As workers transition from being isolated at home—whether working remotely or furloughed and waiting to return—some experts fear a rise in workplace violence. HR professionals can take proactive steps to minimize this risk.
"Always remember that workplace violence is generally progressive or evolutionary in nature. The earlier in the evolution it is addressed, the better your chances of a positive outcome for your organization," said Brent O'Bryan, SHRM-SCP, senior vice president of training and organizational effectiveness at security services provider Allied Universal.
Potential Surge in Workplace Violence
Every year, at least 2 million people in the U.S. report being victimized by workplace violence. However, about one-fourth of workplace violence incidents go unreported. In a SHRM survey in 2019, about one-fourth of American workers said their current workplace had been the scene of at least one incident of workplace violence.
Some observers worry about an uptick in workplace violence numbers as more Americans shift from work-at-home status to work-at-work status.
One of the key reasons for this concern is that many workers continue to struggle with physical, mental and emotional stress stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, said retired FBI agent Terri Patterson, a psychologist who is principal at Control Risks, a risk management consulting firm.
"I do firmly believe that we're still in that space where we have a workforce that is really vulnerable right now," she said. "We do believe that a stressed population is more vulnerable to becoming disgruntled or aggrieved."
However, Patterson emphasized that not all workers who are stressed are at risk of committing an act of workplace violence.
O'Bryan said concerns about a possible jump in incidents of workplace violence are mostly rooted in the "real or perceived increase in stress" among employees.
"When we are worried about finances, family and health, we may struggle with hope and optimism," O'Bryan said. "If these issues are not addressed and then collide with workplace stressors like commuting, team conflict and deadlines, the risk of violent acts in the workplace may increase."
Former employment attorney Edgar Ndjatou, executive director of Workplace Fairness, a nonprofit that promotes workers' rights, said disagreements over politics, vaccinations, mask wearing and other hot-button topics also could fuel violent workplace conflicts.
What HR Professionals Can Do to Ease Workplace Tensions
Experts offer these four suggestions for heading off workplace violence.
1. Underscore your commitment to combating workplace violence.
If your workplace doesn't already have a no-threats and no-violence policy, put one in place, O'Bryan recommends. Then, make sure you educate your workforce about the policy, including what's being done to prevent workplace violence. If you do have a workplace violence program, make sure you "re-communicate" its existence to your workforce, O'Bryan said.
"Employers have not only ethical but legal obligations to provide a safe environment for employees," he added.
2. Watch out for warning signs.
Among the warning signs of a potential incident of workplace violence are:
- Trigger events. Many cases of workplace violence can be tied to a trigger event, O'Bryan noted, such as an employee being disciplined or fired or an employee coping with the breakup of a relationship.
- Changes in behavior. Patterson offers this example: An employee's pre-pandemic, happy-go-lucky demeanor switches to a hostile, negative attitude. "If your employee performed well pre-pandemic and performed well virtually but upon return to the workplace is acting out, you have a warning sign," O'Bryan said. "Any noticeable change in behavior is reason for a supervisor or HR professional to meet with the employee as soon as possible to help identify if there are concerns that can and should be addressed."
- Inability to accept blame. Employees who refuse to take responsibility for their actions and blame others instead may be heading down the path toward workplace violence, according to Patterson.
- Veiled threats. An employee who references violence but doesn't make outright threats still poses a great risk, Patterson said. "It's almost as if they're dropping clues, but they don't directly threaten," she said.
3. Institute a phased-in return to work.
Inviting employees to return to the workplace in phases rather than all at once will let workers ease into their pre-pandemic routines and will tamp down on a hustle-and-bustle environment, according to Ndjatou. This could reduce the likelihood that workplace conflicts turn violent.
4. Shore up your mental health resources.
Many workplaces provide mental health resources as part of their health care offerings, but experts say employers can go further in bolstering workers' mental well-being. That's particularly important in light of a recent American Psychiatric Association survey in which just one-fifth of American workers said their employers had added mental health services since the start of the pandemic.
One way employers can elevate their focus on mental health, Patterson said, is to train HR professionals to recognize early signs of psychological distress. Employers might even consider extending this training to front-line supervisors, she said.
Furthermore, Patterson suggests looking into training for HR professionals and front-line supervisors on how to de-escalate volatile situations so they can "manage that initial crisis without making things worse."
"Managers will be the first line of defense … to ensure that there's a smooth transition back to the workplace," Ndjatou said.
John Egan is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas.