coronavirus COVID-19

Workplace Violence and Coronavirus Disease

Christine L. Peterson, CPP, ISPNews, Workplace Violence

We’re beginning to realize that coronavirus disease, COVID-19, will be an event burned into our minds and hearts for generations.  Employees are not receiving paychecks, and unemployment benefits are lagging behind the need. Families, companies, and governments are being pushed to historic limits. When reality finally sets in, there are going to be reactions, including an increase in workplace violence.

For those who don’t have appropriate emotional, physical, or spiritual resources, stress will tax their systems to an even higher degree. Multi-faceted stress will have more of an impact. It is just the way we are wired. We are also wired to look for an underlying cause for our distress. People rarely attach economic distress to ourselves or our spending habits. We often see it as a product of our employment or the government. In addition, the use or abuse of alcohol/drugs and/or mental instability can exacerbate the situation.

Most of our workforce today has nothing by which to judge this pandemic. No sentinel event in our lifetime was so widespread that it had the ability to change all aspects of our daily lives for such a duration.

So how does this relate to workplace violence?

We already know that good people often make poor decisions when under stress. This is true even if everything else in their life is going well. We also know that over 90% of our decision-making process is based on what we can rationalize.

Most of us have never faced anything close to what we are facing with coronavirus disease. We don’t have the past experience to draw from. Desperation leads to frustration, and frustration leads to action. For some, this situation will lead to incredible good. For others, this situation will lead to a slippery slope and desperate measures.

As a security consulting firm, we are expecting to see a possible increase in workplace violence based on the increased stress of COVID-19.

But wait! How is this possible if we’re all working from home? How is anyone at risk for getting shot at work?

First, remember that workplace violence includes more than just active shooter situations. It’s a whole spectrum of inappropriate behaviors including bullying, harassment, physical assaults, threatening behavior, intimidation, or verbal abuse.

Second, we’re not all working from home. While some employers have the capacity and ability for employees to work from home, others don’t. Even with remote working capabilities, there are still some critical employees and industries that must physically work in the building.

Finally, we have to come back to work at some point. When that happens, employees will still be under a tremendous amount of stress. It will take a long time to get back to normal. For many of us, there may be a new “normal”. For others, the economic repercussions from this pandemic may cause them to lose their job completely.

So what can we each do as individuals, co-workers, managers, and executives to support best outcomes for the people we work with?
At the highest level, employees are looking for leadership, compassion, and a sense of community.
  • Be honest with employees, but also remind employees that they are a part of a larger community.
  • Be seen and be heard.
  • Communicate vision and leadership. Focus on the welfare and encouragement of the employees.
  • We are in this together.
Every company should have a multi-disciplined risk assessment team.
  • These are the people who know who is at risk and which departments or employees may need additional resources/support.
  • If a particular department is critical and has a lot of parents of school age children or younger, childcare support will be critical. Can the company help support this need?
  • Do you have an older employee population? Do they have special needs?
  • If layoffs are inevitable, how can you support employees seek resources such as unemployment and other government assistance? If the company can’t provide wages, can it do something else? Maybe open a food pantry for employees?
  • This team needs to have the authority to develop and deploy customized responses to departmental and individual issues.
Managers and supervisors should be talking with individual employees, by phone if not in person. In addition, they should be communicating via other media resources.  This is necessary to support team members and identify potential issues.
  • Know that employees want to be heard and know they are not forgotten.
  • Equip managers and supervisors with information about EAP programs so that they can remind employees that there are resources in place to support them.
  • Provide managers and supervisors with information that they can share with employees on benefits, unemployment options, anything that can support employees and create a sense of support and/or community.
  • Provide training and resources to managers and supervisors to be able to identify employees who may become a threat to the company or who are making threatening statements. Always treat these statements as a red flag. Report these statements to HR, security, manager, or whomever the company designates.
    • Employees are the most at risk when multiple areas of their lives are off the tracks. When we feel like we are a valuable part of our personal and professional community, we can weather significant upheaval and chaos. However, this can change when things get off the tracks in multiple areas, especially when compounded by physical or mental illness, alcohol and drug abuse.
    • Managers/supervisors and co-workers are critical to the ability of any company to conduct threat assessments. They can identify and deploy resources that protect the organization.

Workplace violence is one of those security events that we want to believe will not happen. The effect that coronavirus will have on our employee populations will be significant and will extend for months if not years.

Now is the time to take steps to support employees and our community by providing information, leadership, resources, sympathy, and kindness. It will pay dividends for all of us and support a stronger, more resilient community of the future.