Assessing Workplace Violence During a Pandemic

May 07, 2020 | From HRCalifornia Extra

by Dennis Davis, Ph.D.; Director of Client Training, Ogletree Deakins

Many Americans are working remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So, that means there’s less potential for workplace violence, right? Not necessarily.

Workplace violence is defined as any act or threat that threatens the safety, security or well-being of an individual who is at work or on duty. In addition to physical harm, workplace violence also can place an organization’s assets in jeopardy. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health puts the annual price tag for workplace violence at more than $120 billion.

Remember, many are still venturing out to work every day. And for those who are working remotely, the manifestation of violence might look different — but the potential for said violence might be the same.

Types of Workplace Violence

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has identified four separate and distinct types of workplace violence — and understanding the different types of violence and perpetrators better prepares us to protect ourselves from potential violence.

Type I occurs at the hands of individuals who have no legitimate relationship to the workplace. These perpetrators usually enter the workplace to commit a robbery or other criminal act. Most recent statistics report that this represents the largest category of workplace violence (by number of incidents). An example of this type of behavior would be a person who goes into a 24-hour convenience store at midnight to rob it. The clerk resists the robber’s instructions and violence ensues.

Type II occurs at the hands of a perpetrator who’s either the recipient or object of a service provided by the affected workplace. This type of violence includes current and former patients, clients, customers, passengers, criminal suspects and prisoners. An example would be an airline passenger who’s had several drinks and, upon learning the flight attendant won’t serve him another due to his slurred speech and loud demeanor, verbally assaults the flight attendant and physically pushes her.

Type III is behavior on the part of someone who has an employment relationship with the workplace. This could involve an assault or other violent act by a current employee, a former employee or a prospective employee. This also includes self-harm or suicidal ideation. One example of this would be a disgruntled former employee returning to his former workplace with a weapon and assaulting his former coworkers.

Type IV is violent behavior on the part of an individual who has no direct relationship to the workplace. The behavior may be perpetrated by a relative or friend, someone from an employee’s private life. Most commonly, this is domestic violence that has crossed over into the workplace. An example would be an employee who leaves an abusive relationship without telling her partner where she’s moving, and two weeks after she does so, her former partner comes to her workplace and demands to see her.

A Pandemic’s Impact

The current environment of fear, anxiety and uncertainty lends itself to two major potentials for violence: self-harm, which falls into Type III, and domestic violence, which falls into Type IV.

Let’s look first at self-harm. During this current crisis, many are experiencing reduced or loss of income. This mounting financial pressure increases fear and anxiety and disrupts the life routine. For individuals who were struggling with depression and emotional health issue pre-pandemic, the current conditions can serve as triggering events. The precipitating events can include:

  • Social isolation.
  • Family/domestic stressors.
  • Uncertainty/fear/anxiety.
  • Unemployment.
  • Reduction to household income.
  • Mounting pressure to pay bills.
  • Separation from friends and family.
  • Lack of outlets for stress relief.
  • More consumption of alcohol.
  • Health concerns.
  • Financial stability concerns.
  • Concerns about the future/children’s future.

With so many employees working remotely, it can be difficult to clearly see cues that something is amiss. After all, many cues that indicate a person is struggling are non-verbal; they’re often communicated through eye-contact, facial expressions and body language. When communicating with your employees, listen for signs that: they’re not taking care of themselves physically; they’ve experienced significant weight gain or weight loss; and they’re experiencing sleeplessness or a complete lack of energy.

In addition, employees who are escalating toward self-harm often demonstrate significant, even severe, changes in psychological functioning. The once bright and positive individual begins to express pessimism and despair, for example. These changes can also include depression, agitation, disorientation and expressions of desperation. You might see this in the form of missed meetings, unreturned phone calls and unanswered emails.

What can employers do? In addition to phone call check-ins, consider periodically scheduling meetings on platforms that allow you to visually connect with your employees. When signs of depression or despair present themselves, don’t hesitate to refer employees to your Employee Assistance Program, many of which are now conducting virtual counseling sessions. When you see something that indicates your employee might be an imminent risk to themselves, consider contacting local law enforcement to conduct a welfare check.

As for domestic violence, one-in-four women and one-in-seven men have in their lifetime experienced severe physical violence (e.g. beating, burning, strangling) at the hands of an intimate partner, according to a CDC report. In fact, the U.S. Department of Justice reported in 2014 that intimate partner violence accounts for 15 percent of all violent crime, and women between the ages of 18 and 24 are most commonly abused by an intimate partner.

Many more people are spending much more time at home during the pandemic, so this combined with financial stress, employment uncertainty and social isolation can stress already unhealthy relationships.

Employees dealing with domestic violence issues are frequently reluctant to share their circumstances because they fear either the social stigma of victimization or reprisals from their abuser. But, as mentioned earlier, try to hold at least some employee meetings via a platform that allows a visual connection. While checking in with an employee who you suspect might be in a combative relationship is important, be careful with emails and text messages offering support, as control is a major component of combative relationships; it’s not uncommon for the abusive partner to regularly inspect the battered employee’s text messages and emails.

Be Mindful of Substance Abuse

There is a strong correlation between substance abuse and violence. An overwhelming majority of perpetrators (regardless to whether the violence is directed to self or others) are believed to abuse substances, according to the U.S  Department of Justice, and approximately one-quarter of those who’ve been arrested for perpetrating violence at work were reported to be actively under the influence when the incident occurred.

During the current pandemic, this might show up as an employee who participates in a virtual meeting and is clearly under the influence. And substance abuse and Type III violence — including self-harm — also share a strong connection.

The overall takeaway? Stay connected with your employees during this time, be mindful of the potential for any of these instances to materialize and do your best to support your workers.