Personnel Safety

Managing Workplace Violence and COVID-19

The issues surrounding workplace violence have posed major challenges for safety leaders for decades, but adding COVID-19 into the mix has made navigating these issues even more complicated.

At the EHS Daily Advisor Exchange in Arizona earlier this month, Hector Alvarez, president of Alvarez Associates, held a workshop that explained how to better understand workplace violence, spot behavioral warning signs, and determine how to intervene. The pandemic we’ve been dealing with since early 2020 has made those tasks even more difficult, he noted.

“COVID has dramatically changed my experience. My clientele shifted. We were training everybody, and then we shifted to training just frontline workers,” said Alvarez.

At a recent training of a group of grocery store managers, Alvarez noted, “they were just emotionally bled out of all patience and exhausted physically and emotionally from the way people were treating them. That seems to be a reoccurring theme.”

Alvarez said he knows of at least six situations in which businesses have parted ways with employees during the pandemic and it ended in suicide attempts. “We just don’t know what people are dealing with. And are you ready to let an employee go that you’ve only talked to remotely and now you’ve got to sit across from them?”

What is workplace violence?

Workplace violence is defined as any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior occurring in a work setting, Alvarez said. The definition of “work setting” has evolved over the years.

“You have to be able to describe to your employees that wherever they are doing whatever it is that you do and your employees are there, it’s within the scope of workplace violence,” he noted.

There was an instance where two delivery drivers got in an altercation in a company parking lot. Front desk receptionist saw the fight and was affected by it. Even though the drivers didn’t work for the company itself, the incident had an impact on the company. A fight between two patrons of the business could also fall under workplace violence if it spills over. Alvarez recommended looking at your policy to see if it covers such instances.

Alvarez said there are four types of workplace violence:

1: Criminal behavior: Criminals looking for money but no connection to workplace other than to commit a crime.

2: Violence directed at employees by customers/clients/patients/inmates. “When you withhold something, that creates a frustration, and that frustration leads to violence,” he said. We need to identify the frustration: What is it, and what can we do to make it better.

3: Acts committed by a current or former employee. “I’ve had an employee come back seven years later.”

4: Violence committed by someone who doesn’t work there but has personal relationship with an employee, or in other words, domestic violence.

“This is the one that really keeps me busy,” Alvarez said. “It is the most prevalent, it is the most prolific, it is definitely a gender-centric issue. About 85% female survivors. It crosses all demographics, all levels. It’s complicated.”

Spheres of influence

There are three spheres of influence that you need to work to keep separate: The environment, the target, and the person of concern.

“There has to be an environment: Physical, cyber, someplace, it has to happen,” said Alvarez. “You have to be able to assess the full scope of your company’s work environment.”

Your workers can be the target of aggressive behavior or violence, he noted. Are they trained in what to look for? Do they have someone from the company they can contact if something happens at 1 a.m.?

Do you tell workers when people leave under less than desirable conditions? Most companies usually don’t, Alvarez said. “We do onboarding, we don’t do offboarding.”

Warning signs

Train your workers to look for the warning signs of impending violence.

“People go through divorces, they have difficult days, but they don’t go on to commit an act of violence. So the behavioral indicators get much narrower; the problem is, we have to be able to catch it. Someone in your organization needs to bring it to a team, who then evaluates it,” said Alvarez. “So I train my first-line supervisors, the first observers, then I do the intake, [training] the middle supervisors to know how to take it in and pass it up. What a lot of organizations don’t have is a threat assessment team, a function to evaluate what that threat means and is it credible. Some of the more serious threats I’ve ever worked didn’t involve overtly threatening actions.”

There are always warning signs that were overlooked or ignored.

“I’ve had almost a dozen cases where the employee showed somebody the gun and told other people he or she was going to use it and nobody came forward,” he said. “When we talk about psychological safety, it’s if an employee doesn’t feel comfortable coming forward, they won’t.”

COVID’s impact

Alvarez pushed back at the common suggestion that COVID-19 was a shared experience. “The biggest problem we all have is [saying] we all survived this thing together…Everybody had their own experience.”

The pandemic had a wide range of effects on people. “COVID affected people. Relationships failed, people lost people that they cared about,” said Alvarez. “Impacts were unpredictable.”

Companies need to be understanding when it comes to how employees are dealing with COVID, whether it’s providing “mental health days” or other accommodations, he added.  

“Meet with your workers a couple of times a week,” whether in person or virtually, Alvarez said. “Look for significant behavioral shifts.”

COVID impacts include:

  • Personal relationship problems
  • Physical and/or mental health problems
  • Substance abuse
  • Losses, including death, divorce, custody disputes
  • Loss of job, missed promotion, layoffs
  • Conflict with co-workers
  • Isolation or a lack of social support

Some signs to watch for:

  • Significant changes in interactions in meetings
  • Change in tone of emails and phone conversations
  • Less communicative—Offline more, slower to reply to emails.
  • Decreased work quality or quantity—Missed meetings, calls or deadlines
  • Failing to follow instructions or accepting coaching
  • Confusion, poor memory, or concentration

Watch for the following types of concerning behavior that should lead to immediate action:

  • Significant changes in appearance and moods
  • Angry outbursts, hostility, harassment, intimidation
  • Threats or signs of sabotage
  • Violent words, writing, or threats
  • Signs of delusions or hallucinations
  • Talk of suicide, complete hopelessness, or having no reason to live
  • Bringing a weapon to work