Returning to Work: More Than Medical Protocols, Consider Workplace Violence Prevention

Americans are beginning to end the unprecedented time of retreating from public life and returning to work. As companies start to prepare for their employees to return to their place of employment, many considerations focus on the practical measures to be taken. While organizations take actions (like social distancing, sanitizing often-touched surfaces, and staggered schedules) to protect their workers’ physical safety, the awareness of their staff’s emotional needs and mental well-being is as important to help ensure employee safety and to prevent workplace violence. 

The COVID-19 public health crisis disrupted many lives causing drastic change which impacts people in different ways. While we’re all weathering the same storm, we’re not all in the same boat. Some employees may be handling the change well, and others may be feeling new and added stress or anxiety. Some thrived during the isolation: time to reflect, reconnect with family, or attend to personal matters. Others struggled with the weltering conditions of change and it is a time of financial or family crisis – all are being affected in one way or another. Moreover, indispensable stabilizing factors may not have been in place for every employee during the stay at home isolation. For some (domestic violence victims), being forced to stay at home may have removed the only relief (their workplace) they had from their abuser. For domestic violence victims, work may have been their shelter.

Contributing to an individual’s risk of violence are a myriad of warning signs and risk factors. Historically, in workplace violence incidents, behaviors of concern or histories were present. Despite perceptions that people just snap, generally, a decision is made that violence is an acceptable resolution to the current challenges they are facing. They may struggle with work and personal life stressors that collectively influence their violent ideations. As their resilience to these stresses decreases, they begin to see fewer realistic solutions and pursue ones that are not acceptable. But people and conditions change and sometimes external factors (like the COVD-19 public health crisis), beyond their control, influence a person’s perspective on life. Such influences may cause someone to think thoughts they may have never thought before. How do companies best understand these risk and mitigation factors and how do they respond? Threat response teams are a part of well-developed workplace violence prevention programs. They help understand the circumstances and dynamics of the behaviors and assess the concern for risk of violence. Such teams use a multi-disciplinary approach that incorporates the insights from different stakeholders such as security, legal, human resources, and operations. This diversity of thought allows the company to better understand the concerning issue and the dynamics from many perspectives. More importantly, the threat response teams can better problem solve, and the goal is to mitigate risk through resolving problems.

The Department of Defense (DoD) long ago recognized that emotional and behavioral health are important for the member and their family when returning following lengthy separations – the DoD calls this reintegration, and after unprecedented levels of sustained high operational tempo, attention to reintegration through the awareness of stressors and application of strategies has helped members and their families emerge from difficult separations.                

Coworkers, supervisors, and all staff should watch for concerning behaviors and bear in mind that out of character behavior may not necessarily indicate trouble looming. Rather it may suggest an employee is navigating through the change. For example, after my second deployment to Afghanistan, I came home and what I most wanted was to experience something beautiful – I wanted to see a ballet. Attending a ballet was widely out of character for me but experiencing something of beauty was what I needed as part of my reintegration strategy. Likewise, supervisors and coworkers may observe a coworker who acts differently than what they know him/her to do. The employee may be adequately coping with the stressors of the stay-at-home isolation and their return to work, or they may be having trouble. The key is to talk with the employee to understand his/her situation and offer encouragement or assistance. While some employees may quickly move towards social interaction, others may be reluctant to engage or not want others around them. This too can create added tension to an already stressful situation. Here again, I experienced something similar after returning from Liberia during the 2014 Ebola crisis. My coworkers didn’t want me at work, nor to be around them, yet I went through the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) protocols and I needed to reintegrate to my job, this did little to assuage my coworkers. That I was at work despite their concerns created tension and added to my own isolating experience. Fortunately, my employer was proactive in communicating and informing the workforce about my reintegration plan. Employers bringing people back after mandatory stay at home orders may see employees with similar reactions from employees who want to find private space and keep their distance. There are some strategies to help.

Achieving Reintegration Success

Companies will achieve positive outcomes at reintegrating employees if they have been transparent and communicating with them during the isolation period. The roadmap to helping returning workers be resilient is to address key touchpoints of active listening, communicating, and taking action. Active listening means hearing their concerns, frustrations, and ideas and responding. Communication is about keeping them informed of what to expect and what is being done. Taking action is about empowering your employees to be involved in their return to work process, connecting them with resources, and taking care of themselves and colleagues.

  • Recognize employees have differing experiences during COVID-19: some will be angry, many have lost in some way, people’s views of the crisis and stay at home orders differ, and these can manifest in the workplace.
  • Keep employees informed and prepare for their return by taking time to remind employees about their Employee Assistance Program (EAP), conduct workplace violence refresh training, and supervisors should make observing for troubling behavior a priority to help ensure workers remain safe.
  • To be more resilient to change requires that we make corresponding adjustments in attitude, thought, and behavior. Understand that out of character behavior may be a coping strategy but talking with the employee can help determine if it’s troubling.
  • Empower employees to be active architects in their reintegration success. Encourage them to field their concerns, anxieties, make suggestions, and reintegrate on a timeline. As they transition back to their work environment, whenever they begin to feel angry or frustrated, ask, “How realistic are my expectations in this situation?” “Am I giving them enough time and space to adjust?” 

Remember that returning to work is a process, not a singular event. Recognize that when returning to work there is an emotional and mental well-being component beyond physical measures. As employees reintegrate into their place of employment and social environments, companies need to consider their mental well-being and how they are coping in addition to the physical measures implemented for returning to work. Everyone is dealing with the public health situation, but everyone’s circumstances differ, and thus their stressors and stabilizing mechanisms widely vary. Allowing employees the appropriate time and space they need will help ensure reintegration success. No matter what they’re feeling and what concerns employers have, you are not alone. AT-RISK International is here to help you ensure the safety of your employees.