According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Victims of Crime, workplace homicides declined between 1995 and 2015. Yet workplace homicides are not the most common form of workplace violence — simple assault is. Simple assault is defined by the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) as an attack without a weapon that results in no injuries or minor injuries (e.g., cuts, scratches, black eyes), or any injury requiring fewer than two days in the hospital.
And it’s these reports of nonfatal violence within the workplace that have gotten high-profile attention amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. With reports of a decline in mental health and rises of depression, alcoholism and domestic violence showing up in the media, experts point to an increase in stress, anger, dissention and aggression fueled by COVID-19, social justice issues and politics. For example, a study conducted by Howard University estimates that social distancing measures increased domestic violence by roughly 6%, or more than 24,000 cases, during the first few weeks of the pandemic last year.
According to HR Daily Advisor, the stress of the pandemic has “raised stress levels and lowered thresholds for confrontation over previously non-existent issues such as social distancing and hand hygiene.”
Viral videos and images of retail, restaurant, frontline and security workers being assaulted or abused, sometimes while enforcing COVID-19 policies such as mask wearing and social distancing, have plagued social media channels since the early days of the pandemic. Just in the month of March 2021, a security guard and off-duty policeman at a high school basketball game in New Orleans was shot for trying to deescalate a mask confrontation; a security guard at a Michigan Family Dollar store was shot in the head after asking a customer to follow the state-mandate on mask wearing; and an alleged shoplifter shot a security guard and a police officer who confronted the perpetrator at a Chicago Home Depot.
In the U.K., new research from Co-op (which operates 2,600 food stores and over 1,000 funeral homes) revealed that one in five customers admit to having been aggressive or abusive toward a shopworker over the course of the past eight months — despite the fact that 90% of Brits feel that retail workers have provided an essential service during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hospitals and healthcare facilities have noticed a difference during the pandemic as well. Though the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic saw fewer people visiting ERs, ultimately leading to a drop in reported violent incidents in healthcare facilities, that has changed as emergency rooms and hospitals began filling up again. National Nurses United surveyed 15,000 registered nurses across the U.S. and found that 20% reported increased workplace violence, in November 2020.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the highest rates of workplace violence are seen in law enforcement, mental health professionals and medical professionals, transportation workers, retail employees and teachers.
“Why workplace violence ultimately happens falls into a variety of buckets and reasons associated with coping, loss of control, fear and trauma. Since workplaces are typically microcosms of our societies at large, incidents and the issues of the perpetrator reflect that character of their communities, concerns, risks, prejudices, and thinking that they may bring to the workplace. If we were to look at the past 14 months, we would see how the COVID-19 pandemic might have impacted our way of life,” says Felix Nater, Security Management Consultant at Nater Associates Ltd.
At the enterprise level, HR may handle complaints or reports, looping in security departments for incident response or real-time threats (such as verbal abuse or name calling, aggression, bullying, sexual harassment, intimidation, suicidal threats, sabotage or product tampering, for example). But best practices take a collaborative approach to workplace violence mitigation and involve response plans, designated reporting structures, and proactive training.
As reports continue regarding frontline workers, healthcare workers and other employees experiencing aggression or violence incidents at the workplace — in part, fueled by increased stress from the COVID-19 pandemic — security leaders can approach training and mitigation with these two important considerations in mind.
1. Everybody needs something.
David Fowler, Founder and President of Personal Safety Training Inc. and the AVADE method, says that though time, money, scheduling and budgets are a dilemma for every company, workplace violence training should reach everyone within the organization in some way. Fowler says he thinks workplace violence mitigation training can be broken down into three levels by risk, depending on how many people employees interact with; if they interact with the public, customers or patients; if they’re lone workers or more vulnerable to incidents based on roles and responsibilities, etc.
“Anybody and everybody within the organization should get some level of training, whether it’s a brief class or a virtual webinar or e-learning,” he says. But after level one, chief security officers and security leaders need to take a thoughtful approach to delegating training based on what different employees need. For example, security officers, behavioral health staff or nurses and others that interact with potentially aggressive or disturbed individuals, should be targeted for further in-person training on a regular basis. Those staff that may need to implement physical restraints or take a lead during incident response should receive further narrowed training that focuses on those skills needed.
“It’s important to take that three-pronged approach because you can’t train everybody at once. You have to really do an assessment to see what your organization’s and employees’ needs are and that’s unique to each organization,” Fowler says.
2. Practice, practice, practice.
The second consideration for mitigating workplace violence is allowing employees to practice responses. Trying a new approach or changing engrained behaviors is always challenging, but a little persistence can go a long way, because the human brain is optimized to pick up new skills quickly.
Author of “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” and “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference,” Malcolm Gladwell, says it takes 10,000 hours to master a new skill. While it might not take quite 10,000 hours to have employees feeling comfortable about responding to potential workplace violence, the truth is, it takes practice to remember safety and security tactics.
Just like with any new skill, training employees how to handle potential workplace violence or aggressive situations and following up with regular training and practice is critical in order for it to make a difference.
“Everything begins with education and awareness and really understanding how to be vigilant, but you can be aware and still not do anything. Only with practice can you get to avoidance, defense (if necessary) and escape,” Fowler says.
In the end, careful training and reinforcement provide a healthy start for enterprises serious about workplace violence mitigation. “As a microcosm of society, organizations must be prepared by ensuring prevention methodology, [along with] credibility amongst the workforce. Employees need to truly believe their employers are capable of providing for their safety and security. Merely saying employees are the most important people that walk through your doors is not enough. The culture must reinforce the message,” Nater says.