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3 Ways to Reduce Pandemic-Fuelled Workplace Violence

Angry man pointing a finger

The widespread effects of COVID-19 have made safety in the workplace an increasingly relevant topic for every industry. And given the recent surge in workplace violence, it goes well beyond the most obvious COVID safety protocols. Many professionals—for example, the retail, restaurant, healthcare, and law enforcement sectors—are experiencing an alarming (often physical) resistance to enforcing protocols like mask wearing, social distancing, and limiting the number of people allowed in an establishment, but that’s not where it ends when it comes to workplace violence. 

The pandemic has created a fear of the unknown impacting the way people think and act. Not to mention an amplified fear of getting sick—health worries for aged parents, kids being in school, people with compromised immune systems being exposed—and the effect it would have on daily life. When you add in other life stressors like job loss, cutbacks, and financial uncertainty, the pressure of the pandemic elevates existing mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, and substance abuse, causing people to act outside their norm.

This may partially explain the increased number of reported domestic violence cases (initial studies showed an increase in domestic violence from 10%–27% in certain states ) since the pandemic forced families into isolation. And sometimes that can follow an employee to the workplace. For some, going back to work hasn’t alleviated the stressors that have impacted their lives—the safe haven of work has become a COVID-made quagmire. Returning to work is more of a challenge because nothing is the same as it was—and that’s enough to cause some people to feel overwhelmed or act irrationally. 

When it comes to the safety of workers, does everyone know what the workplace violence policy and procedures entail? Here are some tips to make the post-COVID transition as safe as possible (at work or at home):

  1. Risk assessment – the most important thing in workplace violence prevention is identifying and preparing for workplace violence hazards. Provide extra security measures (i.e., alarm system, cameras, panic button or provide cell phones) for threats that have been identified. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends employee training on threat recognition, conflict resolution, and non-violent response. Training should be provided on how to recognize warning signs (verbal and non-verbal cues like raised voices, clenched fists, even a change in breathing) and response measures to avoid or defuse violent situations. 
  2. Increase forms of communication – to help with COVID-related messaging, try using supporting material. Posters that clearly indicate that masks are required and social distancing needs to be practiced will help support employees when they need to deliver that message verbally. Make sure the workplace is secure. Outlining expectations for employees in the workplace through an email or company newsletter will clearly state what the new rules in the workplace are. Reiterate how to report unsafe conditions, investigations, working alone, workplace conduct. Reports must be taken seriously.
  3. Employee Assistance Program (EAP) – if your company doesn’t offer an employee assistance program, it may be time to consider the benefits. There are often a variety of confidential services that many will find helpful during this time like counseling, legal services, financial services, dependent care services, and online training and resources.  When providing information about the EAP, give the phone number (multiple times is encouraged) and direct links to specific services—the easier it is for employees to learn about and access the services, the more likely it is that they will use them. The benefits of an EAP include reduced turnover and absenteeism, and higher employee productivity.

Safety professionals should ensure that all members of the company have a good understanding of the policies and procedures when taking measures to limit violence and harassment in the workplace. There’s no benefit to having preventive measures in place if they’re not understood or known to everyone at every level. Regular training might seem like overkill but in an emergency situation fast thinking and knowledge of how to correctly handle the situation could be the difference between life and death.

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