Skip to content

Illustration by Security Management, iStock

Teller Trauma: How the Bank of Hawaii Addresses Mental Health Stress After Incidents

There were 1,964 robberies, larcenies, and burglaries at banking institutions in the United States in 2021, according to statistics from the FBI, and the vast majority of incidents occurred at teller counters in bank branches. In 232 of the 1,964 incidents, the perpetrator used a firearm, and in 772 incidents, the perpetrator threatened to use or did use a weapon. Acts of violence during these incidents resulted in 11 injuries, three deaths, and 28 people taken hostage. 

While bank branch violence and robberies are not common (there are more than 70,000 bank branches in the United States), the perception of the threat is enough to spur many banks to invest in robust post-incident procedures and support policies to help employees recover and feel safe.

For the Bank of Hawaii, trauma response and recovery start long before an incident. The bank invested in significant training and guidance for bank branch personnel as well as the corporate security team on de-escalation procedures, which help mitigate many potentially disturbing incidents. This training also helps employees cope in the short time it takes for first responders to arrive in the case of an emergency.

“Believe me, even if it’s as fast as three to five minutes—which is fast for police to arrive in any big metropolitan city—think about the staff who are dealing with an angry, irate person or somebody who’s physically aggressive to another staff member or another party,” says Brian Ishikawa, CPP, senior vice president and director of corporate security for the Bank of Hawaii. “For us to provide tools for our staff to try to de-escalate a situation is really important now more than ever.”

In the event of a robbery, bank staff can fall back on an additional set of training that includes multiple notification methods and a card-based procedure walkthrough.

The branch can notify the bank’s 24/7 security operations center (SOC) through an alarm monitoring system by hitting a silent duress alarm at a teller station, vault, or other site in the branch, or a staffer could call the operations center directly to inform them of a robbery. Alternatively, the SOC receives an alert if any Bank of Hawaii branch telephone calls 911—this does not always indicate a robbery and could instead be an employee calling about a car accident in the parking lot or a health concern. But after receiving notice of an outbound 911 call, SOC operators will call the branch to assess the situation. If they do not receive an answer, operators will pull up surveillance footage and figure out what’s happening and what action to take next.

If they notice signs of distress or a crime in progress, SOC personnel will help call police and ambulatory services, and they will call in the corporate security team—putting the wheels of response and recovery in motion. In the meantime, branch staff have additional procedural aids they can rely on.

“Despite how many times we give folks robbery training, in a time of duress or stress post-incident, they may often forget their training,” Ishikawa says. Banks are all stocked with an “in-case-of-robbery” packet that contains cards of simple, straightforward directions for managers and staff to act upon, such as locking the door so a perpetrator doesn’t try to come back in to escape law enforcement and removing nametags and teller window nameplates so outsiders (nonbranch members, clients, guests, reporters) cannot share specific names about who was affected, which could trouble staff members and their families.

“These are all well-thought-out processes that we have to try to preserve the best outcome, as well as your mental state,” Ishikawa says.

As soon as possible, an investigator from the corporate security team will arrive on site, serving a trio of purposes: verifying human resources has contacted employee assistance program (EAP) service providers so they are ready to help as needed; liaising with law enforcement on-site “to ensure they’re not dealing with potentially traumatized staff,” Ishikawa says, and to provide surveillance records and other material needed to investigate the case; and calming or otherwise working with staff.

While branch managers and other personnel might want to rush into the site to support their colleagues, the site is most likely still an active crime scene, and police are unlikely to let non-security police onto the premises. Corporate security personnel can use their credentials to get into the scene and work with law enforcement onsite, providing floor plans, maps, surveillance, bait money serial numbers, and other information. When not actively assisting law enforcement, security personnel can check up on staff in a positive, authoritative, and kind way to offer support.

“Somebody might not have been physically assaulted or shot, but because of shaky legs after a robber left, somebody might have fallen and cut their knee or fainted and banged their head,” Ishikawa says. “We need to make sure those issues are appropriately addressed.” Because staff could be feeling emotional, in shock, or potentially traumatized, having a rational leader who can make effective decisions can be invaluable, he adds.

After the crime scene is cleared, the bank strives to bring in a counselor for a group debriefing the same day, making counseling available through the EAP for additional single sessions as necessary. At some branches on remote islands in Hawaii, getting a person on-site immediately is more challenging, and virtual options are available, but the preference is for an in-person session, Ishikawa says.

“How post-traumatic stress tends to work—just as in a military situation—is I might be fine after a firefight or after some other type of event, but then it might be later on that night or the next day or weeks later that I start reliving the events,” he says. “I start second-guessing my actions, thinking I could’ve, should’ve, would’ve done something better—that if I did something better, we would’ve had a more positive outcome.”

The bank provides documents on how to take care of yourself and how managers can help employees cope following a stressful incident, including coping issues and warning signs such as wandering or working aimlessly; having angry, unjustified outbursts; overall loss of emotional control; uncontrollable crying; staring out into the distance; disorientation; or isolation from the group. Managers are instructed to watch out for employees who seem shaken up, are acting significantly different from normal, or are not feeling well, and they can offer an EAP referral. If needed, the bank will swap in additional staff to reopen the branch location while employees are recovering.

“I think it’s critical that employees will know that others care about them,” Ishikawa says. Beyond the employees themselves, this resonates with their families and friends, too. Some employees are young, perhaps fresh out of high school, and after a robbery event, their parents might be particularly concerned about how they are being treated.

“Having an employee say, ‘We got a counselor that came in and did a debriefing, and I got some coping-related pieces here in a print-out or on my phone’—as a parent, that makes you feel there are some protocols to make sure my loved one is taken care of,” he adds.

While those resources can help most employees cope with and recover from a traumatic incident, sometimes they are not enough. Long-time tellers who have been with the bank for decades may experience one stressful incident—even if it isn’t particularly violent—that pushes them beyond what they can handle, and they choose to quit the banking industry. But the Bank of Hawaii does what it can to retain employees, including placing them into different job settings—moving from a branch to a corporate back office, for example.

Branch workers and other frontline personnel are not the only ones to face traumatic experiences on the job, though. Ishikawa is also concerned about the mental wellbeing of his corporate security team and investigators, who frequently deal with fraud cases.

“Too many times they’re seeing somebody—especially elder victims—losing a lot of money because they kept giving money out thinking they won a lottery or are falling for a romance scheme,” Ishikawa says. “At some point, when they realize that, ‘Hey, I just gave away more than $500,000 that I’m not going to ever get back,’ it’s heartbreaking even for our investigators to deal with. When you work those cases day in and day out, after a while, a certain case will pop up, and it will take a toll on that investigator. As a manager, I and others here have to look out for that, because folks can get burned out.”

Trauma is cumulative, and repeated exposure to negative or troubling events and stories can chip away at someone’s resilience, says Diana Concannon, PCI, a forensic psychologist and dean of the California School of Forensic Studies at Alliant International University. If an analyst or investigator doesn’t get adequate support or face repeated traumas, they are more susceptible for one case, story, or detail to strike a chord and affect them more deeply, like if a parent is investigating a crime involving children or identifying an older victim as similar to the investigator’s own parent.

This decreased resilience can lead to signs of vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue, or even burnout.

“In security, we’re sometimes dealing with just so much negativity from incidents that we need to take a step back to be able to continue,” Ishikawa says. In staff meetings, the investigators and corporate security team discuss issues about troubling cases, how they are feeling, and how they are coping with challenges. At some point, everyone will have a case that strikes a nerve, he adds, and having those open discussions encourages them to come forward when they recognize they are going through the same situation.

That empathy extends beyond the perimeter of a single organization. Ishikawa notes that if a competitor bank or another organization has a robbery or traumatic incident, he will reach out and offer a note of support or a friendly ear.

“I think that’s one of the things that through ASIS as an industry group we can do for each other,” he says. “We hear about incidents or read about them in the news, and sometimes those folks just need a super tiny touchpoint to say, ‘Hey, hang in there, buddy. I empathize with what you’re going through.’ That empathy goes far.”


Claire Meyer is managing editor of Security Management. Connect with her on LinkedIn or via email at [email protected].