sounds like you should maybe stick to their productivity/work output, although as others have suggested you may want to make sure that they’re doing OK if you have that kind of relationship with them, or if your company’s HR or EAP is able to handle this sort of thing.

        1. OP Writer*

          The issue is that the employee believes following a news story is more important than work and deserves special exemption.

          1. sunny-dee*

            Special exemption? I’m still unclear — is it affecting this guy’s productivity? Or does he want an exception to, like, leave the radio on or stream CNN or something while the event is ongoing (but his productivity isn’t otherwise affected)?

          2. Ad Astra*

            You’re going to have more success if you start by expressing genuine concern. Once you’re sure the employee isn’t so deeply affected that he needs to go home for the day, focus on which behaviors are a problem, explain why they’re a problem, and request the appropriate change in behavior.

            If you make this about what is and isn’t worth caring about, or insinuate that this employee’s feelings aren’t valid, you’re not going to get the results you want. You can roll your eyes at his obsessive refreshing and demand to know whether he has a personal connection to the situation OR you can correct the behavior that’s affecting his work. You can’t do both, so choose.

          3. INTP*

            I think I understand what OP is saying and want to clarify (OP, correct me if I’m wrong) – it sounds like the guy is so into these events, that if the OP tries to address the fact that his productivity is insufficient while they’re happening, he argues that she is being unreasonable to expect normal productivity out of him during such an event – that he should be allowed to halt productivity and work more slowly. (Kind of like it would have really been unreasonable if your boss was getting onto you about working slowly during 9/11/11, but he thinks that applies to any highly publicized tragedy.) So what she needs is a way to talk to him about the fact that no, these events do not warrant halting productivity expectations, that sounds less callous than “this isn’t as important as you think it is.”

            1. Blurgle*

              This, OP. You really need to stay away from even the tiniest hint of “this isn’t important” because ho boy does that sound like every awful stereotype of the callous boss who screeches at his employees to get back to their desks despite the building being on fire. Importance is NOT the issue here: focus is, 100%.

              1. Blurgle*

                PS I say this because if you do come across as Callous Boss, your employee isn’t going to see any reason to change. You’ll just become the Big Bad Wolf in her mind and then you’re stuck with an even bigger mess when you have to replace her.

                Does your company have an EAP? Because it sounds to me as if this is an issue of mental illness, not simply poor performance or wilful refusal to follow direction. You can’t manage away mental illness any more than you can order an employee to stop hemorrhaging to save on carpet cleaning.

                1. OP Writer*

                  Employee has received help in the past, but such things are voluntary so I can only manage workplace expectations & communicate them. If someone has no insight into their unusual-ness almost any way of phrasing things sounds callous.

            2. SMT*

              On 9/11 I was in high school and still had to take two quizzes (the first right after watching the towers fall on TV). My French teacher told us that if she didn’t have us take her quiz, ‘the terrorists would win’. It might be reasonable to mention in a conversation that while terrible things happen in the world, we still have to keep up with our lives, including work.

              Is it an issue for cell phones or any other non-work related websites to be used during the work day? You can also cite company policies in addressing this with him.

              1. teclatrans*

                I have to say I disagree strenuously with your French teacher, and with your resulting (?) conclusion that productivity must continue forth in the immediate wake of tragedy.

          4. The Cosmic Avenger*

            So it sounds like you’ve told them and they’re not listening, is that right? In that case the issue you should focus on now is that they’re refusing to follow your direction when you try to direct them back to their work tasks.

            You see what I’m saying? Their urgency or sense of priority isn’t the issue you can fix. You need to focus on their actions, because that’s what you can fix (by firing them if they don’t do the work, for example). It’s perfectly possible for them to fix the problem without changing their feelings or thoughts, so that’s why it’s counterproductive to focus on those. It also makes it harder for them to comply if you are saying that they need to change their thoughts or feelings rather than their work behavior.

            Also, since you seem like you might be taking this personally, make sure you aren’t focusing on this obsession as less worthy of a break than anything else. If you let people get up and get a drink or to chat with each other all the time, and this person uses that same amount of time to check these news stories, you would be better off letting it go (unless you want to direct them towards EAP or something).

          5. Anon for this*

            OP, many years ago I was so focused on the 1st “military engagement ” in the Middle East that I was late to work in the morning because I couldn’t rip myself away from the play by play reports on morning news reports (obviously, no internets then).

            I was in the midst of a depressive episode (pretty serious, as it affected my whole life) . If your employee is so consumed by every tragedy that crosses the computer screen, that may be what he is going through as well. He is right: the sky is indeed falling.

            My depressive episode was not caused by watching news reports, but it was exacerbated by it.

            EAP is a great opportunity for him to get some perspective, as well as to be referred to a prescribing MD if necessary.

            I think it should probably be office policy to not have “breaking news notification ” active. Checking the news (and AAM, of course) on breaks should be sufficient for everyone. There is nothing anyone can do able the situation as it unfolds. The news reports at the end of the day will have weeded out a lot of rumor and confusion, and will be much more complete. If family is involved, a worker will surely be notified. There is also evidence that watching the activity over and over again results in your body having the same “emergency!!” response as though it it a new event. Watching the news loop over and over can cause a PTSD like response.

            I hope this is helpful.

            1. OP Writer*

              The phone has been an issue and there isn’t a workplace-wide policy other than don’t let distractions keep you from getting stuff done. I don’t subscribe to anything but local alerts on my work e-mail, and nothing at all on my phone. Considering there’s a TV available for employees I don’t worry about missing out on anything. Some people feel they have to have their smartphone within arm’s reach 24/7 and this report is one of them. I can’t really say “no don’t have your phone with you” but perhaps when there’s “breaking news” just turn it to airplane mode until break or something.

            2. ArtsNerd*

              I’ve obsessed over the news due to depression, as well.

              OP, I realize that tone doesn’t come across well in web comments, but your responses here are coming across to me as judgmental of the employee (phone 24/7, etc.) I’m sure this behavior and its impact on work is exasperating, but please try to keep an empathetic perspective. Everyone interacts with the world differently, and any particular individual’s personal preferences are, in general, neither character flaws nor virtues.

              You should absolutely address the performance issues, but I would strongly recommend against downplaying the horror of these real tragedies.

              1. OP Writer*

                I don’t downplay the horror, but it may seem like it to people who are excessively emotional about these things.

              2. OP Writer*

                p.s. if you think it’s judgmental to say that some people need their phone 24/7 you’re wrong. It’s a fact – there are many people who have their phone with them even in bed and in the bathroom. I was actually saying the opposite – having a phone per se isn’t a problem and many people can keep their phone handy 24/7 without being affected.

      2. MommaTRex*

        I picked up what you were laying down, OP. If someone is “obsessing” about something, I have a hard time thinking they are getting much work done. I’m also assuming that their obsessing is being noticed by others and therefore, probably distracting to others who want to concentrate on work.

    3. Brooke*

      I live/work not far from San Bernardino. I kept the live CNN footage running on one monitor as I worked on the other. I probably would have done the same if the tragedy hadn’t been local; it didn’t affect my productivity and I felt informed as well.

      1. OP Writer*

        It probably depends on the level of concentration your job duties require. There is scientific evidence that “multi-tasking” is a myth.

  2. Lizauthor*

    This is a tough one. Last week I read an article about how to survive a mass shooting. And the fact that we need those articles is so sad. Part of me doesn’t want to brush these events off as “just another tragedy,” but at the same time… work needs to get done. I’m not sure there is a universal answer, but Allison’s suggestions may come the closest.
    Stay safe, everyone.

    1. Momofkings*

      I read an article too and then wandered around my building for a while last week looking for alternative exits and places to hide in my very open office building. I never really gave it a thought as I come in , do my work, go to where I need to go, but never wandered around exploring like others in my department have. Well I was shocked to learn that all the places with regular wooden doors are locked, and there are not good places to hide. I ended up speaking with our unarmed security officer at the front desk about it, who then had his supervisor call me to inform me of the plans they were making to train everyone on dealing with an active shooter situation. Let’s hope the plan gets in place before anything happens (even though the likelihood is remote). I am in the corporate headquarters building with the president of the company.

      Yes, I took work time to do this, but we all need to at least think about it and be away.

      1. SL #2*

        We’ve done multiple natural-disaster drills in my building, but after San Bernardino (we’re only an hour away) and after reading that “how to survive” article, I took the time around my work area, noting places to hide, to barricade myself in… part of me is horrified that this is necessary, part of me would rather be safe because I took 10 mins at work at the beginning of the day to note everything.

        1. Whoops*

          Yeah…I had the same thing happen to me. our workplace is incredibly open plan, so I found myself realizing the other day that my survival would depend on a thirty-foot sprint to the nearest emergency stair, and the path of that sprint takes me across literally the entire field of fire through the office. And then my next thought was…how the hell did my brain get to that process? Is this just how we LIVE now?

      2. fposte*

        Though the walking around for 20 minutes is, in the scheme of the world, likely to have been more beneficial to you than finding a place to hide. We’re still at a lot more risk from being sedentary than we are from somebody shooting us.

        1. fposte*

          That sounds a little like random proselytizing, now that I look at it–what I meant was that the focus on these events does make us feel like they’re likelier than they are, which can ultimately distract us from dealing with the stuff that genuinely is likely. I still love the expert who, after 9/11, was asked what’s the best thing people could do to keep themselves safe, and she said, “Quit smoking.”

          1. ExceptionToTheRule*

            True story, 9/11 caused me to start smoking again. A smoke break was the only way I could get out of the control room and the endless loops of people jumping coming down the sat feeds.

          2. hermit crab*

            I think there is probably a real emotional benefit from just having a plan, too. Even if all it really accomplishes is helping someone worry a little less, that’s still good.

      3. KR*

        I thought the same thing last night. I’m fairly lucky that where I work is relatively secure. The police department is a stones throw away, the walls are 18 in thick concrete post-Civil War construction and I work in a locked office behind a heavy metal door. However, sometimes it seems like the risk of being in an active shooter situation is very real nowadays because of all the news coverage.

      4. Stranger than fiction*

        Hey thanks, I never really thought about an escape plan either but thank god we have tons of doors in this place, like one in every other office, so I guess I’d just run across the hall and out one of those office’s doors.

      5. Elizabeth West*

        I think about it all the time, but not at the expense of getting my work done (like the OP’s employee, not you). I’m also the person who thinks about the zombie apocalypse while queuing somewhere, so YMMV. Now that you mention it, I think I’ll re-run that post about active shooters I did on my other blog and add some “don’t be a paranoid racist f***hole” while I’m at it.

      6. Lizzie*

        Something similar happened with our office a while back. I don’t know who caught this when it happened, but there was a social worker in Vermont who was murdered by a woman whose case she had been handling, and had involved removing the woman’s daughter from the home. We followed it intensely and a lot of us spent time looking at ways to stay safe in the field and how to get out of the office if needed.

        There was a lot of talk of what to do in the field in general then — you don’t expect that as much at DCF which is part of why it was so shocking, but they stepped things up a lot here in my state in response. Our area of the field (working with human trafficking victims and assisting in finding and prosecuting traffickers) could get really nasty very quickly, we’re always talked through the risks of what we do but we didn’t have an exit plan for that. We still don’t have one “on the books” because it takes eternity to do anything like that right now, but we have an unofficial one. It makes me feel marginally better, but I know the odds are stepped up for me just because I work in a more volatile environment if I’m on a field call.

    2. StarHopper*

      As a public school teacher, we have lockdown drills on a regular basis to practice safety during these types of attacks. We lock the door, turn out the lights, and hunker down in a corner away from doors & windows in silence. When a student asked what happens if there is a lockdown while they are in the bathroom, I told them to stand on the toilet and don’t make a sound. A shooter’s goal is to kill as many people as possible before they get taken down. Your goal is to become invisible.

      I’m just glad that I teach high school and my students are able to be rational. One of my colleagues teaches elementary students, and the first lockdown of the year happened while she had her kindergarteners. I can’t imagine having to explain lockdown drills to a five year old.

      It’s sad that this is the world we live in.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Remember to tell them not to clump up! Don’t all hide in the same corner. Disperse!

        Yeah, that’s pretty effed up. When I was a kid, we had tornado drills. And nuclear bomb drills (yes they were still doing this in the 1970s). Except for the tornadoes, the threat was so remote we didn’t really think about it.

      2. get some perspective*

        I certainly think the rate of gun violence is still too high, but the world we live in (at least the US) is not obviously getting worse, at least in terms of actual risk of being shot.

        From a Pew Research Center post in October, using CDC and other stats:

        “The nation’s overall gun death rate has declined 30% since 1993. This total includes homicides and suicides, in addition to a smaller number of fatal police shootings, accidental shooting deaths and those of undetermined intent. For example, in 2013 there were 467 fatal police shootings, up from 333 in 2009. (Government data on fatal police shootings are also collected and reported by the FBI, though the agency acknowledges there are discrepancies between federal and local law enforcement counts.)

        The rate of nonfatal gun victimizations declined in a similar way to the gun death rate, with a large drop in the 1990s – 63% between 1993 and 2000. The decline since then has been more uneven. In 2014, there were 174.8 nonfatal violent gun victimizations per 100,000 people ages 12 and older.

        Despite these trends, most U.S. adults think gun crimes have increased. In our 2013 survey, more than half (56%) of Americans said the number of gun crimes had gone up compared with 20 years ago. Another 26% said the number of gun crimes had remained the same, and just 12% said gun crimes had declined.”

        1. Book Person*

          In terms of “get[ting] some perspective,” however, while gun violence as a whole has declined, the number of mass shootings has increased over the past two years. And because those are in the media more than average gun violence crimes (though I hate to use the word “average” here), it isn’t unreasonable for this to be weighing on people’s minds more when there have been more mass shooting incidents this year than there have been days in the year. When those have increased, it’s harder I think to look at total gun crime statistics.

          What that means for one’s actual risk…I don’t know. I spend most of my year travelling from one university campus to another, as do my colleagues, so yeah, the increased number of mass shootings on them has been weighing heavily on my mind.

          1. get some perspective*

            So we should be about as freaked out as we were, say, three or five years ago I guess. Which to me is not a lot.

        2. Treena*

          I don’t think people are too concerned with general gun violence, but rather mass shootings involving innocent bystanders in public places.

      3. Artemesia*

        I am an old lady and I still remember what it felt like to lie on my stomach on the filthy hall floor breathing dirt and dust with my hands over my neck during ‘nuclear attack’ drills. My little wooden school building was about 6 blocks from the main Boeing plant which presumably would be a target if anything in our area was. Parents were invited to send in sheets that some kids would wrap in to prevent flash burns. Most of us just lay there in our dresses without sheets realizing that we weren’t loved quite enough to merit being protected. Of course the idea that a sheet or a newspaper (remember ‘duck and cover’ TV ads) would protect us against nuclear detonations was strange at best. But 5 years old and I remember the fear and the sense that such attacks were imminent. It lays in a level of terror for little kids that never really goes away.

      4. bibliovore*

        yes, as a former k-8 teacher in NYC our post-911 drills included lock down, inside drills and shooter drills. It is really tough with a class of 5 year olds but you do what ya gotta do. We had a shelter incident at my present position. “man with a gun” 3 hour lock down in a mostly glass building. open plan. Had a meeting after with the security staff. Don’t worry they said ….your building would be low yield.

        For people with PTSD it has been recommended after an initial report, turn off the feed, turn off the news. The full story will come out in the end and there is no need for a play-by-play if there is no immediate threat.

        1. Priorities*

          At a local elementary school, they performed an active shooter drill. The teachers turned the lights out, locked the doors, and gathered the students in the corners, as prescribed. What wasn’t expected: the principal decided to “test” the seriousness of the drill by running up and down the halls, banging on the doors, shouting that the students “better open the door” or there would be dire consequences. The teachers and students had no idea that it was the principal doing this until the drill ended. Of course at that point, everyone was hysterical. Students had nightmares for months after.

          Who the heck thinks THIS is a good way to prepare for trauma?

          1. Lizzie*

            This is so gross and traumatizing. I remember when I was a kid they’d come around and rattle the doors really hard to make sure they’d been secured, but they never yelled at us! I honestly hope the principal was fired.

      5. BananaPants*

        Our kindergartener had a fire drill in the first week of kindergarten followed by a lockdown drill the next day. Bless her teacher for explaining several times beforehand exactly how things would go and having popsicles for the kids as a treat after the all-clear. They kept it pretty vague in explaining it to the kids.

        She said one of the boys in her class got upset and whispered that if anyone talked, they would die. So that afternoon I had to explain to a child who had turned 5 not even a month earlier that the reason they do that drill is because around 45 minutes away, a psycho went to a school with a gun and killed 20 children and 6 teachers. We told her that such horrible events are super rare, but that kids and teachers need to practice what to do if there’s a bad person near or in the school, so that they know how to stay safe until the police arrive. We don’t want to scare her but at the same time she needs to know that both lockdown drills and fire drills are done for very good reasons.

    3. BananaPants*

      We’ve had annual active shooter training at work for the last couple of years; our refresher was just last week. The first time, they brought in our corporate security director (a retired FBI agent) and the local police chief, who showed us a grim video about “Run, Hide, Fight”. Run and Hide weren’t so bad, but Fight basically consists of throwing anything within reach at the shooter, because you’re fighting for your life – and they came out and said that realistically nothing in an office setting is likely to be effective against someone with a gun. We’re engineers and I have things at my desk that would make extremely effective weapons, but that’s still basically club vs. firearm and those aren’t great odds any way you look at it. They also said that officers responding to an active shooter situation will not do anything to help the wounded or allow EMS in until they’re positive the scene is safe and the shooter is neutralized, so if you do get shot you’ll be on your own for a while.

      Depending on where in I am in the building, I know the closest room or closet with an interior door lock. There aren’t many but I scouted them out anyways. There are a couple of other promising hiding places that one could gain access to and then barricade easily. Our building has 24/7 security with some sort of panic alert system and badge swipe access, but something could still happen.

      The one reassuring thing we learned in active shooter training was that over 70% of incidents are over within 5 minutes, and 1/3 are over in under 2 minutes – most of the time either the shooter runs, commits suicide, or is “neutralized”. So if you can survive the initial gunfire and either run or hide for just a few minutes, you have a very good chance of ultimately surviving.

  3. Bowserkitty*

    I agree with everything Alison said, especially with the potential exempt status. It’s also possible they ARE affected.

    About two and a half years ago when that tornado hit Oklahoma, my coworker’s family was directly involved. He had moved to Company State (we’re many states north of OK) and as soon as she finished up her teaching job, she and his son were going to join him. When the tornado hit he was obviously glued to his computer trying to figure things out.

    They were all fine in the end thanks to the day care’s basement, but I know it was a really horrible time for him.

    It sounds like in the case of your employee this might not be a good anecdote considering there are multiple events he is consumed by, but it might be something to think about. :/

    1. Lucky*

      Agreed, I think it’s important to keep in mind that any tragedy can have a personal impact on an employee, even if it takes place hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

      1. Geof*

        Note: I’m not a psychologist – just a long time disaster volunteer and CERT Instructor.

        Four different psychological victims of an incident.

        1- The person who is immediately involved (eg- wounded).
        2- The person who cares for/responds to the incident (eg- Police, Fire, EMS).
        3- The people who care for the responders and the families of the immediately involved. (eg- Family members)
        4- The people who consume information about the incident (eg- News watchers).

        Each of the groups are going to suffer a type of psychological trauma. For the last three on the list it’s called vicarious trauma and it comes from taking the immediately involved person’s feelings and emotions on as their own. It’s a common issue among first responders and disaster volunteers and the stress can overwhelm someone until they are as incapacitated as if they were one of the direct victims.

        Traumatic stress can seriously affect cognitive functions, physical health and relationships (both personal and professional) the extent is different for each person, prior experience with similar incidents, what the incident means to the person personally, how emotionally stable the person is before the incident, and how long it has been since the incident occurred. Help refocus the trauma, get the person involved in helping (give blood, donate time or money to a charity that’s helping the victims), support them by listening to how they feel, empathize (use active listening) with the person and help them know the feelings and fears are acceptable and shared by others in the group. Reconnect this person with natural support systems – professional counseling, religious affiliation support, family, etc.

        If you’re seeing things like Irritability, Isolation, Fear of recurrence, Feeling overwhelmed Depression, Concentration problems, Appetite changes, Nightmares, Fatigue. It could be that you’re suffering from vicarious trauma. In disaster response we usually have a debrief a few days after the operation is completed, It’s a group share session where we talk about that really happened (remove those rumors, which ends a lot of the “what if” factor) Share how we felt when we went in, talk about our emotional reaction, and offer up sources for follow up care for those team members who need more (professional) help.

        1. Stranger than fiction*

          Wow thanks this is really informative. Especially since my first reaction to the letter was that it’s not healthy to obsess on any thing really (like some at my work are obsessed with celebrity gossip news) , but you’ve opened my eyes to the fact there’s a much bigger picture on this subject.

          1. Anon for this*

            Yes, THIS is what I was referring to when I mentioned PTSD like symptoms in my post, above. Thanks, Geof.

        2. eplawyer*

          This why when one of these tragedies happen, I find I have to turn the news off after awhile. I am a news junky so it is hard. But I have to do it to keep from getting depressed/upset/etc.

        3. Anxa*

          I’m familiar with these classifications for disaster response, but I feel like they are better suited to specific instances or targeted trauma.

          I think there’s something to be said about trauma that is both experienced and vicarious when your community or cultural is directly affected by a disaster, but you don’t experience immediate financial or physical damage.

      2. Cath in Canada*

        “I think it’s important to keep in mind that any tragedy can have a personal impact on an employee, even if it takes place hundreds or even thousands of miles away.”

        Agreed – the London bombings in 2005 happened during my first week in my new job (here in Vancouver), and I was kinda bummed that not one single person asked the new hire with the British accent and the BBC live feed running on her computer if everything was OK…

        (luckily my London friends and family were all safe, although one friend was on the next train behind one of the affected trains, and another friend lost two colleagues)

    2. OP Writer*

      Clarification: when I notice him obsessing on a news story I ask if there’s a personal connection. There hasn’t been so far.

      1. Wildkitten*

        Is it helpful for you to be policing when your employee is allowed to be concerned about current events?

        1. BuildMeUp*

          I’m confused by this. It sounds like she’s making sure the employee doesn’t have a personal connection before asking the employee to get back to work instead of putting all his focus on the news. I don’t see that as policing.

        2. JB (not at Houston)*

          That seems unnecessarily hostile. The OP isn’t policing when the employee is “allowed to be concerned.” The employee can be concerned 24 hours a day if it doesn’t affect their work. She’s policing when the employee might be personally affected in a way that she can be ok with letting work slide.

        3. DMC*

          I know online comments can be hard to interpret, but this comment struck me the wrong way. The OP supervises this employee and the OP has indicated the person’s obsession is affecting productivity. I think it’s reasonable to ask people to limit checking in on news sites — it’s easy enough to do so 2-3 times in the workday during normal breaks or even 1-2 times when not on breaks. However, refreshing all day is going to affect productivity. I don’t see asking about a personal connection to be wrong, but overall one could keep that out of it completely and just focus on the productivity issue (of course, if it were me, and I did that and found out the OP’s mother or sister was shot, I’d feel like a jerk, so asking briefly if there’s a personal connection doesn’t seem outrageous). I suppose one could frame it in a neutral way, “I’m not sure if you or your family has been affected personally by this tragedy, but I notice this is affecting your productivity. Do you need some time off?” (assuming time off is something that is doable around this time).

      2. Calla*

        This may not be the case but I think you may be approaching with a narrow definition of level of personal involvement necessary. What I mean is: you don’t have to know someone there or have another direct connection for it to genuinely personally affect you. I have friends who were in NYC during 9/11, and terrorist attacks or mass violence are now genuinely upsetting to them no matter where it is. Maybe there’s no personal connection to THESE events, but maybe he knew someone killed in a mass shooting years ago; that can have a long-lasting traumatic impact on someone. I was near the Boston marathon bombings (not dangerously close, but we could hear police activity from our office) and that absolutely changed how I personally approach responses to mass violence.

        Of course, it’s also possible that he’s just a trauma voyeur letting this impact his work. I just think there’s a lot of nuance in general.

        1. Calla*

          And that’s not to say that even if he DID have that more wider connection/identification to these stories, he should be excused for getting distracted every time it happens. But I do mean we can have more nuance and compassion, and the response should not be “Well you have no personal connection, and this happens all the time, so move on and get to work.”

      3. Artemesia*

        When it isn’t about him and yet he makes it an excuse not to work repeatedly, I have a lot less sympathy than most of the responders here. Some people enjoy suffering at a distance, do we really want to encourage this once it is clear that he isn’t personally involved but enjoys being part of the drama and uses it as an excuse not to work? Maybe offering to let him use his vacation time to go home if he can’t work would encourage him to get a grip.

        1. OP Writer*

          Especially considering it’s not the workplace norm. If everyone were glued to the lounge television or talking about events, I’d be picking on one employee. But the employee is the exception not the rule, and wants to make this exception for every news item. After one of these events I did ask some probing questions (delicately!) about why it seemed so upsetting. This employee seemed to be upset by the news itself, feeling almost a sense of patriotic duty to be upset, rather than any kind of triggering from past trauma, or anxiety disorder, etc. I have suggested time off or EAP, and when it comes to personal investment (his time rather than employer’s work time) he declines. I don’t feel I can go beyond that in terms of mental illness. I can’t diagnose or treat, I can only set a standard and communicate it.

    3. BananaPants*

      On a general note it’s possible for an employee to be personally effected by a shooting, terrorist attack, or natural disaster even if not located nearby. We live nearly an hour from Newtown, but as it turned out we have two direct personal connections to the tragedy at Sandy Hook and several indirect connections. In several other natural disasters and shootings we’ve been checking to make sure friends and family were not affected. You’d better believe that if our older child’s school is on lockdown, or if there are news reports coming in about a hostage situation near our younger child’s daycare, I’m not going to say to myself, “Surely someone would call if my kid was affected”, close the browser window to the local news website, and go on with my workday!

      I’m not saying that this is the case for this employee, but in general I think managers need to be sensitive to the fact that employees may be affected by tragedies in ways that may not be immediately obvious.

      1. OP Writer*

        It’s very unlikely that someone would have that kind of connection to every tragedy that makes the news, though. I wrote about a pattern not a single instance.

        1. Brooke*

          I don’t agree that it’s “unlikely” to have a connection with multiple recent tragedies. Like many, my dearest family and friends are scattered around the globe. Just recently, one of my close friends was in Paris during those recent attacks and I live/work near San Bernardino.

  4. NYC Redhead*

    The OP also doesn’t mention the impact on other employees, but if he is reading the deadline out loud or announcing the ongoing news, that can be both distracting and upsetting for others to have to hear.

    1. fposte*

      Yeah, I agree–that’s what concerned me. If his manager knows, it’s certainly possible it’s happening in a way that involves his co-workers, too.

    2. Not me*

      I also wondered about that. Particularly if someone had a more personal connection to an event than he did. (I’ve been there. It sucked.) Without that, it’s still a huge distraction.

    3. Karowen*

      I have a co-worker that practically revels in this – and then uses it as a great time to start talking about his xenophobic world views.

      But even so, my problem is that he won’t stop talking, not that he’s paying attention to it on his own.

    4. Green*

      We have an assistant who does this in open space. It’s sometimes helpful the first time (alerting people that it’s happening so they can quietly follow updates), but really distracting when there are updates every few minutes. After the heads up, I can monitor it quietly on my own.

      1. OP Writer*

        That is kind of the concern – news trickles out over time and this employee really thinks it’s important to follow that flow. Waiting for the 6:00 news or checking nytimes.com during his break is too much of a delay of gratification for him. Other people don’t seem as concerned with it.

        1. Sadsack*

          Is your employee calling out updates as the day goes on? I could see that being a distraction for coworkers.

        2. Green*

          Checking the updated NYT story with a few additional sentences isn’t much of an issue for most salaried employees, and I do this when there’s something that interests me (i.e., refreshing all day waiting for gay marriage cases to come out), but calling others’ attention to it (and the ensuing conversation) is more problematic.

          1. BananaPants*

            Yes, that is a problem – if it goes to the extent of calling out updates to coworkers trying to get things done then it’s gone too far!

    5. Bwmn*

      This is what came to mind for me – in our office we have a relatively infrequent response to such news events – but there are definitely a few of us who will speak up and say “this just came up on my news feed”. And then instead of it being one person following the story, a few people start digging around to see what happened.

      If it’s a case of not just obsessively tracking such stories personally, but also then sharing a lot of that news (and thus involving more than one employee in the distraction) – then that may also be an easier way to focus on the discussion with the employee.

    6. Stranger than fiction*

      That’s where I thought the letter was going at first, like the employee is distracting others with constant water cooler talk or something.

    7. INTP*

      Yes – especially if he has some sort of cable news channel on where they tend to spend *maybe* 5 minutes of every hour delivering actual breaking news and the rest having random “experts” argue about inflammatory political topics obliquely related to the tragedy at hand like gun control or refugees.

    8. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

      I worked with someone like this. They were a tragedy junkie and it would weigh the entire department down.

      There was a local kidnapping of two young girls, and she yelled at another coworker who dared ask for something that was due saying something akin to “how do you expect me to work when this is happening.” She would also holler out updates as though she was CNN’s twitter feed. It was distracting and difficult to work anywhere near her.

      During Newton we had a meeting where she was supposed to be co-leading and we found her in the breakroom watching tv. That particular incident rubbed several people the wrong way, especially those with elementary school age kids, who were in attendance.

      She would obsess over every new story and most of the time that meant her work shifted to other people or if you needed something she had to do, you never knew if you were going to get it.

    9. Elizabeth the Ginger*

      Yes. This could be a way to approach it with the employee, also – calling on his compassion for others. I have been at work for several major tragedies, including the Sandy Hook shootings which hit me very hard as I am a teacher. I found that although I was at first drawn to getting the latest information ASAP, I then realized that to keep myself from sinking into overwhelming sadness I had to set it aside while I was at work and go on as if everything was normal. Then at the end of the day I could read about it and feel a big wave of sadness all at once. It would have been very hard to have a coworker nearby checking the news constantly – I wouldn’t have been able to take care of myself properly.

      1. OP Writer*

        I agree that it’s bad for mental health to spend too much time on these things. Some people really don’t have that insight into how they are making their own lives worse. It’s sad to watch them watching the news!

  5. alter_ego*

    I work in downtown boston, so during the Boston Marathon bombing a couple of years ago, the office did close early and we all got sent home. But other than that, these tragedies haven’t impacted our work. Someone will comment when something happens, and I’m sure if someone had a personal connection to someone involved, they would be allowed to go home. But while a tragedy in Colorado or something is obviously a tragedy, it’s also unlikely to affect us in the moment.

    We did have a bomb squad down the street last week due to a suspicious suitcase that they ended up having to blow up in a controlled blast. It wasn’t anything, but it was a couple of hours before we knew for sure. We had the news on the TV in the break room, and people would wander in and out as they wanted, but other than that, there wasn’t much we could do about it, so we didn’t really stop to worry about it.

    Which probably seems super callous, now that I’ve written it out, but there’s so many tragedies (more mass shootings in 2015 than there are days!) it just seems impossible to treat every tragedy with the gravity it deserves.

    1. miki*

      Sounds like you’re in Pgh:) I saw that on fb feed via friend’s comment (I used to live there) Do you know was the person formally charged for anything in connection to the chaining the suitcase to the railing??? I mean, who does this on the way to doctor’s office???

      1. alter_ego*

        PGH? I’m in the seaport district, by the world trade center. I don’t actually know much beyond the info that was out there when our building sent us an email to let us know something was going on. Since it wasn’t actually a bomb, I haven’t bothered to follow up, though it is an incredibly weird thing to do.

        1. miki*

          Sorry, it sounded so much like the incident in Oakland (Pgh)http://www.wpxi.com/news/news/local/breaking-bomb-squad-called-downtown-pittsburgh/npcWZ/ , that’s why I thought you’re in Pgh…

    2. MashaKasha*

      I worked at a place in 2001 where everyone missed 9/11 because everyone was buried in work and no one was checking the news. Only way I found out was because I tried to call in my expense report that day, and the number I had to call kept disconnecting. I called customer support and a CSR told me, “oh that’s because that center is in New York, and they’re closed right now because a plane flew into a building” and I still had no idea what had happened! She said it so matter-of-factly, I thought maybe a private plane had accidentally hit that office building.

      Of course, eventually people found out and no one was able to really do any work for the rest of the week.

      All other tragedies, all other jobs, have pretty much gone unnoticed. Which makes sense to me. If you (a generic “you”) are doing something that is your top priority, like, for instance, you’re driving your sick child to a doctor’s appointment and an announcement comes up on the news about a mass shooting halfway across the country, that is, like you said, unlikely to affect you at the moment. Would you stop driving because you need to process that tragedy? I think having the same approach to work, as callous as it sounds, also makes sense.

      1. alter_ego*

        I grew up in NJ just outside of NY, and I was in middle school when 9/11 happened. The school actually decided not to tell us about it at all. In hindsight, I can tell something must have been wrong, teachers were coming going in and out of each other’s classrooms and having quiet conversations, but at the time, I didn’t really notice (and if I’d had, of course, I’m sure whatever conclusion I drew would have been wrong). I didn’t find out until I got home from school on the bus and called my mom like I always did to let her know I got home okay. She was pretty upset that they didn’t tell me, but I get it. We were close enough to the city that a lot of my classmates parents worked in manhattan. What good would telling them do though? phone lines were completely down, they wouldn’t have been able to call their parents, and a middle school full of panicked 11-13 year olds who can’t get in touch with their parents is probably not a great plan.

        1. OriginalEmma*

          I lived in NJ, could see the skyline from my house, and was a freshman in HS when 9/11 happened. The admin tried to keep it quiet but with so many students having parents working in NYC, they had to announce it. We had a staggered early dismissal that day.

          1. Anxa*

            We watched it on TV, but students were pulled out of class as the day went on if their family had been injured or killed.

    3. KR*

      I remember driving around going to work and such while the shooters were on the loose and not being able to turn off the radio. All the news stations, the police reports, everyone theorized that if he could get out of the immediate Boston area, he would go to New Hampshire (where I was). I went to work and class but you could tell it was weighing heavily on everyone’s mind.

      1. Rita*

        Oh yeah, that day a few days after the Marathon bombing when Boston was shut down and they didn’t know where he was? I definitely had the news on in the background and was checking every few minutes for updates, even though I’m in Central MA. But I still got my work done that day.

    4. Elizabeth West*

      No, that’s not callous. It’s your brain. A couple of years ago, Cracked did an article about the “monkeysphere”–the bubble around you where you actually know or are acquainted with folks–and they talked about how many people a single person can reasonably expend emotional effort on. For most people, it’s around 150*, the amount that exists in the average monkeysphere. I may not be recalling it correctly, but I think they said something about this being why most people can say, “Oh that’s terrible,” but not dwell on it when something happens to those who are far outside their monkeysphere.

      Of course, if a person has past trauma, that’s going to change the way they react to those incidents, especially if they closely resemble whatever caused the trauma.

      *You might google it; I can’t look it up to confirm because Cracked is blocked here as “tasteless,” LOL. (But Buzzfeed is not–go figure!)

    5. OP Writer*

      My employee is from a small town & I am from a big city, so perhaps there is a difference of perspective. City people deal with threat analysis almost instinctively, and have actual threats to deal with rather than those that are mainly in the imagination. Growing up, if something happened on the other side of town –> *shrug* but down the street –> *eek! is Pauline Teapot okay?*

      1. alter_ego*

        That’s a good point, and it may make a difference. I didn’t grow up in a city, but I did grow up very close to new york, and I was 11 when 9/11 happened. I can’t imagine that it didn’t have at least some affect on how I see the world and respond to things now as an adult. Now that I work in a major city, there’s just no way to worry about every little thing. I don’t have the emotional bandwidth to care about it, and I can’t have my life come to a screeching halt because I’m scared of a statistical almost impossibility.

        1. OP Writer*

          Yeah, city people are supposedly “cold” but we would get compassion fatigue in less than a week if we took everything personally.

      2. Tara R.*

        I would be really upset if I were the employee and you came at me with this attitude. Stick to the facts about his work, not attacking his small town perspective and implying he’s silly for being upset by horrible things that lots and lots of people are upset by.

        1. OP Writer*

          I don’t “come at” someone with attitude. I ask if there’s a personal connection, then remind him there’s work to be done and the news will still be covering the situation when it’s break time. I also offer him the opportunity to take a break or take time off if it’s really upsetting. I didn’t say anything about calling him a hick, just wondering (here!) if being from a small town affects his perspective. Sheesh.

  6. The Artist Formally Known As UKAnon*

    I think this is something that you may find could be managed in the office. I know most office jobs I’ve worked, somebody will say there’s been a big piece of news, and it makes it way round by word of mouth, then somebody else shares an update and so on, and so no one person is spending all that much time on it.

    I also think that you need to be careful that this doesn’t risk politicising the workplace. It just takes one person saying “This is why we need more guns!” or “This is why we have to ban guns!” and whole teams could fall apart (recently, see also: racist remarks, etc)

    So, I think that there are good reasons outside productivity for maybe trying to control this a bit more, but I also agree with Alison that you need at the same time to be sensitive to individual reactions/possible ‘involvement’ (word has completely gone – sorry – for eg if they have family in the area)

    1. Mike C.*

      I don’t think someone is being “political” when they tell someone else to stop spouting racist or bigoted comments. I see where you’re going with other policy issues, but I’m sure you’ll agree that if someone is spouting off about members of certain religious or ethnic groups that it needs to stop right then and there.

      1. Kelly L.*

        Agreed. While other issues do sometimes have hidden racial issues within them, I think there’s a standard of “decent political discourse,” and it doesn’t include slurs and hate speech.

      2. The Artist Formally Known As UKAnon*

        Ah sorry – not to stop spouting them, no. I was thinking more hostile workplace/discrimination claims if somebody starts attributing shootings or making racist comments about those they think might have done it (as somebody above says a coworker does)

      3. Green*

        Some presidential candidates have people confused. Just because it’s a presidential race platform plank doesn’t mean you can say it in the office.

        1. alter_ego*

          Someone should definitely mention that to my coworker who just said “Trump is just saying what we all really think”

          1. Green*

            I will! I’d tell them that they can think whatever they want, but they need to keep that to themselves because we don’t support any discrimination on the basis of religion, race, etc. at our company.

    2. Stranger than fiction*

      I see what you mean. It’s hard to talk about these things with coworkers without stating your political opinions on gun laws etc

  7. Anon9999*

    I can personally remember working in an office setting the day of the Boston bombing, and my family has very close connection to the Boston region (not to mention I was to be married in the region and traveling through there the following week). I think what is important to note to your employees is while you empathize with the desire to follow an event that unfortunately most of the time deadlines still exist. I personally was able to LISTEN (not watch) to the news feed that horrible day in Boston while still writing my reports, doing research, etc. which allowed me to both follow something very personal to me, but also allowed me to remain generally on task. Perhaps suggesting to the specific employee that he/she could do such a thing? Plenty of employees listen to personal music throughout the day, and so long as it is quiet or on headphones, etc. I don’t think it would be unreasonable to allow them to stay informed while also, of course, helping them to stay on task while at work.

    I completely echo Alison’s comments that if a particular employee is not able to focus because of the personal connection/gravity of the situation/(insert reason here) that finding a way to excuse them for the day would be preferable, but of course that is a case by case situation.

    1. OP Writer*

      I have offered him the option of taking the rest of the day off if he’s really upset but he doesn’t do it.

      1. College Career Counselor*

        If he’s not getting any work done, then can you insist he take time off? Or alternatively (and I am mindful of what others have said about being sensitive), that he attempt to re-focus?

        1. Rana*

          Yeah, it seems like he’s trying to have it both ways – he’s too upset by it to stop following the news and turn his focus to his work, but he’s not upset enough to go home. Either he’s capable of working productively during a crisis like this, or he’s not. If he is, then he should ration his news-following. If he’s not, he should go home.

          This could be framed in a caring way, if you think it would get more traction. “Wakeen, this event seems like it’s really troubling you, to the point that it’s distracting you from your work. I want you to take the rest of the afternoon off, because I feel terrible about expecting you to maintain normal workloads when you’re clearly unable to focus at this time.”

          If he pushes back with an, “Oh, no, I’m fine, really, I can do my work” response, then you can say something like “Really? Are you sure? Okay, then, I need to have X, Y, and Z finished by the end of day today.” And then check in to make sure he’s doing it. (I don’t think a vague “I need you to work as productively as usual” will work – you need measurable outcomes.)

  8. Rayner*

    I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect employees who are not personally involved in the particular tragedy at hand to continue working. Maybe cutting a little more slack regarding checking of news websites but certainly not leaving early or no longer working.

    Unfortunately and very sadly, we live in a world where mass shootings, terrorism, and reciprocal bombing by military forces are unfortunately becoming very common. I feel like it’s unreasonable for a business to allow people to down tools and sit glued to the media every time something bad happens because there is so much of it. Life goes on. That’s how it works, these days. His not working neither helps nor betters the situation where the tragedy is happening.

    Three weeks ago, during the Paris attacks, I was in London. It shocked me. It made me terrified because it was thought London was next on the list. There were armed guards everywhere. But people still went to work. They still functioned as employees on Saturday, for example, and Paris is to us not all that far away. People kept an eye on the news, and there was a lot of discussion around the water cooler kind of thing but it wasn’t so all consuming nobody could do anything. Same with the Charlie Hebdo attacks earlier this year.

    Does the coworker do this for natural disasters, like fire in California, or hurricanes? Or just where death is violent or ‘terrorism’ is invoked as the boogie man of the hour? Has he considered seeing a professional about this because its not normal.

    1. OP Writer*

      Some natural disasters, or impending weather, but mainly violence. Most weather stories are somewhat predicted, unlike random unexpected acts of violence. I think it’s more a matter of news media grabbing his attention and him being reactive to it and being sucked in. Natural disasters don’t get 24/7 news coverage in the same way, though there hasn’t been a big quake in the U.S. since I’ve been supervising him so I don’t know how that would impact work.

  9. Roscoe*

    I think the problem is what YOU think is a special case where its “valid” to follow these things, isn’t necessarily their opinion. When the Sandy Hook shooting happened, it would probably affect a parent more than a non-parent. If someone has family in the military, than one of the military base shootings may hit home more. So because of that, its pretty hard to judge how someone should react to this.

    Plus, as has been mentioned, you say nothing of this person’s productivity. Is it actually going down, or do you just not like that they are monitoring this? Those things make a huge difference.

    1. LBK*

      I think you’re right that there’s a danger of deciding on someone’s behalf whether they should be affected by a certain event. It’s not always about whether there’s actual risk for you or your loved ones and that’s kind of a callous bar by which to measure how sad you should feel about an attack.

      That said, though, I think there needs to be a balance, and I don’t think this is the same as normal workplace productivity concerns because there’s a heightened emotional element. I just have a really hard time believing someone who seems so obsessed with these events will be able to flip that switch effectively and actually focus back on their work in the way that someone who takes a break to casually text or check AAM would.

      1. Roscoe*

        True. It also depends on what the actual job is. If you are doing something numbers related, I would guess that would be easier to just turn off and get back to than if you had to talk to people on the phone.

      2. KR*

        I agree with you. Having a significant other in US infantry forces, hearing about these terror attacks are frightening to me because it tells me that my partner has a greater chance of going overseas. Someone else may hear about the San Bernadino attack and it might hit home for them because they have a cousin who works in the public health department, or the Boston bombing might hit home if you have a friend who likes to run marathons. We can’t really police others reactions to these tragedies.

        1. LBK*

          Or even just the nature of the attack – there was something particularly terrifying to me about the reporter who was shot while on air but that’s obviously no less scary than being shot at school or at church or at the office. There was just some kind of dystopian Black Mirror element of it being broadcast live and then the shooter tweeting a POV video of it that shook me.

      3. JessaB*

        Honestly, it’s not whether they’re affected by the event, but whether they can continue working or are doing their job properly WHILE being affected.

    2. MashaKasha*

      I will hazard a guess that, if the person’s productivity was not going down during these events, OP would not have noticed, or phrased it as the person “kind of obsessing” over the events, or “dropping everything to follow” them. Of course, I’m not there, so I could be way off with my guess.

      1. OP Writer*

        That’s what I mean. Reading the occasional news alert or pausing for a moment in front of the lounge TV would not be a problem.

    3. Bwmn*

      While I think evaluating the impact of a story would be impossible – I do think it’s possible to try to curb sharing “not local” events with other staff. While you may know a coworker is a veteran/has family in the military – that does not necessarily mean you should immediately tell them after getting a news alert about a military base shooting (unless you happen to know specifically that’s a base where they have family working).

      In our office, when the news of Supreme Court gay marriage ruling came down – a number of staff were mutually distracted in sharing news stories back and forth. If this was happening regularly and largely being instigated by one employee – then it would be very fair to speak up and say “you seem to be able to balance productivity with checking the news and doing your work, but when you start sharing – the overall office productivity and attention becomes distracted”.

    4. OP Writer*

      I was asking for a sense of whats normal or customary. Other people in the workplace don ‘t seem consumed by these things (I like Alison’s wording!)

      I clarified in a separate post that productivity is an issue. When there is work to be done, dropping everything and watching TV or obsessively checking online news has an impact.

      1. Bwmn*

        I think it definitely sounds like a problem and not the norm. But this also sounds like a case where just because many offices allow Facebook/personal internet usage – it can also end up being abused to a point where an intervention needs to occur.

        OP, I think you’re best served not trying to distinguish an event that is or is not worth being concerned by – but rather specific behaviors that have become distracting. Things like requesting that at work all smartphone alerts be on mute and without vibrate or that the television can only be turned on with the supervisor’s approval.

        1. OP Writer*

          I respond to the employee’s behavior in the context of our workplace, and I only mentioned 9/11 because it was such an exceptional situation.

      2. Elizabeth West*

        It’s really not uncommon for big news to stop things for a second. At my work, people check websites a lot while waiting for calls, etc. and if something happens, someone will usually say “Hey, X just happened at Y.” But unless it’s something like “Holy shit, everybody take cover NOW!” they simply mention it, maybe chat about it a little, and then go back to whatever they were doing.

      3. BananaPants*

        We don’t have a TV in my workplace, and most of us are salaried so keeping a close eye on news sites for an afternoon while continuing to work is not of the world in the grand scheme of things. From what you’ve said in the thread I believe your employee’s reaction is disproportionate, especially when it happens with EVERY tragedy that hits the news.

        Aound my workplace when major news breaks, people will comment to each other briefly and folks may spend a little more time than usual on news sites, but it doesn’t derail the work of the office for hours. The day of the Boston marathon bombing we had several employees running and there was quite a bit of news site refreshing and passing the word when we heard that our colleagues were safe. Likewise, for the Sandy Hook shooting there was a lot of news site refreshing, personal phone calls, and conversations when someone heard something, but people kept working – productivity was down but not at a dead stop. I know I was pretty useless once the scope of what happened became obvious and I started getting word of personal connections to the tragedy. Having to go to meetings and get a few things done that afternoon was actually helpful for me because I was incredibly tempted to leave work and go to daycare and pick up our daughter and never let her out of my sight again (I also happened to be 12 weeks pregnant with our second child and was very hormonal/emotional).

  10. Sandy*

    Oh. I have a ton of thoughts on this subject. Regular readers will know that I work in a war zone, so I am very familiar with this kind of issue. Hopefully some of the strategies I have developed can be adapted for someone else’s use.

    -acknowledge the incident(s). It can be as formal as saying something at the beginning of a staff meeting or popping your head into the employee’s office to see how they are doing, but really any kind of acknowledgement is better than none at all.

    -consider ways that you can bring people together in a non-awkward way while reinforcing boundaries. For my staff, I find that so much of the time that the impulse you mention in your letter kicks in, it’s because they are craving *connection* and they aren’t getting it from endless replays of dramatic footage and constant social media chatter. So when people are standing around over coffee or the water cooler chatting about it, I don’t rush them out the door. Ditto for when people gather in my assistant’s office to watch a particularly dramatic scene play out on the news. By allowing them that connection and space, I find they tend to self-regulate better the rest of the day.

    -this is obviously field-dependent, but see if you can find options for engagement. That same impulse kicks in with my staff when they are feeling helpless. If I can frame their work in such as a way that makes them feel like they are *doing something*, that motivates them to get back on course more quickly.

    -recognize that everybody processes (and frankly, ranks) tragedy differently. I was glued to the TV for Columbine, my mum for 9/11, my assistant for the shooting of a teenager. It’s not always rational, and size and scope doesn’t necessarily play in. It really comes down to what speaks to your fears. Guide your comments to your staff accordingly. Acknowledge, establish boundaries, try to refocus, and try to be sensitive with your choice of words.

    1. Anonicorn*

      Thank you for this. I spent the first workday after the Paris attacks wondering why nobody so much as mentioned it. That extreme seemed just as strange to me as someone obsessing over it would.

      1. Windchime*

        If I’m your coworker, wouldn’t have mentioned it because I didn’t know about it. I was driving home in my car and listening to NPR before I heard about it. I don’t browse news sites during the day at work; it makes it too hard for me to focus.

    2. LPBB*

      I really like the last point that you made. Out of all of the high profile mass shootings this past year, the one that affected me the most was probably the one that got the least coverage — the two journalists in Virginia. I was an emotional wreck that day, constantly checked for updates, and was hardly able to work (thankfully I work from home and just took a few hours off until I was able concentrate again), while most people probably weren’t even aware of it or just shrugged because it was seemingly so small in comparison to all the other events this year. I responded that way because I was actually the victim of random (but not workplace) gun violence many years ago and there were enough similarities between the two situations that it stirred up some long dormant PTSD.

      Apparently this guy doesn’t have a similar issue, but just because an event is far away, physically and emotionally, from you* doesn’t mean that it’s that way for everybody.

      *I’m using the general You here, not specifically directing it to the LW

      1. A grad student*

        I’m about half an hour away from where that happened (Virginia Tech), and it was completely bizarre to me how little it got mentioned even here. A couple of news stories and some short comments on the radio, but that was all. We’re in a pretty isolated area, and it was like- this is the scariest local thing to have happened since the massacre, and nobody’s talking about it? It’s a little scary how desensitized the world has become.

    3. OP Writer*

      It would be different if only one news situation grabbed this employee’s attention, but that’s not the case. They all do.

      1. Log Lady*

        Does he mention these news situations in between times when they happen? Like, is he dwelling on them when he’s not getting notifications about one?

  11. Snarkus Aurelius*

    As someone who works with the media for a living, trends such as these really tick me off.  Yes tragedies happen, but most of the time, media literally do not KNOW anything more than what has already occurred.  (That’s why it’s called a developing story!)  So instead of reporting, reporters, commentators and so-called “experts” have to fill the time with speculation and conjecture until something new happens.  (Think of a college student trying to BS his way through an oral exam.)

    What I wish people like my mother and the coworker in this letter would realizes is that THAT is all the “news” really is until a new detail unfolds.  Even then, that new detail could prove to be false.  The problem is all that speculating ramps up anxiety and fear even if the event is thousands of miles away.

    I’ve long ago given up trying to remind people of this fact, but I do try to make sure that I’m using the news to stay informed instead of manipulated into thinking WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE RIGHT NOW!

    1. Mike C.*

      Heh, the first thing I was thinking was, “Ugh, an American basic cable news source? Those folks just hype everything up and spread the most ridiculous rumors for raw ratings”. Or they commit B&E on live tv, that was rather special.

      There was something I saw on NPR’s page regarding the story that felt, well, incredibly responsible: “This is a developing story. Some things that get reported by the media will later turn out to be wrong. We will focus on reports from police officials and other authorities, credible news outlets and reporters who are at the scene. We will update as the situation develops.“. This is unlike others who were passing around the misspelled name of Turkey’s leader as a possible suspect.

      I have to follow huge breaking stories sometimes because when things go wrong in my industry (aerospace), everyone is reporting on it. I stick to more sober (boring) sources like NPR, BBC, AJAM or the Guardian (and other major newspapers) and their live blogs. Those folks for the most part seem willing to take a breath before saying something. Or you can be like CNN and talk about black holes over the Indian Ocean.

      1. fposte*

        What also creeps me out is that there’s some decent analysis that bigtime news coverage makes a subsequent event more likely–not simply in copycat or attention-getting way, just in establishing the possibility of such an act. It’s not realistic to expect the news media to follow the Charlie Brooker idea of total silence about such events, but I still wish they would.

        1. Mike C.*

          Yeah, the huge focus on perpetrators (including name and whatnot) is really, really bad. I remember when there was that shooting in Oregon a few weeks back the police were very careful about not giving the name and as he was doing it the news was like, “F*** him, we’re going to give you the name anyway”.

          1. Kelly L.*

            Yep. And IIRC, both the San Bernadino shooter and the Sandy Hook shooter were initially mistaken for their brothers.

            1. Kelly L.*

              Oh yeah, and there was a really tragic case of mistaken identity with the Atlanta bombing too. Wrong guy was just hounded.

              1. Violetta*

                Yikes. That happened here – A really high profile hit-and-run in which a little girl was killed got a ton of media attention, the police/media pulled a photo off facebook of the suspect which was on every front page for DAYS, and it turned out to be some guy with the same name living in a different country. No one apologized.

          2. plain_jane*

            And sometimes it is by mistake, and sometimes it is because a malicious group has decided to get in on the action and photoshopped an unrelated person who they dislike and get that passed around as one of the perpetrators. (The one I’m thinking about was the Paris attacks, but I’m sure it has happened before)

      2. Natalie*

        My hunch is that being the network that broadcasts On The Media basically shamed them into this. OTM has had great coverage of how poorly the media handles these kind of breaking news stories and has definitely called out NPR before.

        1. Mike C.*

          OTM is one of the best shows out there on the radio. Their “breaking news guides” are rather amazing.

    2. Xanthippe Lannister Voorhees*

      THAT is what bothers me with minute-by-minute tragedy watchers, and the way our news is framed in general. I will never judge anyone for caring about a world event, even if I can’t see the connection for them, but I am NOT here for people spouting off misinformation and making assumptions when they have no other information than “event happened”

    3. Sunflower*

      I totally agree!! I started leaving MSNBC on in the background right around the Michael Brown shooting. I remember being shocked how they talked about it all day long yet nothing had changed, no new information had been discovered. I also remember being totally engrossed in the Boston Bombing and following it completely on Twitter. The amount of misinformation that ended up getting out there. I remember a student had gone missing, he fit the description of the suspect and people were going NUTS. Writing hate speech on a FB page looking to find him, basically trying to be the police themselves. Of course, he had nothing to do with it and sadly, as the family expected, he had committed suicide before the incident.

      All it takes now is 1 tweet for shiat to go totally haywire and people to start freaking out.

      1. Rayner*

        Or Reddit’s attempt to find the bomber which got the completely wrong person identified. Sometimes, it’s best to let the police get on with it.

        1. Kelly L.*

          Yup. It pisses me right off when people draw a hasty conclusion, or want a hasty conclusion drawn, when we don’t know much yet. I’d rather take longer and get it right.

          1. AnonAnalyst*

            I remember watching one of the news conferences last week the evening of the San Bernardino shooting where several reporters actually sounded angry that the police wouldn’t confirm all of the details they had decided they knew or the wild speculation they had been doing for hours about the story. I couldn’t decide if I should be amused or horrified that they seemed to care little about actually making sure the information was correct, rather than just getting it fast.

            1. KR*

              Or when they were interviewing the police department rep and asking her these questions, and she literally at one point said, “This is happening right now. I don’t know yet, we have to catch these guys.”

              1. AnonAnalyst*

                Yes! That may have been the same one, or maybe she might have said it again during the news conference I saw. Most of the questions were things that would have required more of an investigation anyway, so frankly, it was pretty ridiculous that they were even asking them hours after the event started and when they still weren’t even sure if all of the suspects were accounted for.

              2. Kelly L.*

                I loved her! She finally just said “We don’t have that information yet! I’m only talking to you because we promised I’d talk to you at 5:15!”

    4. Tomato Frog*

      My grandmother said, in the 1950s or 60s, that after a big story breaks you should turn the radio off for at least 6 hours because there won’t be any new information before then. Even in the internet age I find this advice still holds. Actually 6 hours is probably a gross under-estimation.

      1. Natalie*

        This really hit home for me on 9/11 – school was cancelled so my friend and I spent the day playing cribbage at a coffee shop that had turned on CNN, and it was almost annoying how repetitive the news loop was. They had nothing to say! But damn, they sure were bent on saying the same nothing over and over and over again.

        1. Rana*

          Yeah, I’ve noticed similar things when I have radio news on for more than a couple of hours (like if I’m on a road trip or something). It’s just a ton of repetition – they need to fill the time in case a new listener comes on – so even if something big does happen, you don’t really have to worry about staying tuned in constantly to learn about it. It will be mentioned again. And again. And again…

      2. Dynamic Beige*

        On 9/11, I was on the phone with someone who told me that there had been a plane crash. I turned on the TV in time to see the 2nd plane hit. It didn’t seem real, like I’d tuned into a movie. I watched the coverage for about an hour… but I had work to do so I turned the TV off and listened to iTunes for the rest of the day — I did not want to see or hear any of it as I knew it would only upset me and it was going to be repeated wild speculation and looping footage. I have never regretted that decision. Life sucks. There’s nothing we can do to stop bad things from happening and sometimes, the only thing you can do for your mental well-being is to shut it off and walk away.

    5. DMC*

      Thank you! Yes, it’s one of the things that bugs me a LOT, so much that I have actually stopped watching news on television completely. I get my news from the Internet almost exclusively so I can click on what interests me and see the updates in the headlines as they come along (Google News, etc.). I don’t have to listen to a bunch of supposed know-it-alls who actually know nothing much at all about an event spout conjecture until more facts come up (which basically just serves to inflame people and make a bad situation all that worse).

    6. OP Writer*

      Exactly! Keeping the viewer/reader emotionally engaged and breathlessly waiting for the next tidbit benefits advertisers, not the viewer or reader.

    7. INTP*

      Yes! It is physically and emotionally draining to me to pay attention to most cable news (especially Fox) because it’s maybe 5% news and the rest is just people arguing about an inflammatory topic or gleefully relishing the opportunity to say racist things.

    8. Stranger than fiction*

      Right?! While I get that it can be traumatic for people, and I need to remind myself to be more sensitive to that, it’s so true that in a day there’s actually may be very little new details to report so to listen to the news of the same stuff play over and over all day doesn’t seem like it would be helpful to anyone.

    9. Elizabeth West*

      I hate that. I check the updates, and if it’s all speculation, I just ignore it until they have something from an actual source to report. Pundits make me want to scream.

      1. Rana*

        Me too. I always feel like I’m being treated like an idiot incapable of handling a complex story. (And I have my doubts that they themselves are capable of understanding one.)

  12. RKB*

    I was at work the night of the Paris attacks and we all followed along pretty intensely. It’s in a customer service position so we even had patrons commiserate and discuss with us.

    If it doesn’t affect their job, then I really don’t believe it’s an issue. Some people like being on top of things news-wise (I know I do.) Other people might be shaken and hoping for closure or motives. For others, it may hit close to home. Paris is 8,000 miles away from me, but I spent a spring break there and loved the city – so yes, I felt a personal connection. You never know what people may experience the moment that news breaks.

    I think these topics are way different than “Hermione, please stop watching cat videos.” There’s no harm in wondering what’s going on with your fellow humans. I would hope, God forbid, if something terrible like this happened in my city, the world would care just as much as I did.

      1. SandrineSmiles (France)*

        I will say, then, being from Paris myself and my Dad having his apartment near the events… Your employee should stop following the news at work, period. Especially if it’s not personal.

        It sounds like a bizarre addiction and I can understand empathy, but with this comment you’re adding, it just sounds… okay, call me cynical, but it sounds like an excuse to focus on something other than work.

        Now that I’ve written it, it seems like a horrible thought to have. Especially since the statistics in the US are… well… even more depressing than I care to write about right now. But yeah.

        *my heart goes out to all the US and non-US families who suffer every day because of violence and stupidity :( *

        1. OP Writer*

          I have suggested turning off his phone or unsubscribing to alerts, but this person believes it’s important to “be informed.” After thinking about it during the day today I think addiction is a good description.

  13. Allison*

    I remember being really shaken by the Boston Marathon bombing, and while it didn’t directly impact my ability to get work done, it did impact my mood at work, which affected how I was perceived by others and how I interacted with others, which wasn’t good.

    That said, I do agree that while someone is allowed to feel sad about a tragedy, and follow the news to some degree, you should still expect that person to do the work they’re expected to do. They have to attend meetings, meet deadlines, etc., and if their preoccupation gets in the way of their performance it is okay to intervene. You can be sensitive and compassionate, but you do need to get the person back on track. Maybe it means encouraging them to work from home, or take a “mental health day” to process what happened.

    It’s depressing how things have changed. When the school shooting in CT happened about 3 years ago, we all grieved together and could barely get anything done, and that wasn’t ideal but management cut us a break. But last week during the shooting in California, hardly anyone even mentioned it . . . until the next day when I overheard my team mates talking about “those people,” but that’s a different issue. We’ve grown desensitized, because we had to, or nothing would get done.

  14. OriginalEmma*

    OP says he obsesses over it but how does that translate into his behavior and productivity?

    -Is he becoming overly emotional, which distracts coworkers, creates a negative vibe in the office, or impacts productivity?
    -Is he distracting or disrupting his coworkers by regularly providing verbal updates on whatever tragedy piques his interest?
    -Is the endless ringing/dinging/pinging/buzzing of his cell phone when an alert hits driving his coworkers batty?
    -Is he stopping to read updates so often that he cannot focus on his work?
    -Is he actually less productive due to this behavior?
    -Is there the APPEARANCE that he is less productive due to this behavior?

    If you’re only worry is that he is causing himself unnecessary emotional pain by immersing himself in negative news, then drop it. You’re not his psychiatrist, psychologist, therapist or even his mom or dad.

    1. Bend & Snap*

      All of this. Impact/behavior is different than telling someone how big a deal a tragedy should be to them during working hours.

      I live in Boston and grew up about 20 minutes from West, Texas. I had coworkers and friends affected by the bombing and family members affected by the explosion, so when those two things happened right in a row it was a rough couple of days. I can’t imagine someone trying to dictate how much focus I put on it.

  15. Katie the Fed*

    I definitely support the EAP suggestion. Sometimes these kinds of tragedies can trigger something, especially those of us who are more prone to anxiety, and it’s worth talking to someone to sort that out.

    I feel bad for the guy. Especially in this age of breathless nonstop news coverage it can seem like this is an imminent threat. When I was a kid I used to watch the news when my parents had it on. They didn’t realize I was really paying attention until the age of 6 when I had an absolute meltdown going downtown for a baseball game, crying because I thought I’d get murdered.

    1. OriginalEmma*

      I think psychologists, child health experts, etc. have only recently realized that while adults can view news events and see them as part of a continuum (i.e., extended coverage of one event), for a child, each viewing of the event is a novel experience. So, for me as a kid, every time I saw the U.S. bombing Kuwait or whatever we did during Desert Storm, it was as if it were happening over and over and over again. It didn’t help that like you, Katie, I thought *I* was going to be a target.

    2. Yetanotherjennifer*

      And watching tragic events like this over and over again can affect your brain; emotionally and physiologically, it’s as if you’re there. I remember just before the tsunami in 2004 I read a book on brain science that discussed this and it really changed how I consume news. (I’ll comment back with the title once I’m at my computer) I no longer watch video of tragic events, and I rely on print and online newspapers to get information about these types of events. I don’t know how the OP can apply this but it’s something to think about. Video cameras are everywhere so one can easily consume a daily diet of tragedy video. Is it possible the employee is watching too much and is sort of shell shocked and a bit addicted to the brain rush?

      1. Katie the Fed*

        That’s interesting! I actually never saw much of the original 9/11 footage because I was in a very remote corner of the world without TV and the internet was in its infancy. But I got kind of obsessive about the 2004 tsunami because I could access all that stuff.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          Me too; I think I watched every video of it and all the ones of the 2013 tsunami also. It’s such an unusual phenomenon, and being landlocked, I can’t even imagine it. Plus, it really LOOKS weird. There was a video of the 2004 one shot by a German couple that showed the wave coming in, and the water leaping crazily about reminded me of a nightmare I had when I was a kid–about a tsunami. It was so weird.

  16. Sibley*

    I’d actually be concerned about the ongoing mental health of someone who is obsessed with every single event. There are so many of them, and a person who’s so strongly affected each time I would think is at risk for mental health problems (anxiety, depression, etc), if they don’t already have problems. If someone is reacting like this, maybe quietly give them the number for the EAP if there is one.

    1. Mike C.*

      What’s the difference between someone who just keeps up with a lot of news and someone “who is obsessed with every single event”? I can remember in my last job I was glued to an HD radio that played nothing but NPR, BBC, WRN and so on (spent my days calibrating scientific equipment) and if anything being that informed meant I could tell others what was going on and help calm them down. The Green Revolution was a good example of this.

      1. Rayner*

        I suppose the difference is that even though you were glued to the radio, you still did your work. You didn’t put down your calibration instruments and exclusively listen to the radio, calling out updates, and then not want to work because it affected you so deeply.

      2. fposte*

        If the only news he talks about is gun and bomb violence, then he’s not just keeping up with a lot of news. I also think (and I say this as an information obsessive myself) that it’s a mistake to assume keeping people informed is the same as calming them down–or that telling people what the news says is the same as keeping them informed.

        That doesn’t mean I’m advocating a media blackout or anything, but learning about bad things happening can have a disproportionately negative effect on people, too. (I’m betting you’ve encountered people who think they’re safer in cars than in airplanes because of airplane crashes, right?)

        1. Kelly L.*

          I think some news networks are hyper-focused on gun/bomb stories–I got into a discussion a few days ago with a guy who was going “Why isn’t The Media covering (some other thing)” and I was like “…that’s all over the media!” But it turned out he was only watching a single network.

          1. fposte*

            I’m reminded of when my brother, a scientist, was asked a party what branch of the sciences astrology was under.

    2. OP Writer*

      This person does have a mental health issue and has overreacted to other things too. He doesn’t really see himself as having a problem, though. He thinks the rest of us are wrong not to be as reactive as he is. He has had professional help in the past and some of his work-related issues improved at the time but I’m not privvy to his current status.

      1. fposte*

        Oh, that’s hard. I think that’s common, cognitively, in that it’s really hard to go against your brain’s determination of risk.

        In that case, I think you more than ever have to stick to focusing on behavior. “Bob, I’m going to ask you to limit your media listening to your breaks, because it’s disturbing your co-workers.” “Bob, please drop the gun violence talk–you’re upsetting people.”

  17. Adam*

    I have just a general comment that may not be that helpful, but while I have a bunch of various news apps on my phone (CNN, BBC, etc.) months ago I turned notifications for those apps off completely, so I no longer get news alerts on my phone. I did this because it was always bad news; didn’t matter where it came from, and since my phone is my alarm clock most days checking my phone is one of the very first actions I take every day. So it didn’t matter whether it was a shooting in America or mudslides in Guatemala: I was literally always waking up to bad news which is a rotten way to start your day.

    So no more for me. The news can wait until I’ve been up for a bit and can browse the news sites at work. If it’s more pertinent to me and my local area or is one of those REALLY BIG deals odds are I’m going to hear about quickly anyways. Perhaps not a solution to OP’s issue, but I definitely wake up in a bad mood less often. Sometimes tuning out helps.

    1. Mike C.*

      I don’t know about CNN, but I get lots of good news from the alerts on BBC. Found out that Jimmy Carter’s tumor is gone, as well as the opening of Cuba to the United States that way.

      1. Adam*

        It’s been so long since I’ve had them on it’s hard to remember exactly, but in general I remember the BBC just being more global with its disasters. So if I’m hearing about various attacks in America from CNN then the BBC is probably reporting about hurricanes in the south Pacific or something. Either way the impression was overtly dismal across all my apps so the one drop of good news in a bucket of sludge just didn’t seem sufficient for me anymore.

        1. Mike C.*

          I can understand that. They also spoiled the end of the2013 Formula 1 season which I wasn’t impressed with.

          1. Adam*

            That’s the other thing: my phone is faster than my TV. I still get sports alerts on my phone but I can’t check it when I’m watching a game I’m invested in, because guaranteed I’m going to learn about a touchdown thirty seconds before I actually see it “live”.

            1. Mike C.*

              I hate that so much.

              Or when the Olympics are around and NBC keeps going on and on about “Watch everything on our website!” then on the front page all the scores and results are posted before you could possibly watch the event. Have more respect for the fans!

              1. Elizabeth West*

                That’s the worst. The Winter Olympics are the only time I watch sports on TV other than skating events, and the only scoring I care about is skating, but I have to stay off everything because invariably they’ll post “SKATER WINS GOLD IN [FAR-FLUNG TIME ZONE]” before I can even get home!

              2. Rana*

                NBC is the shittiest when it comes to covering the Olympics. I’ve started watching the British coverage online, because it’s the only way to see anything that’s not glurge-y stories or moments in which US athletes win something.

            2. Cath in Canada*

              There are two major cable TV providers in Vancouver, and one of them seems to get live sport to its viewers about 4 seconds before the other. So if you’re watching a big game (e.g. the last Olympic hockey final, which was at 4 am our time, but almost every house on our street had lights and TVs on), you sometimes hear some of your neighbours cheer loudly before you see the goal yourself!

      2. MashaKasha*

        Aw thanks for the tip! I’ll install that.
        I have the NYT app installed and am getting their alerts. But can’t afford to actually read them, other than the ten free articles per month. BBC seems a better idea.

      3. BananaPants*

        BBC and NPR have been decent for news alerts. I don’t bother with any other sites or news apps – I totally unfollowed the local network news affiliates because I just couldn’t take yet another breathless breaking news alert.

    2. Katie the Fed*

      We have TVs all over the place here, and they play news from around the world. There’s such a world of difference between them. I remember really clearly during some Natalie Holloway update that there was nonstop coverage of it on CNN, Fox and MSNBC. But Al Jazeera and BBC actually covered real news that was important. I would take either of those two any day over the pitiful show that is American cable news. Look no further than the sorry scene of them picking through the suspects’ apartment last week for evidence that cable news is a sorry, sorry state.

      1. Adam*

        The sad thing is that American news networks are just responding to their respective audiences. They show the stuff the public wants to see. So while I can certainly soapbox about how terrible the modern day new scene is, in truth it’s that way at least in part because that’s what gets a large section of the population to watch.

      2. OriginalEmma*

        This is true. EuroNews is another good cable news source, in that you receive a variety of international news. I enjoy their “No Comment” video and photo montages.

      3. Mike C.*

        What’s really crazy is when I was unemployed right after college, CNN would just have CNNi on instead. CNNi was basically like the BBC or similar channels – sober, reasonable, not a ton of on screen graphics and so on.

  18. Jerzy*

    I’d say 9-11 was an exception because it was the first attack on American soil by a foreign body since Pearl Harbor, and it was the first on civilian targets. It made us suddenly feel vulnerable in a way most people in this country had never felt before. Now we seem to be under attack from all sides, foreign and domestic. Kids are shooting up schools. People are shooting up clinics. I understand how someone can get wrapped up in these kinds of tragedies.

    I would pay close attention to this particular employee, and maybe suggest your employee look into an EAP if your organization offers one. It’s possible he’s obsessing about the news as a coping method for the fear he’s feeling.

  19. Ad Astra*

    I definitely have a tendency to get caught up in developing news when stuff like this happens. I’d like to think that I’d respond well to someone saying “I know news like this can really derail your day. Are you sure it’s a good idea to be following all the details so closely?” But if it sounds like a nice way of saying “Hey, get your work done” instead of “Hey, stop torturing yourself with this stuff,” I’m going to be less receptive. That’s really more a negative reflection on me than anything else, but I wonder if OP’s employee might share the same flaw.

    How do other employees react when news like this hits? Is there a TV in the office showing CNN? Is this employee totally engrossed while others are simply keeping an eye on it, or is he the only one following the news at all?

    1. Kelly L.*

      I remember none of us got any work done on 9/11. I worked in a sub shop at the time. We all just stared at the news all day, barely had any customers, and the ones we did get…also just sat there staring at the news as they ate. And then when I went home, I went to a friend’s house where we…stared at the news all evening. It just kind of wrecked everybody, and we weren’t even anywhere nearby.

      1. Ad Astra*

        I was too young to have a job during 9/11, but I distinctly remember the Newtown shooting derailing my entire afternoon. I was off work that day and planning to get a bunch of stuff done, but I wound up glued to the news and social media for hours. In hindsight, I probably would have been better off running some errands or cleaning the house. Thinking about murdered children, and knowing there was nothing I could do to help anyone involved, was not a good use of my time.

      2. Anlyn*

        Same here. I remember several people left; my team lead at the time had to leave because a friend of hers was supposed to be on one of those planes and had to reschedule at the last minute–it was too close for her. I remember gathering around a couple of large TVs in the main foyer with a bunch of others, just watching the news. I think I eventually left early too, but can’t really remember.

      3. KR*

        That was how school and work was the day of the Boston Bombing. I couldn’t stop listening to the news. It was on every radio station, every TV was on the news networks. Living an hour away from Boston, I wanted to know the second he went towards my state so I could go north.

      4. Elizabeth West*

        Same here. I was temping at an old job part-time to cover someone’s mat leave, and all we did all day was watch television and eat cookies. I think the phone rang exactly twice the entire time I was in the office.

        The scary part was how quiet everything was–I went out around 2 pm to get a special issue of the newspaper (and the cookies), and the streets were like a ghost town. Everyone was inside watching TV, and there were NO airplanes, helicopters, or anything (because everything was grounded). It was Twilight Zone-level eerie.

    2. OP Writer*

      >>Is there a TV in the office showing CNN? Is this employee totally engrossed while others are simply keeping an eye on it<<

      Yes and yes

        1. OP Writer*

          That would punish the other employees who use it responsibly. (And anyway, I’m not at the pay grade to decide that – it’s a shared lounge for the whole workplace not just my department)

          1. Natalie*

            (I’m not sure how changing the channel punishes anyone, but that’s besides the point.) Does this mean your employee leaves repeatedly to go sit in the lounge and watch TV? That seems like an easy point to intervene, particularly if you have one global conversation with him about how much he gets caught up in these stories.

  20. Jubilance*

    OP, I’d caution you against assuming that because an event happened in a different location, that your employee shouldn’t or won’t be affected. You don’t know if that person has a connection to the location, or the event. I’ve had friends who were running the Boston Marathon the day of the bombing, who are teachers in New England, who are public health workers in CA. They could worried about their loved ones, or that something similar could happen in their location. I agree with Alison that you should try to give some leeway but also be sensitive when you relay the message.

    1. OP Writer*

      I have specifically asked “Do you know someone there?” and the reply is invariably no. The employee thinks that following the news is important just because.

      1. Ad Astra*

        I’m getting the impression that you think having no personal connection to a tragedy unfolding means he shouldn’t be affected, and I want to push back on that a bit. It’s important to remember that your response to troubling national news isn’t the only acceptable response. That’s another good reason to focus on the behaviors and their impact rather than analyzing the validity of his response to tragedy.

        1. Brooke*

          “I’m getting the impression that you think having no personal connection to a tragedy unfolding means he shouldn’t be affected, and I want to push back on that a bit.”

          Agreed. I’ve been very personally affected by gun violence so events along those lines shake me up a bit, even if I don’t know a soul in that particular city.

      2. Mike C.*

        Following the news is important “just because”. Obviously the employee needs to balance work needs and whatnot, but there are a lot of important and complicated issues out there and you need to be educated on them.

        1. LBK*

          But there’s no way that takes precedence over doing work, nor does following the news require such constant vigilance. You don’t need to be refreshing CNN’s homepage every 5 minutes to stay informed and educated – even just checking in every few hours probably isn’t going to give you any more useful information than just look at it when you got home would. The world moves much slower than the 24-hour news cycle would have you believe.

          I agree that staying informed for its own sake is important. I disagree that that justifies obsessing over the news all day, whether you’re at work or not.

        2. SL #2*

          You phrased this so much better than I could. One of the things I always appreciate about your comments!

        3. Ask a Manager* Post author

          The argument isn’t that following the news isn’t important, but rather a question of time and place. In general, non-exempt employees are expected to focus on work while they’re at work, and not to spend significant amounts of time reading news. There are exceptions, like 9/11 or when something hits you particularly hard, but the problem here is that it’s a substantial drain on productivity every time a tragedy happens.

          1. Mike C.*

            I was taking the statement at face value, and I qualified my statement by saying, “Obviously the employee needs to balance work needs and whatnot…”

  21. Allison*

    Last week, a family friend was in the building across the street from the affected building (she posted on Facebook that something was happening then didn’t come back for 3 hours after the building went into lockdown, which was scary!) and my parents live 20 minutes away from the shooting site, which was terrifying when the shooters were on the run and the police were roaming through neighborhoods. I didn’t say anything to my coworkers because I possibly would have broken down, but was refreshing news sites every 5 minutes and pretty useless the rest of the day.

    So…sometimes people are personally involved but don’t really want to talk about it.

  22. OP Writer*

    Clarification: the employee is non-exempt and productivity has sometimes been impacted by following news items of tragedies far away where the employee has no friends or relatives.

    I personally have asked for time off to help a friend whose town 2 hours away from me was hit by a tornado, but it turned out she didn’t need my help (the tornado missed her house by like 100 feet!!!!) so I continued working. So I’m not unsympathetic when it’s friends or loved ones, just when someone thinks that a horrible news story justifies dropping job duties for a long period of time.

    I do say things like “That’s horrible, but the details are probably all wrong right now anyway, so try to wait to check on it until later”

    Re: 9/11 I meant basically what Alison said but didn’t say it right. We were all worried that day because we didn’t know if New York & Washington were the only targets. I was 1500 miles away and all of us were on edge for weeks even in small towns.

    1. J-nonymous*

      If your company offers something like an EAP, I think that might be a good option for your employee. I’d definitely try to suggest it with as much compassion as you can muster.

      Even though these events are (too damn) frequent, a person’s response to them might be as intense and anxiety-driven as if they were very rare.

      Trying to look at this from a place of compassion, I wonder if this person’s obsession (as you describe it) with following these events has any negative affect on other areas of his life.

      If it were me following the news site obsessively, and my supervisor or boss needed to address the behavior with me, I think the thing I’d want to hear most is that it my boss has noticed I’m feeling distracted and anxious by the events, and that if I want, I can call the EAP to talk to someone about how I feel.

      1. J-nonymous*

        Muster is a poor word choice there. I didn’t mean to suggest you, OP feel no compassion! Sorry!

        1. OP Writer*


          The reason for writing the letter was for some wider perspective, as it seems to me that the person’s reactions are out of line with workplace norms, certainly out of line with the norms in our workplace. Fortunately he does (somewhat resentfully) get back to work when I remind him, but if I don’t happen to be there, I think the brakes are off. He seems to think it’s justifiable when it’s major enough to be breaking news on CNN or phone alerts.

          1. INTP*

            I haven’t been at work during too many major events since I work from home now, but my experience is that while everyone is a little more distracted and chatty during things like that, it’s a given that deadlines and such still apply.

    2. Bwmn*

      For a clarification on productivity – is this in reference to the worker’s specific productivity or is it more about sucking others into the news feed?

      If the employee is sharing this news with other coworkers and causing for increasing disruptions, then that could be a behavior to be addressed. If the employee simply ends up spending a lot of their own time on the event, then perhaps the issue could be treated like someone misusing their phone/personal internet time. Just because most employees can balance occasional Facebook updates, internet bill paying, and other personal usage – that be a problem for another employee. In this particular situation, it sounds to me more like an employee on Facebook too much rather than being callous about recent tragedies.

    3. the_scientist*

      See, “the details are probably all wrong right now anyway” reads as dismissive and kind of glib to me. I’m sure it doesn’t come across that way in person; just hard to read tone in writing, but I think you’re better off sticking to work/output. I don’t think turning off the phone alerts while he’s at work is an unreasonable request, and this employee doesn’t need to be the Office Town Crier/ official bearer of news. I also agree with the suggestion to remind the employee of the EAP, if you have one, framing it as “if you’re having difficulty with your reactions to things you’ve seen in the news, you can use the EAP to find help/support”. Perhaps he’s genuinely a newshound, but he may actually be struggling to deal with what he’s seeing. I’ve recently unsubscribed to news alerts and unfollowed quite a few media outlets on Twitter, since I’m prone to anxiety, ruminating and catastrophising. The constant barrage was putting me in a bad headspace.

      1. OP Writer*

        ” I’m prone to anxiety, ruminating and catastrophising”

        This employee is the same way. It’s counterproductive not just as a work issue but as a personal issue for him to obsess about bad news. He makes himself miserable at the same time that he’s not being productive. It’s a lose-lose.

        1. Brooke*

          You’ve spoken to HR? Because all of this very personal/mental/addiction talk is definitely veering into territory HR would advise you to stay clear of.

          1. OP Writer*

            I have never solicited information on mental health, but he has offered some. I did talk to HR about problem behaviors on the job that indicate something going on, but just to keep them in the loop. There’s nothing official.

    4. DEJ*

      I agree with everything OriginalEmma said above, with a few additional comments based on this update:

      You’ve come to realize that it’s important to your employee to follow things as they go, and I think that phrases like “That’s horrible, but the details are probably all wrong right now anyway, so try to wait to check on it until later” are very dismissing his feelings and reactions to the event. You may think he’s being ridiculous, but he may think that some of the ways that you spend your time/your interests are equally ridiculous and I am sure you wouldn’t appreciate him telling you that.

      Are you in a position to be able to offer PTO when you notice the employee getting off track? You can say something like ‘I understand that you like to follow the news throughout the day, and I respect that, but if you are here I need you to be focused on your work. Can you do that or do you need to take a vacation day and leave the office?’

    5. AnonAcademic*

      OP, I think you are probably a less emotionally reactive person than your employee and so don’t “get” their reactions (your tornado example makes me think this). You may even wonder if they are just a drama llama. I think what other people are trying to tell you is that individuals vary wildly in their genuine emotional reactions to things. I tend to be stoic and avoid the news, more like how you describe yourself. But the Paris attacks really got me, and I was obsessively tracking it, in part because the concert hall that was attacked is exactly the kind of venue where I see shows often. I also get emotional about any bad news coming out of New Orleans because I did Hurricane Katrina relief, and I have a lot of strong opinions about post-9/11 NYC because I was ~5 miles away in NJ when it happened (so of all the offensive things Trump has said, his BS about Muslims in NJ celebrating on 9/11 got under my skin a LOT more). On the other hand, for better or worse, I find it easier to emotionally distance myself from school/workplace shootings, bombings, gang violence, etc.

      I think you need to separate your personal (negative) judgement of your employees emotional entanglement with the news from your evaluation of their work and productivity. If this is a “sometimes” problem it might be worth demonstrating compassion and letting it go, but if it’s really a “dropping job duties for a long period of time” problem that’s different (and it sounds like if it’s the latter they might need some better coping skills and an EAP recommendation would be appropriate).

      1. OP Writer*

        Emotional reactivity explains the temptation to obsess about the news, but does it justify using work time to do it? We all have to set aside our emotional reactions to other types of events at work in order to maintain professional decorum, attend to customers, and get work done. If someone really can’t work due to emotional upset, I’d let them go home or take an hour off (or even a break to get back to normal). I have had a few times like this myself (we all do), but they aren’t frequent enough to affect my overall productivity, and they relate to my actual life not to the news of the day. It’s not a “sometimes” problem, which is why I wrote the OP.

  23. louise*

    “In general, I think that employers should make allowances for these kinds of shocking events.”

    Something that strikes me is that right now it feels like we don’t get to choose whether to be shocked. News outlets seem to hype things up based on how slow or full the day is and whether they can build something up to keep attention. I’m not saying shootings (and other acts of violence) aren’t shocking, but rather that the availability of 24 hour news means they are handled in a way that’s entirely designed to keep us from whatever else we need to do. News is a commodity, not a service right now and I’m not sure how to keep for myself and help others keep a healthy perspective of how to allocate our energy/thoughts/concern toward these kinds of things.

    The flip side is, without the news bringing things to our attention, we think things are going fine. Yet we all know, there are a million things–good and bad–happening every second. When we’re cut off from that, we’re able to focus on the immediate. My mom used to work in nursing homes and would always comment on how depressed the folks who sat in front of the TV were. They had a constant influx of bad news and didn’t think there was anything good out there anymore.

    I feel like it’s a bigger issue than what the OP should do with this particular employee. It’s about each of our philosophies on how we want to interact with news and how much we can handle being aware of. I don’t know what the right answer is. I don’t want to be an ostrich.

    1. get some perspective*

      “Something that strikes me is that right now it feels like we don’t get to choose whether to be shocked.. ”

      Turn it off or look away.

      To this day I have never seen moving images of people dying on 9/11. I choose not to. I probably will get a glimpse at some point before looking away, but we don’t have to look (unless you work in a space where TVs are on all the time or are trapped somewhere like that nursing home).

      I didn’t even watch the news much in the weeks right after 9/11 – I could tell it was going to make knowledge that was already disturbing even more disturbing with visual information. Oh, and I had one friend kill in the World Trade Center, one of my best friends was completely covered in dust by the falling buildings, and I used to work at 1 WTC. So while I think it’s appropriate to be shocked and upset by that event – which directly affected people I know and a place I used to work – I didn’t want to compound it.

      Practice this control over your media diet.

      Oh, and I can sympathize or understand a news outlet “hyping” 9/11 or Katrina which were events of massive scale for the US. But the Boston bombing or even the San Bernadino shootings? If an outlet is repeated the same hype over and over and over it’s not a good source of news. Turn it off.

      I can still be shocked by information about things – but we have a fair amount of control over what we see/hear.

  24. CMT*

    Man, it’s hard to believe or accept that our reality is such that this kind of violence is so common, it prompts questions to workplace advice columns. It’s so, so sad and infuriating.

  25. Intrepid Intern*

    I’m getting ads repeatedly auto-playing with sound. The audio is in Spanish, so I’m not sure which one it is, but I would guess Extra gum or the big CelebTV one.

    1. krm*

      Yes, I’ve been getting them as well. It has been the gum one for me, and also one for a golf course. It has also just started to randomly play after I have paused the ad/audio. At one point earlier today, I had 3 different ads autoplaying at the same time…

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Unfortunately the only way for me to get these tracked down and removed is if I know the URL they’re linking to. So if you see one again and you’re able to send me the URL, I’d really appreciate it!

      Thanks for bearing with me during this — I figured December was the right time to test some changes because traffic is lower this month so it’s the least bad of all the possible times to do it, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t still impacted.

      1. ArtsNerd*

        The CelebTV / Hot10.TV player is killing my browser’s performance. It’s also really distracting, off-brand and obtrusive…. plus Hot10.TV just seems like a sketchy site. Only two embedded YouTube videos? And their YouTube channel only has those two videos uploaded.

        The sidebar and banner ads are all a-ok, and I’m totally down with ad revenue. Just not that particular module of it.

        1. ArtsNerd*

          Re: browser performance — the error console is returning all kinds of messages when I “inspect element” so it’s certainly possible that is fixable with updated coding.

  26. The IT Manager*

    LW, IMO you are not unreasonable. In fact it sounds like you have a valid performance issue because if this person is watching a streaming news feed on his computer, staring at his phone or news updates and refreshing a news website every few minutes, I cannot imagine how he keeps working. I also agree with you that when events like this happen usually the news is not actually reporting anything new frequently, they just keep speculating and repeating what they do know so you could keep up on what’s going by checking back infrequently. You also say he does this for any kind of big news story/mass shooting so it is very unlikely that he knows people in all these locations.

    I recommend you talk to him about it when one of these stories is not happening. Tell him that he needs to work through it without dropping everything to keep up-to-date on the latest news. (Give him guidance on what is and is not acceptable.) If he cannot then he should take some kind leave (sick leave???) so he can go home and obsessively flip through news updates on his own time.

    1. OP Writer*

      You are right in your speculations.

      I do say at the time “Well, that’s sad but we probably won’t get good information for hours so you should really leave it alone for now.” or something to the effect. I have also pointed out the way the news works, or that obsessing over upsetting things when you can’t do anything about it is counterproductive. Yet each time something happens there’s a knee-jerk reaction and balancing work with news seems to be out the window until I intervene.

      1. My Fake Name is Laura*

        Right but your words aren’t direct enough. You’re saying “you SHOULD stop” instead of “please stop and get back to work”. I also agree that a private, direct conversation where you show documentation (have you been documenting his distractedness and productivity issues as they happen?) and explain the behavior is not acceptable and is putting his job in jeopardy.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          I agree, and at that point, if HandWringing Employee says, “But it’s important, I need to watch, I need to know,” then maybe that would be a good point to say, “It seems that these events are making you very anxious. I can put you in touch with our EAP folks if you feel that would help. Right now, however, I need you to concentrate on your work.”

          1. RoseTyler*

            Yes, and if he says “but I need to watch!” then it’s fine to tell him he needs to clock out to do so, or go home if he is distracting others. Make it about his work performance, not whether this disaster is “bad” enough for him to be upset.

  27. AW*

    These things are unfortunately far too common so it’s not exceptional…

    Maybe that’s the problem the employee is having: it’s not where or who of any of these events but their frequency.

  28. brownblack*

    I have a coworker who is very good at her job, but she is a tad gossipy. Whenever an event like a terrorist attack or a mass shooting occurs, she doesn’t exactly drop everything, but you KNOW she is following it closely. Perhaps once an hour, she will walk over to someone’s office unsolicited and say “looks like he used to work there. He got fired three months ago. Isn’t that awful? It’s awful. He had five guns. Who needs five guns? Awful.” And so on. I just find it humorous.

  29. Rebecca*

    I have a coworker who worries obsessively about everything. She’ll hear a radio update that there’s an accident on the 4 lane nearby, and immediately she’s checking her phone, texting family members to see if they’re OK, trying to find out where the accident is exactly, which travel lanes, what kind of car, and is not satisfied until everyone in her orbit is accounted for. It’s exhausting. I think it’s an anxiety issue more than anything. She’s criticized me for my seeming lack of concern, but I always feel like if someone needs me, they’ll call, and there’s nothing I can do about whatever is happening anyway. It’s not that I’m uncaring or not concerned, I have feelings, but since there’s nothing I can really do to affect any changes or to help, I wait to see if I’m needed or if someone needs to notify me.

    1. AnonForThis*

      I know someone like this, and it is exhausting. I too have been accused of being uncaring. One day, I’m going to fire back that it isn’t that they care so much about these things as that they have anxiety issues, they don’t seek help for it, and every thing sets that unchecked anxiety off. This isn’t to criticize people that have anxiety issues. Anxiety is a very real problem for many folks. I feel bad that this person has to deal with it, but don’t accuse me of being an uncaring person because some inflammatory local news story doesn’t send me into a tizzy.

      1. OP Writer*

        It doesn’t take long for compassion fatigue to set in when it’s more of a symptom than a “normal” emotionally stressful day for regular people.

        Inflammatory is the right word. News outlets know how to manipulate us and we need to inoculate ourselves against that. During this last event, I heard some blatant heartstring-pulling from talking heads. “Imagine yourself on the floor with the gunman standing right there pointing the gun at you” — that’s how they fill time when they don’t have actual news to report.

  30. INTP*

    I agree with the EAP suggestion. Beyond that, given the OP’s replies above, I think it might be best just to be impassive and work-focused and not engage in any more discussion on how important or unimportant the event is. “Johnny, General Teapots still needs us to send these spouts by 3pm regardless of what is happening in the world. Are you able to meet this deadline or do you need to take PTO for the afternoon and let Jane finish your work?”

    Arguments about what is important enough to distract whom by how much aren’t really relevant if the deadlines aren’t changing. If an event is not earth-shattering enough to disrupt the flow of business for the employer and clients and pretty much everyone, then it’s totally reasonable to expect that people either meet normal business demands or take some leave time until they are capable of an acceptable level of productivity. It sounds like trying to talk through this and come to an understanding has not been productive and probably won’t be, hence the clear and direct “I need X from you, if that isn’t possible then I need Y.”

    1. OP Writer*

      The reason I brought up relative importance of things is that I wouldn’t adopt a no-news-ever attitude, because there are times when I person might have an exceptional attachment to a situation. You can’t win at this site. Some people say I should make allowances for emotionally reactive people and others say I shouldn’t have an opinon about what’s important. I think the consensus agrees with Alison, though (and you). It’s normal to expect people to be able to set aside these concerns during work hours.

      I do just focus on work duties, but I’ve identified this as something that interferes with work.

      1. INTP*

        I’m not sure if you’re still checking these replies, but I wanted to clarify, because I didn’t mean for any of my reply to be critical, just advisory. I didn’t mean that you shouldn’t HAVE an opinion, just that at the end of the day, whether this employee can be expected to do his work doesn’t come down to whether your opinion or his opinion is correct, but whether your company and others dependent on your team’s work expect deadlines to be met that day. Opinions can be irrelevant to the conversation in the sense that you don’t have to justify your opinion or entertain his, you can just fall back to the fact that the department is expected to meet deadlines still so if he can’t hold it together then he needs to take some sick leave and let someone else finish his work (if that is a possibility), because presumably you aren’t the person deciding whether the company will consider this a normal day of operations or not.

        I also didn’t mean to imply that you aren’t trying to focus on work in this scenario – I meant that I think this employee requires doing so in a brutal way that would be callous with most employees who don’t try to control expectations of them with their feelings (so it’s a good thing that you weren’t already doing it that way). Usually it would be better to give people a chance to vent and share their POV, but he’s using that chance to argue and try to hijack the conversation. Example:
        “Jack, I’m okay with you checking the headlines every couple of hours for new information but I need you to deliver the spouts by 3pm.”
        “I’m too upset to work! The world is too callous. People should not be expected to worry about work when terrible things are happening.”
        “Well, the Teapot Inspection department have not halted operations so they still need the spouts to be delivered at 3pm in order to avoid causing problems with their schedule. Are you able to do that or do you need to take some leave and let Jill finish your work?”
        “Can’t you see how upset I am here? What is wrong with people?!”
        “So you’ll be taking some leave for the afternoon then? I can’t change the production timeline.”

  31. Nervous Accountant*

    I know this isn’t the place for a political discussion and I don’t intend to turn it into one but I disagree vehemently that these things shouldn’t affect us to the point where we drop work. There are things that happen that can affect us immediately as well as long term (NYC/area employees on 9/11) and then events like what just happened (more ammo for Islamophobia etc).

    Personally I’ve been glued to social media, and am considering deactivating my FB for a while, but work si actually a godsend because it’s a good distraction for me. If his productivity isn’t being affected, I wouldn’t bring it up…

    1. fposte*

      Here are my problems with saying these things should stop work. First off, we really mean “only some work” when we say that, because we don’t want to cancel our doctor’s appointments and not get food at the grocery store, so we’re talking a certain swath of work where that’s essentially an obtainable luxury. (And I’m not spitting on that group–I’m in it, and I definitely didn’t work a full day on 9/11–but just pointing out lots of workers don’t really have that option.)

      We’re also talking about the fact that “these things,” if we mean horrible violence, have been happening every single day somewhere. The recent example that elicited a fair bit of discussion in my circles was when one of my alma maters shut down for a day because of a credible shooting threat. That school happens to be situated next to one of the most violent neighborhoods in the country, where a credible shooting threat is pretty much daily life.

      I’m not saying individuals aren’t allowed to be upset by things, and I think workplaces should support and allow for reactions to tragic events whenever possible. But you can’t really have a blanket notion that work should be able to be stopped for bad things without making judgments about whose work and what bad things count.

      1. ThursdaysGeek*

        And horrible violence and destruction HAS BEEN happening every single day somewhere. But in 1918 when millions of people were wiped out by the flu; in the 1800’s when entire native north american villages were wiped out by smallpox; when the whatever hordes where overrunning whichever groups back whenever — sometimes only the few survivors and peoples in that area knew about it, occasionally most everyone knew, but still not to what extent.

        Word of mouth was slow, newspapers and telegraphs and radios and TVs and the internet made the news come faster and faster. But it’s the same news that has always happened. Now we just know more of the same evil in the world.

    2. INTP*

      There are some earth-shattering events where disruption to work might be justified, but those tend to disrupt the flow of business altogether. I was in 9th grade for 9/11, but I imagine that a lot of business deadlines were shuffled around that day and different departments and companies were more flexible about deadlines and priorities than, say, the day of the California shooting. I don’t think there’s an objectively correct answer for who is entitled to feel what in reaction to which event and how strongly, but I do think that if business is operating normally, then you need to either operate normally (not necessarily 100%, but still meeting top priorities and deadlines) or deem yourself not fit for business that day and take PTO (OP said employee has declined to leave the office). If it’s not something that is disrupting the business, then treat it like if you have any other sort of focus-disrupting personal event/crisis – just because your feelings are valid doesn’t entitle you to refuse to leave work yet miss all your deadlines for the day.

      I do think the OP’s wording seemed a little callous, but after reading the follow up, I don’t think that the OP meant anything that way (I can identify with misinterpreting because I don’t tend to emote a lot in words). It sounds like OP has handled the situation fairly compassionately, but this employee simply feels entitled to not work when some sort of crisis that upsets him is going on, and when someone is trying to use their strong emotions to control the workplace (which we’ve seen in different forms in a lot of letters – people who cry when receiving any constructive feedback, or bring conversations back to their personal troubles), a certain degree of callousness is required.

      1. OP Writer*

        ” this employee simply feels entitled to not work when some sort of crisis that upsets him is going on, and when someone is trying to use their strong emotions to control the workplace”

        Good point. I hadn’t considered that this could also be seen as a control issue. Whether we get anything accomplished on any particular day shouldn’t depend on one person’s response to the news.

      1. Nervous Accountant*

        Hi OP, I apologize for the assumption, I had not read all of the comments before adding my 2 cents where you may have mentioned this. As with anything, if productivity is being affected, it’s definitely an issue that should be brought up. Alison and everyone else has provided great information on how to bring it up. Good luck!

  32. whyohwhyohwhy*

    I’ve actually been looking for advice coming from the other side of this. I have a job that is often slow, and I like to read news and blogs (such as this one!) when I don’t have much going on. So I am often the one glued to the computer following each and every tragedy. Does anyone have any internet reading recommendations that could distract me from the sad and stressful news? I’m fond of longform.org (though that can be depressing too), so any kind of general interest stuff is right up my alley.

    1. Jillociraptor*

      I love Nautilus and Aeon. Both are fairly long-form commentary sites with a science-y bent. Really fascinating stuff, and helping to round out my liberal arts education.

      The Stuff You Should Know blog does a weekly roundup of cool articles, which is where I got connected to both of these sites. Going back through the archives on those could keep you busy for a good long while!

    2. INTP*

      Do you have any more shallow (not meant negatively) hobbies? I like reading reviews of beauty products on Makeupalley or looking at recipes. Pinterest is also a great visual break from my verbal job and doesn’t tend to draw me in long enough to interfere with work. Reading stuff about sports you’re into, home decor, tv shows, etc could work similarly.

      1. Kelly L.*

        I just realized, I do this too. I’m into baseball, and perfume reviews, and genre fiction reviews, and some other fluff. I can kill just as much time on that stuff without getting upset.

        1. Whoops*

          If you’re open to Youtube videos that are about 5 to 10 minutes long, I recommend the youtube account BronxBomber42 for excellent baseball compilations, things like grand slams, triple plays, that sort of thing. (I promise this isn’t a self plug, I just really love the videos)

    3. katamia*

      Maybe ebooks? If your local library has Overdrive, they have a decent way to read books in your browser (assuming your boss would be okay with that). There’s also Project Gutenberg and Bartleby.com for public domain books.

  33. JennG*

    OP, I just wanted to add my perspective. When I was in the initial stages of treatment for PTSD I definitely had some days where I was distracted at work. My way of dealing with it (which was possible in my role) was to work on weekends to catch up afterwards. A few years later I commented to my previous boss that I was so glad not to be in that place any more (we had become friends after I switched companies) and she said she had trusted that all the work would get done, and it did.

    What I appreciated most in that response was that we never had a discussion of what I should or shouldn’t have felt or responded to. Over a person’s career, there are going to be some distractions — divorce, illness, money troubles, sick pets. Some people deal with life’s roadbumps by working obsessively (but this can contribute to burnout down the road); some people are able to use time management to limit responses, others throw in extra effort once the wave has passed.

    And sure, there are people who need reminders about their productivity. I would focus on that and remember that your coworker’s reactivity may also mean a faster response to crises, an ability to empathize with others, or an ability to see small changes in process as big deals so is a help in other ways. And if there isn’t a contribution to the team, it’s not about these news crises.

  34. Macedon*

    I think we’re getting a bit too caught up in the fact that the employee is explicitly addictes to tragedy watches and whether following news coverage is a legit excuse for his ongoing behaviour. The issue at hand seems to me to be that the employee has, according to OP, a mental illness and that this has fed into episodes of fixation.

    OP, I’m not sure what your workplace policies are on accommodating disabilities, but if your employee’s mental condition qualifies him for that, perhaps employ the necessary allowances. If his condition is not considered debilitating, provide as much accommodation as you can, but address the productivity issues in a private meeting. Reinforce to him that, unfortunately, unless his close ones are somehow involved, his news monitoring can’t be allowed to disrupt his productivity past point X.

    To add to your perspective: I’m in news, and we would consider it unreasonable for someone not covering a story to be tragedy watching constantly (outside of ptsd instances, which some of our war correspondents have experienced).

    1. OP Writer*

      He doesn’t think he’s seriously ill, and maybe he’s not an ADA-accommodation level of ill. The accommodation would be not to let him have access to media that would be triggering, and if he’s addicted to being triggered that’s kind of a catch-22. I don’t know if he’d go along with it. An accommodation has to be reasonable, too, so letting him watch CNN for hours wouldn’t be an accommodation we could do.

      1. fposte*

        Well, *you* think he shouldn’t have access to that media–it’s possible the accommodation would be *more* access to that media. I agree that that’s not likely to be good for him longterm, but accommodations don’t come from therapeutic intent–they’re about what keeps a disability from interfering with work.

        1. OP Writer*

          I would not be the person deciding the ADA accommodation. It was my guess that HR would make the determination that access to media was detrimental to the employee’s ability to do his job, much like someone with ADHD would have to be provided with a workplace that is free from distraction. I can’t imagine HR deciding to make the employee’s workplace more distracting and disturbing. HR is on the side of work getting done.

          1. Macedon*

            I think what fposte is getting at is that sometimes measures that seem counter-intuitive to us, who do not suffer from this kind of condition, might in fact prove to be exactly what the employee needs. There’s no real way for us here to assess that, but maybe your HR department and a professional could come up with a better-tailored solution.

            1. OP Writer*

              Remember that what’s *reasonable* is part of ADA accommodation, not just employee’s needs. Sometimes there isn’t a reasonable accommodation within that job title or workplace.

              1. Macedon*

                That’s absolutely fair – but, not knowing your employee’s exact condition or your regional legislation (not US-based), I can’t be a good judge for whether there’re fair odds of you accommodating your employee’s situation. Hence why I keep defaulting to, “bring in HR/professional input to evaluate what can be done for the employee’s mental illness on a work basis.”

                My overall point being: don’t focus on the news side of things, because that’s a symptom. The key issue is the mental illness, and that’s your only responsibility to accommodate (up to a certain point). If productivity plunges to a level where you cannot trust this employee to perform his job as agreed, you’ll need to renegotiate his role duties with him, or consider his options. Obviously, no one wants to discriminate against someone already struggling with an illness, but this is where HR might be able to better indicate what you can or cannot do to help out someone in your employee’s shoes.

    2. OP Writer*

      p.s and I appreciate this statement: “I’m in news, and we would consider it unreasonable for someone not covering a story to be tragedy watching constantly”

  35. Jabal Rainier*

    For what it’s worth, I work in a school in a city where bombs have been known to happen at random intervals over the last ten years or so. When they’ve happened during the school day (never closer than a few kilometers, thank God), we’ve played it down and finished the day.

    What I admire about the local culture is the mindset that life goes on. Nobody should have to live under threat of a bomb, but (despite what certain politicians think) we don’t get to decide how others will act. We do get to decide our response, and I’d rather live life than hide in fear.

    And, it helps to recognize that, even in this city, I’m far, far more likely to die of a car accident than in a terrorist attack.

    1. OP Writer*

      I often think of Israel today, or of London during the days of IRA bombings when there’s a question of how and whether to go forward with everyday life. Even during World War 2 people went about their business under threat of blitzkrieg. Remember those things puts things in perspective for me.

      1. Brooke*

        “Even during World War 2 people went about their business under threat of blitzkrieg. ”

        I’m sure most did, albeit certainly under stress. Just like most do today. There are always exceptions, and the employee you mention is one of them.

  36. deathstar*

    I wonder if his preoccupation might have anything to do with tragedy personally experienced: I have a colleague whose first wife died in an aircrash. Everytime there is a major air disaster in the news now, either he takes the day off and does not come to work, or he comes to work and becomes obssessively micromanaging to his subordinates. I wonder if something similar is going on here.

  37. Rn turned Acct*

    Okay, I’m confused by the commenters here drawing a distinction between San Bernardino and the Boston bombings. You all do realize this was terrorism, right?

    Personally I just don’t look at news sites, social media, etc at work so this is not an issue for me. At my workplace anyone whose productivity dropped due to excessive internet or phone use would first be peer pressured into getting back on track, then would be formally spoken to, written up, etc.

    1. Kelly L.*

      What commenters are you talking about? The posts I’ve seen about Boston are about how Boston affected them more because they’re from there, or have relatives from there, not because it was terrorism-ier.

  38. Maud F.*

    I have to say, I’m rather non-plussed by the OP’s responses here. It seems OP doesn’t really like the Viewer, doesn’t think the Viewer should have any emotional reaction to these repeated, depressingly regular events (although I am not black and have never been to St. Louis, Ferguson, NYC, Colorado or used Planned Parenthood, and yet followed the news closely and was regularly emotional about certain developments. So in retrospect, maybe OP won’t have much use for this opinion), and basically will refute and reiterate how Viewer is a slacker who bugs, while ignoring all viewpoints put forward that might not support their chosen paradigm. I hope OP got all the validation they were clearly seeking on how terrible their Viewer is, and that Viewer finds somewhere else to work, with a boss who understands their needs/mindspace better.

    1. OP Writer*

      A person can have an emotional reaction without blowing off job duties. The rest of us do it every day. It’s abnormal. If you think that work is so unimportant that you don’t actually have to do it when you feel badly, that’s a reflection on you, not me.

      As a city person, I have seen a lot of homeless people begging on the streets. I often wonder how they get that way. They can’t all be raving lunatics or drug addicts. In a tight job market, is there really room for people who are cavalier about their work duties and are defiant when supervisors supervise? I always wonder if homeless people have that kind of work history. Perhaps being reminded daily (when I lived in a city) that a job is a privilege and I’m lucky to have it makes me judgmental toward people who seem to take their job for granted. I have been the hiring official or part of a search committee for many jobs. I know that I can replace this employee within a couple of weeks, and probably find someone smarter and better qualified. I’ve never had a problem of too few applications. So yes, it’s very hard to be sympathetic toward someone who thinks feeling bad justifies being paid to watch TV.

      1. Kelly L.*

        OK, this bothers me. First of all, “raving lunatics” is kind of rude when applied to people with actual mental illness, but also, no, most of the homeless are not people who wasted too much time on TV/the internet in a typical office job; they’re largely people whom our society has failed in various ways. If you read here frequently and see other people’s vents about their co-workers, you’ll see that zillions of people every day waste too much time at work in various ways. Usually, they land on their feet, don’t get fired, find new jobs if they do get fired, and sometimes get promoted and become people’s slacker managers. Implying that homeless people are just slackers is just a way to avoid feeling any compassion for them, because “they brought it on themselves.”

        And because I feel like I know where these discussions go, I’m not trying to silence you at all, just to disagree with you.

        1. OP Writer*

          Consider how many office shooters had a history of being fired from many jobs and blamed others for their behavior problems. Is that society’s fault? In the case of the non-violent ones, where do those people go when they run out of employers who will take a chance on them? If they refuse to acknowledge their own responsibility for their troubles, what happens to them? Society can’t force them to accept therapy. I just assume that eventually they become homeless. How could they continue paying rent if they can’t hold down a job because they aren’t willing to behave in a way that workplaces require?

      2. GeekChic*

        If you “know you can replace this employee within a couple of weeks and probably find someone smarter and better qualified” – then why haven’t you? Too busy being judgmental?

            1. Brooke*

              We’re taking time out of our days to respond to the issue *you* solicited feedback on. We wouldn’t have done so if we hadn’t considered it a genuine issue. What I personally hope for, in return, is the ability to raise related, genuine issues in return.

      3. Tara R.*

        Okay, the tone throughout your comments has kind of bothered me, but this is wayyy too far. “Don’t get sad about tragedies at work or else you don’t deserve your job and should live on the street”? You need to take all of your personal judgments and attitude out of this issue when you’re addressing it. “Bob, you’ve been glued to your phone today, and it’s affecting your productivity. Please put it away until lunchtime.” That’s it. Don’t accuse him of taking his job for granted or lecture him about how you’re so enlightened because you’re a city person with empathy exhaustion.

        This stuff HURTS. It should hurt. We are human beings, and it’s fricking tragic. Different people process that hurt in different ways. Your job as a boss is to judge his worth as an employee, not as a person.

        My dad is a homeless drug addict, and probably a “raving lunatic” by your standards. He still deserves love and compassion. You don’t get to power trip over how easily you could put your employees into his situation if they don’t bow and scrape to your attitudes on life.

      4. Brooke*

        This most recent post from OP just strikes me as … well… cruel. I’m a “city person” as well (fifteen years, Chicago and LA) and yet manage not to judge the homeless as a vehicle to (a) justify my lack of empathy, (b) judge a fellow employee and (c) glibly talk about how easily they might be replaced.

        1. OP Writer*

          Every homeless person is an object lesson for me. They are examples of what happens when you can’t hold down a job for whatever reason. Perhaps I empathize with them more than I empathize with lazy coworkers. I also empathize with people who are desperate for a job. I don’t think anyone should take their good life for granted. Unless you are independently wealthy and working for the experience, your job is all that stands between you and homelessness. I wish more people kept that reality in their thoughts.

          1. Brooke*

            The whole “holier than thou” attitude is bewildering and increasingly off-topic. Excusing myself from this…. well, I’d call it a conversation but that implies a respectful back and forth.

          2. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Whoa, no. Most homeless people are mentally ill. They’re not object lessons about not holding down a job; they’re object lessons about our failures to find a safety net for people with mental illness.

  39. snuck*

    I’d manage the behaviour around productivity. Check he’s meeting his targets and not shirking. If he is let it go. If he isn’t then ask him to get X amount done in a reasonable way just as you would if he was gossiping, organising his wedding on company time or taking too long to do family errands during the day.

    Expect him to follow the rules around access to internet, mobile phones, radios etc during the day as per the company culture or policy.

    If he can’t cope with this then pack him off to EAP. And talk to him about his fit for the role. Because it’s a behaviour issue.

    I agree with Alison, you don’t have to go at this gloves off though. You can go to him and say “This isn’t working, I know you are keenly interested and involved in this other stuff, but other people are too, and they are still getting their stuff done each day. If you feel you can’t do this would you like to talk to EAP about it? Or change your work hours to more flexible ones? *whatever is possible* “

    1. misspiggy*

      This is all great – I think from the OP’s replies it seems she has done a lot of this, short of asking HR to step in. It sounds like now it’s time to have a direct conversation with the employee about the fact that their productivity is too low, perhaps not even mentioning the cause, but stating that there have been several times when they have been found not working, and when asked to go back to work or take PTO they have refused either. If the OP has clear data on the difference between this employee’s output and that of colleagues, they should present it.

      It needs to be made clear that refusing to work or to take leave on multiple occasions is not acceptable, and to keep this job the employee needs to show x increase in productivity over a certain period. Also perhaps not stopping work to check media, and not refusing to work unless willing to take leave. The EAP can be offered again to support the employee, and the OP could check in with HR to make sure that taking this approach doesn’t cause any policy or legal problems. It may be that when the employee realises their job is on the line they will change their behaviour and perhaps even pursue treatment.

  40. Crabby PM*

    On 9/11, I was living in Seattle. I am from New York City.

    I emailed my boss about the situation. I said I did not feel safe coming to work that day (I would have had to pass the Space Needle, cross a floating bridge, and go to work at a major multinational corporation).

    In addition to the stress of not being in NYC and not knowing where my friends and family were, I also spent six years in the Middle East during the first Gulf War. I slept in bomb shelters. I carried a gas mask to work.

    Like, I’m not a special snowflake, but I was freaking out.

    This was even before they’d gotten all the airplanes landed that day. I told my manager that I would work from home. I was an exempt employee who had just received an exemplary review, and while we did not have a work from home policy, it was definitely custom to allow people to do so.

    My manager’s response? “The office is open. If you are unwilling to come to the office you will need to take this as PTO.”

    At the same time this was happening, two former managers wrote to me to ask my opinion about what they should tell their staff, that their instinct was to allow the option to WFH. “As the only person I know who has lived under terrorism, I would like your input,” is what one said.

    The former manager later took things further by giving us his personal opinions about how we should conduct ourselves after the event, later that week and for following weeks.

    I would follow those two other managers through fire. I couldn’t get away from the guy who on 9/11 was more concerned about enforcing company policy (which I found out later pretty much no one did) fast enough.

    Your worker may have a background you know nothing about.

    1. ArtsNerd*

      That boss is an ass. I’m glad the other managers had a sense of decency.

      (Though it definitely seems like the OP’s employee has real performance issues to address.)

      1. Brooke*

        If the OP isn’t of the correct pay grade to turn off the TV, I doubt he/she has the power to address performance issues… and to be honest, given OP’s most recent Judgy McJudgerson post, I’m thinking the pot may be calling the kettle black.

    2. OP Writer*

      If you freaked out every time something bad were displayed on the news, that would be different, and would be comparable to my letter’s situation.

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