Terri Patterson is a recognized expert in behavioral assessment and risk mitigation, and a Principal in Control Risks’ Crisis and Security Consulting practice. Here, Patterson delves into the impact of mental health issues in the corporate environment.

Security: What is your background, current role and responsibilities?

Patterson: I am a Principal in Control Risks’ Crisis and Security Consulting Practice, based in the Washington D.C. office. I retired in 2020 as an executive and special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) after two decades of experience leading law enforcement operations, strategic programs and critical incident preparedness. I am experienced in behavioral assessment and risk mitigation, with a specialization in global security solutions. As a psychologist, I also focus on the impact of mental health in the corporate environment, specializing in threat assessment and case management.

Highlights of my experience include: 

·        Assignment as executive special advisor to the Director of the FBI, provided unique insight to the FBI from both the business administrative and operational perspectives as I provided counsel on a wide range of policy issues. 

·        Led all operational aspects of the criminal enterprise and violent threat programs in the National Capital Region, one of the FBI’s largest and most complex operational environments. 

·        As Chief of the FBI’s elite Behavioral Analysis Unit, I directed numerous research projects examining personality disorders, violent extremism, threat assessment and risk management. 

Security: What is the current state of mental health in the corporate environment regarding escalating mental health impacts emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Patterson: The COVID-19 pandemic has led to enhanced challenges in the workforce. The shift to remote work, transition to hybrid models, and return to the workplace have increased the burden experienced by employees as they navigate home and work-related stressors. We also continue to hear about tensions and polarization around social and political issues that lead to discord within families and communities and spilling into the workplace. All of these ongoing issues have led to unprecedented employee vulnerability – a vulnerability that threatens the productivity, stability and security of the workplace. Often, mental health issues and overwhelming psychological stress in an employee manifests in behavior similar to common performance-related problems such as increased absenteeism, tardiness, failure to meet deadlines, lack of coordination with coworkers and emotional volatility. When concerning behavior remains unchecked, it can escalate beyond the point of repair and lead to broader organizational problems. To mitigate this type of escalation, business leaders are encouraged to establish and reinforce a robust program that includes coordination across security, human resources and legal executives to identify and address concerns at the earliest stages. This effort typically involves reviewing internal policy and procedures, educating people leaders at every level about behavioral indicators of an employee in crisis, and reinforcing measures to report those concerns to a designated entity for appropriate action. The resulting response may include mental health and wellness benefits or a combination of supportive and corrective action that best serves the employee and the broader workforce.  

Security: Is there an increased threat of insider risk? 

Patterson: I believe there will be ongoing challenges as businesses navigate a range of issues from employee stress and compromised coping skills to managing hybrid models of remote and return-to-work structures. There is also the recognition that remote work will become a permanent reality for some workforce segments. These shifts will require companies to continue to examine their insider risk posture against the continuing need for flexibility and resilience-building measures. Based on experience and years of research, we know that a constellation of factors influences insider risk, and the dynamic nature of those factors can enhance the risk posed to businesses that are not adequately prepared and appropriately responsive. Behavioral researchers have long argued that most threats can be prevented by a rapid and robust response that addresses the risk well before a malicious act. And while we have shifted to a greater reliance on digital solutions to insider threats, in case after case, we see the human factor and early clusters of behavioral indicators of an emerging problem long before the malicious act. So we keep beating this drum – comprehensive insider risk programs must incorporate behavioral experts. These experts understand the relevant risk factors and can review employee behaviors in the context of workplace culture to inform the risk to an organization. 

Additionally, as businesses continue to navigate the next phase of returning to the office, it is essential to address the increased stress, anxiety and potential resentment experienced by employees during the transition to the physical work environment. Recognizing this important relationship between employee mental wellness and insider risk is critical. When this behavioral component is married up with appropriate digital tools and commitment by business leaders across disciplines within the organization, the result is a robust insider risk program. 

Security: How can corporate security leaders create a healthy workplace where mental health is a key focus, particularly as employees remain at home or return to the office? 

Patterson: A healthy workplace is the responsibility of leadership at every level in the organization, but three roles are particularly important: leadership at the top, the frontline supervisor and, of course, the corporate security leader. 

First, the tone must be set from leadership at the top. During the past year, there have been numerous anecdotal stories of highly effective leaders sharing personal stories of their own mental health challenges during this difficult time in order to demonstrate their understanding and support of employees. While many corporate leaders are not comfortable sharing personal stories, conveying unwavering support for a healthy workplace that values mental wellness remains important. Additionally, the role of the frontline supervisor in maintaining a healthy workplace is critical and one that is often underestimated. Surveys have consistently conveyed the importance of the frontline manager in employees’ morale – revealing their influential role in the workplace. Highly effective frontline managers are engaged with their employees, recognizing early signs of stress and defusing conflict at its earliest stages. These frontline leaders, when properly trained, are key to a healthy workplace in part because they are best positioned to identify early signs of problems and escalate problems to corporate leadership.

Finally, corporate security leaders have the critical role of equipping the entire organization with the knowledge and tools necessary to ensure a healthy and secure workplace. From physical security to the threat posed by insiders, corporate security leaders work tirelessly behind the scenes to stay ahead of the many threats that can endanger the wellbeing of the business, its reputation, and most importantly, its people. Corporate security leaders serve a critical role in ensuring there is a formalized process of triaging concerning behavior and a multidisciplinary team in place to review and manage the threat posed to the organization, coordinating in-depth threat assessment of the most concerning cases. And while strides have been made to destigmatize mental health issues in the workplace, there is still work to be done in this area. By fostering open discussions about the importance of mental health and educating employees on the signs of mental health struggles and the resources available to assist, corporate leaders will be well on their way to creating a healthy, secure work environment. 

Security: With the rise of violent extremism, how can corporate security leaders stay ahead of this threat and monitor their employees and mental health with a threat assessment/updated risk management program?

Patterson: The rise of violent extremism poses a range of risks to businesses and serves as an ongoing challenge to corporate security leaders. These risks can include everything from property destruction to threats from ideologically motivated insiders. In the current environment, employees may feel marginalized and experience interpersonal conflict in the office based on their perceived position on a given topic. Bullying and harassment in the workplace are sometimes based on ideological differences based on a wide range of temporally sensitive topics. We have seen incidents where malicious insiders seek to right a perceived wrong or attempt to punish a company based on ideology. And more concerning is the ongoing threat posed by insiders who may engage in a workplace violence scenario. 

Businesses must update their risk management plans to address these concerns and ensure the organization is equipped to handle threats from both external and internal sources, regardless of severity and underlying motivation. Some recommended strategies include: monitoring social media platforms and online forums for threat streams and deteriorating sentiment; reviewing the company’s social media policy and informing employees of expectations around political activity and use of corporate systems; and engaging in outreach to local, state and federal partners who are positioned to share intelligence sources and provide a rapid emergency response to a critical incident. 

A comprehensive risk management plan also incorporates employee awareness and training on the signs of psychological stress and behavioral cues that may indicate enhanced risk posed by an insider. Establishing and communicating a clear path to escalate and report issues – anonymously or otherwise – and providing guidance on what to do in threatening situations is a critical component to workplace violence prevention.