Workplace Violence, Mental Health and COVID-19

Topics: Loss Control

Summary: The COVID-19 pandemic added stress to nearly everyone’s lives. As we reduce health mandates and begin to return to normal, stress and poor mental health could increase workplace violence incidents. Learn how to recognize and prevent workplace violence by being aware of the warning signs and having a comprehensive workplace safety training program.

Workplace Violence

Most of us experienced increased stress during COVID-19. Whether it was adjusting to life under new stay-at-home orders, a change in your job status or general worry about contracting the virus, many Americans felt a higher level of anxiety. Now, we’re facing changes like returning to the office while trying to understand the latest CDC COVID-19 recommendations. Unfortunately, all of the pressures of the last year have increased the potential for pandemic-related workplace violence.

Most incidents of workplace violence are verbal abuse or physical assault, but there also has been an increase in extreme events, such as the mass shooting event at King Soopers in Boulder, Colorado, the FedEx facility in Indianapolis, Indiana and the Valley Transportation Authority in San Jose, California.

Workplace Violence and COVID-19

Workplace violence can come from internal and external sources. For example, during the earlier days of the pandemic, essential workers were threatened or assaulted by customers and coworkers as states put mandatory health orders in place such as face masks, social distancing and reduced capacity.

With vaccinations on the rise, businesses face different pressures as they loosen their health mandates. For some, it’s anxiety about returning to the office after working from home for over a year. For others businesses, workers may feel concerned about loosening of safety restrictions like mask-wearing.

Examples of workplace violence that could be related to COVID-19 stress could be:
  • Arguments between or from coworkers, customers or vendors relating to COVID-19 safety policies
  • Harassment because of views of the pandemic, either from coworkers, customers or vendors
  • Physical altercations that result from enforcing safety provisions
  • Psychological stress due to outside work issues, such as childcare, healthcare or everyday worry about the pandemic
  • General threats of violence from current or former employees who are frustrated from losing their job or income due to the virus

According to Jeff Corder, VP of Loss Control at AmTrust Financial, additional stressors can contribute to workplace violence due to COVID-19. He states, “As employers bring employees back to work in offices, after maybe a year of remote working, there will likely be some emotional and mental baggage coming along with that. Employers will need to have some very open and honest conversations around what’s causing any additional stressors and take action to mitigate them wherever possible.”

What is Workplace Violence?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines workplace violence as “any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the worksite.” The CDC explains that workplace violence can range from verbal, written or physical threats to verbal assaults to physical assaults up to and including homicide. Acts of workplace violence are currently the third-leading cause of fatal occupational injuries in the United States.

Jobs with a higher stress level can also increase the risk of workplace violence. Examples of these types of jobs include delivery drivers, healthcare professionals, public service workers, customer service representatives, law enforcement and those who work alone or in small groups.

Healthcare workers, with the majority being nurses and doctors, are the victims of over 50% of workplace violence incidents. During the coronavirus lockdowns, domestic violence and violent behavior towards frontline, restaurant and retail workers increased. Office workers have also been the subject of COVID-19-related workplace violence as the pandemic has raised stress levels about workplace safety procedures.

Matt Zender, SVP of Workers’ Compensation Strategy at AmTrust, explains, “There’s a risk of workplace violence in all industries. Often, the individuals concerned have been part of disciplinary action or a layoff, so they’re upset about their personal situation and resort to violence. Therefore, industries or jobs with higher rates of employee turnover might be more susceptible to incidents of workplace violence, especially in the context of the pandemic where there have been mass layoffs across multiple industries.”

Workplace Violence and Mental Health

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted mental health and well-being in many ways. Due to stay-at-home or shelter in place requirements in 2020, millions of people have altered their lifestyles, including working from home and providing online schooling to children to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Essential employees like healthcare providers, grocery store workers, delivery services, transportation workers, first responders and more reported to work to provide the services we rely on every day. Both types of employees may experience stress, anxiety and isolation that could affect their health and productivity.

The CDC found that 18% of U.S. adults reported suffering from mental health disorders, with 71% of adults experiencing at least one symptom of stress. Poor mental health and stress can negatively affect an employee’s productivity, engagement with work, communication with others and daily functioning.

Most individuals with mental health disorders are unlikely to turn to violence. There is no single factor that can predict a violent act, but when a combination of factors comes together, it can result in an increased risk of violence. The risky behaviors that could lead to an incident could include when employees blame others for their problems, hold a grudge, are unsatisfied by treatment from a supervisor, or personal stressors like divorce.

Other early warning signs, which can be difficult to spot with COVID-related social distancing, include:
  • Changes in appearance
  • Becoming withdrawn
  • Demonstrating an isolated affect
  • Possible erratic behavior
  • Leakage warning behavior

Employers need to recognize the potential signs of employee burnout and other risk factors. When employees feel supported by their employer, they are more engaged and productive, and the possibility of a violent incident decreases.

Workplace Violence Prevention

Organizations must have clear policies and procedures stating that violence in the workplace will not be tolerated, and there will be serious consequences for those who commit it. The policy should detail the types of behavior that are not acceptable, including verbal threats, bullying, harassment and other behaviors that would make an employee feel unsafe.

Corder agrees, “One of the best protections employers can offer their workers is to establish a zero-tolerance policy toward workplace violence, which should cover all workers, patients, clients, visitors, contractors, and anyone else who may come in contact with company personnel.”

Workplace Violence Training

Employers can reduce the risk of workplace violence by implementing a workplace prevention program, which includes training and administrative controls. The training should define workplace violence, warning signs, prevention strategies and ways to respond to threatening or potentially violent incidents.

“Employee training is important, and there are a lot of free resources on the internet that employers can turn to,” explained Corder. “Most workers’ compensation carriers, including AmTrust, have large amounts of information on workplace safety on their websites, and we would be more than happy to help companies prepare themselves and get relevant and timely information out to new employees or employees that are returning to the workplace after a long period of remote working.”

The workplace violence training program should include the following recommendations:
  • Post signs that let customers and employees know about policies for wearing masks, social distancing and the maximum number of people allowed in a business facility
  • Offer various options for customers and employees who do not wish to comply with the rules
  • Provide employee training on threat recognition, conflict resolution, nonviolent response, and on any other relevant topics related to workplace violence response
  • Train management on conflict resolution techniques
  • Put steps in place to assess and respond to workplace violence
  • Remain aware of and support employees and customers if a threatening or violent situation occurs
  • Identify a safe area for employees to go to if they feel they are in danger
  • Check-in with employees often to see how they are doing and managing their stress

Protect Your Workers with Workers’ Comp Insurance from AmTrust

Occupational violence is covered under most workers’ compensation insurance policies, providing coverage for employees that suffer physical injuries and/or mental distress. AmTrust is a leading workers’ compensation carrier for small to mid-sized businesses across the country. Contact us to learn how we can create a small business insurance package, including workers’ comp insurance for your organization.

This material is for informational purposes only and is not legal or business advice. Neither AmTrust Financial Services, Inc. nor any of its subsidiaries or affiliates represents or warrants that the information contained herein is appropriate or suitable for any specific business or legal purpose. Readers seeking resolution of specific questions should consult their business and/or legal advisors. Coverages may vary by location. Contact your local RSM for more information.

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