Workplace violence in challenging times

How employers can recognize, prevent, and de-escalate violence and hostility

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Workplace shootings across the US, like in Austin and Kenosha, highlight how workplace violence continues to affect organizations — and 2020 was one of the most violent years in decades.1 Following a year of unprecedented physical, financial, and emotional stress largely caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, what can businesses do to prevent, identify, and — if needed — de-escalate violence and hostility in the workplace as employees return to their offices?

Our webinar Workplace Violence in Challenging Times: Navigating employee safety and security addressed the impact of the pandemic on Americans’ mental health, explored how compounded stress can lead to increased crime, hostility, and violence, and discussed ways that employers can promote workplace safety and security. Learn more about steps employers can take to prevent and address potential hostility at their place of business.

Growing stress and hostility

Guardian’s 10th Annual Workplace Benefits Study found that more than half of full-time employees agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic is a significant source of stress in their lives. And, notably, this stress cut across all ages, income levels, races, and genders. This increase in nationwide stress is a growing concern, especially as employers start to bring their workforces back to onsite facilities.

“Over the past 12 months, we’re seeing more and more acceptance that violence is a potential solution to a problem that employees are having,” said Hart S. Brown, Senior Vice President of R3 Continuum at our webinar. This behavior can “potentially lead to an increase in threats related to the workplace and an increase in concern by other employees that an individual is exhibiting certain signs and symptoms or is causing a concern that they may be considering violence as a solution to their problems.” Employers should build awareness around the stress their employees may have experienced, take preventative steps to identify concerning behavior, and have a plan in place should something happen.

Use identification, training, and planning to prepare for a potential threat

To start, employers should learn how to recognize behavior that could lead to a threat. “Are we recognizing that an individual is showing red flags or some indicator that they are in a hostile, aggressive state, or leaning towards potentially committing some act of violence?” asks Brown. While fitness for duty exams can screen for certain indicators, people managers can learn to watch for changes in behavior, increased absenteeism, unstable or emotional responses, or increase talk of violence. Typically, these sorts of behaviors grow over time, so early identification and intervention can help.

Offer training to help managers and employees gain awareness around red flags and indicators for violence. “Identify training that can be given to employees to help each other recognize when somebody is struggling with something,” notes Brown. Training can help teach how to approach a struggling employee, what language to use, and techniques to de-escalate the situation.

Have a scenario-based plan for hostility management and incorporate your training into your onboarding plans and share the plan annually thereafter. The plan should include an overview of violence risk factors, techniques to diffuse hostile or violent situations, and alert or alarm systems to notify the appropriate security should something occur.

Conduct a security review of your facilities

When developing a response plan, inspect your facilities to identify vulnerabilities and plans for evacuation or shelter. Security companies or even local police organizations can inspect your facility to make recommendations, but there are still steps you can take if you don’t have access or funds for a professional inspection.

“I generally refer to security as time,” notes Brown. “How long does it take for an individual to do something that you don’t want them to do? Can you put enough barriers in place to create enough of a delay — from a time perspective — in order to protect yourself until help arrives?”

Get buy-in from leadership

Having leadership’s support is an important component of risk prevention and response. Should an event occur, leadership will be responsible for managing the crisis — including financial and legal obligations. When raising the need for crisis response, Brown advises to “make it humanistic. Let the employers know that it’s important to employees and could impact productivity.”

Organizations should also confirm with local, state, and federal legislation to see if there are safety compliance measures they must follow. If an incident were to occur, legislation can be expensive. “If plans are in place and leadership believes in those plans, we see a competitive advantage in most cases when a crisis occurs,” says Brown.

Be a trusted source of communication

During challenging times like those we’ve faced during COVID-19, employees can be unsure where to go for information, often fueling a sense of uncertainty. “Uncertainty itself has a tendency to make individuals start to insert their worst fears,” notes Brown.

Organizations can challenge those feelings of uncertainty or uneasiness through consistent communication. “Become that trusted resource as a leader within the organization,” says Brown. “Communication — by giving information and resources as we make this next transition and readaptation — will become incredibly important in order to address these issues before they even come to your doors.”


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Disclaimer

1Thebault, Reis, Fox, Joe, and Ba Tran, Andrew. 2020 was the deadliest gun violence year in decades. So far, 20201 is worse. The Washington Post, June 14, 2021.

This is meant for general informational purposes only and is not to be construed as professional advice. Although the information has been gathered from sources believed to be reliable, please note that individual situations can vary. Therefore, the information should be relied upon only when coordinated with individual professional advice.

This material contains the current opinions of those quoted in this article, but not necessarily those of Guardian or its subsidiaries and such opinions are subject to change without notice. R3 Continuum and Integrated Behavioral Health are not affiliates or subsidiaries of Guardian.

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