Escalations in workplace violence: implications for employers

June 25, 2024

Share on LinkedIn Share on Facebook Share on X

By Jesus Ojeda, Senior Risk Services Consultant; Laura Oslund, Senior Risk Services Consultant; Mark Debus, Clinical Manager, Behavioral Health

Violence in the workplace is on the rise. The number of annual active shooter events at U.S. places of business has doubled in just the past few years. Retail theft is now commonly accompanied by acts of violence against employees and customers. And in the post-COVID era, workers in health care, food service and transportation are more likely than ever to be assaulted by disgruntled patients, patrons and passengers. Workplace violence is a leading cause of job-related injuries and fatalities today.

In light of these alarming trends, it’s critical that employers take precautions to guard against violence on their premises and to protect their people in case such violence occurs. In honor of June being National Safety Month, here we will explore what the escalation of workplace violence means for employers — and what they should be doing about it for the sake of their employees’ physical safety and mental well-being. 

Prevention and risk reduction

The best way to protect against losses associated with workplace violence is to prevent them from occurring in the first place. In fact, U.S. employers have a duty to take appropriate measures to prevent violent behavior, according to the rules put forth by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). As a first line of defense, workplaces should have physical protections and security protocols that restrict access to only those with a good reason to be there. This is more difficult for places like banks and retail stores, whose doors are generally open during business hours. For them, prevention and risk reduction efforts may include limiting the amount of cash on site and installing plexiglass barriers at counters to guard against smash-and-grabs.

In our capacity as risk consultants, we often recommend that employers conduct threat assessments. These thorough analyses examine the probability of an active threat on employers’ premises, along with their greatest vulnerabilities and what can be done to address them. In addition to covering things like entrances accessible to the public and types of threats they’re likely to face, they also encompass interviewing employees about how safe they feel at work and their likelihood of raising safety concerns with management.

Another helpful approach for employers is to ensure their people practices support prevention and risk reduction. Conducting comprehensive background checks as part of the hiring process can lower the risk of violence being perpetrated by a current (or former) employee; so can supervisory and HR processes that monitor for and promptly address the warning signs of extreme employee stress. Employers should be mindful of broad-scale workplace stressors — such as layoffs, mergers and management changes — that can lead to violent outbursts if not handled sensitively. Training employees on de-escalation tactics in dealing with irate customers, visitors and fellow employees is another useful prevention tool.

Incident readiness

Employers’ second line of defense is preparedness for a violent event that may occur in the workplace. While the foundation of incident readiness is about protecting an organization’s people, operations and reputation, the focus has shifted somewhat toward demonstrating due diligence to insurers and complying with regulations like California’s Senate Bill 553 (which, as of July 1, 2024, will require employers to adopt comprehensive workplace violence prevention plans, deliver related training to employees, and keep records of safety incidents). Whether employers are improving their readiness for a violent event because they must or because they feel it’s the right thing to do, the end result is, hopefully, reducing the risk of employees being injured or killed on the job.

A core strategy in incident readiness is establishing an emergency action plan, which specifically defines who does what how, when and where during and after a violent event or other dangerous situation. All employees must have access to the plan, so that they can be prepared to respond quickly and minimize harm. Each organization’s emergency action plan should support and reflect their culture, values and mission; it should also be tailored to the particulars of their workforce, physical layout, resources and management style. 

Elements that should be included in an emergency action plan include:

  • Defined roles and responsibilities
  • Procedures for evacuation and barricading/sheltering in place
  • Crisis communication protocols
  • What employees should expect when police/first responders arrive
  • A “mantra” that serves as the organization’s core plan — such as “Run-Hide-Fight” or “Get out, get safe, get tough”

Training employees on what to do during an active threat is also critical to preparedness. Much like having a simple mantra, training helps employees build mental checklists and overcome the tendency to freeze when faced with unexpected and troubling circumstances.

Preparing for emotional fallout

The traumatic impact of a violent workplace event should not be underestimated. After surviving a violent trauma, employees may struggle to make sense of what they experienced. In the short term, they might have trouble sleeping, be worried or agitated, and startle easily. Delayed symptoms can include flashbacks, irritation, anxiety and depression. These issues can manifest in the workplace as burnout, absenteeism, performance concerns and heated conflict — and may result in workers’ compensation or disability/leave of absence claims.

Early intervention is essential to effectively address post-traumatic stress, so employers should have support resources in place well before tragedy strikes. These can include an employee assistance program (EAP), an established relationship with a crisis care provider, ample coverage for mental health treatment through employee benefits, and embedding behavioral health solutions within managing care for workers’ compensation. A behavioral health approach through workers’ comp offers employers the advantage of addressing return to work as part of a supportive treatment process; it may also result in securing employee care faster, due to a general shortage of mental health practitioners across the U.S. 

In addition to June being National Safety Month, it’s also Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Awareness Month. Later this month, watch for more on the Sedgwick blog about the importance of recognizing and addressing PTSD in the workplace.

Learn more — explore our risk services offerings and behavioral health solutions for workers’ compensation 

Tags: empowering performance, Mental health, Prevention, Risk, Safety, violence, workplace, Workplace safety