Is workplace violence more likely in a post-COVID-19 environment?

June 22, 2021
A look at how employers can identify and prepare for threats of violence in the post-pandemic world

As the CDC eases COVID restrictions and business leaders consider a return to physical office space, security professionals must reimagine what threat management and workplace violence prevention look like as companies face an entirely new set of circumstances. It’s clear that post-pandemic safety and security will not be a straightforward cut-and-paste from pre-pandemic playbooks. With many employers considering permanent remote, hybrid, and in-person work environments, business leaders have a responsibility to rethink their workplace threat management and crisis response plans to ensure employees and company stakeholders are protected across a spectrum of varied work environments. What follows is an assessment of workplace violence in a post-pandemic environment and how employers can identify and prepare for threats of violence in the next phase of work.

1. Some employees will experience profound anxiety and additional stressors in the coming months

Vaccines cannot inoculate workers against the excessive stress of the past year. Some employees will welcome the return to the office and thrive, but others may experience anxiety, fear, and uncertainty. For people who have grown accustomed to working from home, the pressure to return to a physical office space, commuting, or business travel can be overwhelming. This anxiety will likely be amplified by evolving mask policies that are in flux and vary between states, retail chains, and companies. Security professionals and management need to be aware that for some, these stressors can lead to resentment, hostility, or other negative sentiment directed toward an employer.

Employee resentment is a key trigger to monitor, and it typically increases when jobs are at risk. Many businesses in the service, entertainment, and travel industries have been severely impacted by the pandemic. Even as optimistic headlines talk of recovery, many organizations are still faced with the prospect of mass layoffs and reductions in force. Problematic terminations remain a potential flashpoint for workplace violence and need to be handled with the utmost care by security and HR professionals.

Mitigation strategy: Early planning, de-escalation training, and engagement of an organization’s threat management team can all help to mitigate the risks of violence associated with sensitive separations.

2. The increase of domestic violence during the pandemic will carry over to the workplace during the return to the office

Security professionals familiar with the OSHA typologies of workplace violence recognize that domestic/intimate partner violence (“Type IV”) frequently carries over from personal to professional lives. It is estimated that the number of incidents of domestic violence in the U.S. increased by 8.1% during the pandemic. As victims return to the office (or even continue to work from home in a hybridized configuration), employers must prepare for the likely increase in workplace violence by abusers who – accustomed to full access and control of their victims during lockdowns – look to frighten, harass, or attack a victim at work.

Mitigation strategy: While affirming a commitment to compassionate and confidential assistance, workplace violence policies should require or strongly encourage employees to notify security or human resources when a protective order for domestic violence is obtained against an abusive intimate partner.

3. Increasingly intense water cooler politics

The past year has not just polarized people along political lines; it also ushered in an unprecedented and supercharged climate of confrontation. This energy has already emerged during violent exchanges over issues such as mask requirements, and it has the potential to erupt between employees holding radically opposed political views. Additionally, a growing number of businesses have taken public stances on social and political issues. While this may generate concerning communications from angry outsiders, in some cases it can further amplify disagreements between employees or foment animus against company management.

Mitigation strategy: An effective workplace violence policy protects free speech while clearly prohibiting violence, threats of violence, or bullying/intimidating behaviors.

4. Recognition and reporting: A training priority

The potential “perfect storm” of bringing stressed-out employees back into a supercharged atmosphere of confrontation demands a proactive approach to mitigate workplace violence. With an acknowledgment that prevention is the best intervention for workplace violence, an effective training program should focus on at least two key considerations:

  • Accurately recognizing the warning signs and red flags of concerning behavior can be challenging for co-workers, friends, and those best positioned to observe deterioration in their colleagues’ functioning and mood. General workforce training should emphasize familiarization with concerning, pre-attack behaviors that frequently emerge in the weeks, days, and hours prior to a violent workplace incident.
  • Recognition of warning signs is only useful if concerns are reported to managers or others who can intervene. When workplace violence is experienced, observed, or suspected, employees must know how to notify management or HR and feel comfortable in doing so. For many employees, this is an agonizing decision as they wrestle with self-doubts, fears of alienating a colleague, or a desire to simply avoid conflict. Any workplace violence training must highlight avenues for confidential reporting of these concerns and reassurances that all reports will be handled carefully and compassionately.

Additionally, establishing or refreshing proactive programs to buffer mental wellness, reduce employee stress, and provide avenues for conflict resolution may help to dampen common flashpoints for workplace violence. These caring strategies have demonstrated effectiveness and are critical considerations for workplace violence prevention.

This past year has been challenging for both employees and employers, and it’s critical that business leaders prioritize the safety and security of all company stakeholders as they prepare for the next phase of work. By acknowledging the stressors employees will face in the coming months, identifying how political polarization might impact returning to the physical work environment, and implementing a robust training plan to mitigate new challenges, businesses will be well-prepared to protect their people.

About the Author:

Andre Simons is a Director at Control Risks, the global specialist risk consulting firm. He is a leading expert in threat management, behavioral analysis and workplace violence prevention.