Back to work: Workplace violence in the age of COVID-19

Chris Parker

As attention turns to easing lockdown measures, it is important for employers to carefully consider the needs and welfare of employees alongside the logistics of reopening workplaces. The stress on individuals caused by the pandemic, combined with the economic downturn, has the potential to change behavior patterns, sometimes with terrible consequences. Understanding the possibility of workplace violence in a period of great uncertainty and how to reduce the risk is more important than ever.

The pandemic has placed enormous strain on people’s lives and on the economy with unemployment above post-financial crash levels.1 Combined with those already out of work before the pandemic the real unemployment rate could be more than 20%; the highest since 1934.2 When the economy suffers, worryingly, violence appears to rise.

Research by the Washington, D.C. based Violence Policy Center identified financial pressure as playing a “clear and significant role” in a sharp increase in violent acts, particularly murder-suicide, following the 2008 financial crash.3 Another study into shootings following the financial crash, published in the New York Times, pointed to “a deep sense of victimization and the belief that the killer’s life has been ruined by someone else”4 as a motivating factor in many shootings. Unfortunately during this crisis, there have already been fatal incidents in which employees attempting to enforce safety measures appear to have been mindlessly killed by customers including in both Flint, Michigan5, and Oklahoma City6.

If a struggling economy contributes to an increase in psychological disorders, the addition of protracted confinement at home and the loss of social outlets paints a bleak picture. Medical journal, The Lancet7 highlighted a range of long-lasting psychological effects prolonged periods in lockdown is likely to cause, including post-traumatic stress disorders, confusion, anxiety and anger. The Lancet study points to social isolation, loneliness, health anxiety and an economic downturn as creating “a perfect storm” for psychological disorders.

As places of work reopen, some employees may fear they are being forced to choose between their health and their livelihoods. Despite official moves to encourage more people to go back to work, individuals remain reluctant. A recent CBS news poll revealed that only 44% of people were comfortable returning to their place of work and 63% felt restrictions were being lifted too quickly.8

Risk management

In this environment, employers must factor the impact of the pandemic on their employees into their plans on returning to workplaces. Unfortunately, workplace violence and mass shootings are all-too common in the US and employers need a strategy in place to mitigate the risk and outline how to respond should an incident occur.

From a legal standpoint, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) includes a general duty clause requiring employers to take feasible measures to provide employees with a workplace environment “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm”. While some organizations may feel there are no practicable steps they can take 

to eliminate the risk, experience shows us that those who spend time preparing for black swan events are those best placed to manage a crisis. 

Consulting crisis response firms that advise both on the physical environment and how to protect employees following lockdown can help prepare for and manage these risks.

Critical communication

Employees’ who return to work after a prolonged lockdown require strong employee engagement to help ease people back into work, provide support and identify potential warning signs in behavior.

Setting up an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that provides services, from counseling and behavioral health to guidance on financial planning, can support employees and help identify mental health issues among staff.

For organizations without an EAP, engagement with employees remains essential, including offering support within the company or externally, e.g. through public or free-to-access services.

In workplace situations those close to an individual are often first to notice a change in behavior or to witness an individual threatening to commit violence. These colleagues need a means of reporting concerning behavior. Employers should consider providing a confidential method of reporting an incident such as a helpline or email address to alleviate fears of retribution. Many companies have adopted mobile apps which allow employees to raise concerns with HR anonymously from their cell phone.

Supervisors and managers also play a vital role in identifying issues, offering support and escalating concerning behavior to HR.

When it comes to risk mitigation, early intervention is key to preventing an individual harming themselves or others and making sure they get help. Analysis by Everytown for Gun Safety, the US’ largest gun violence prevention group, found that in 54%9 of shootings the perpetrator displayed at least one warning sign or “red flag” prior to undertaking the act. 

Employees in professions dealing directly with the general public are likely to feel most strain, particularly those concerned about catching the virus at work or who may become targets for pent-up frustration after weeks of lockdown.

At locations open to the public or multi-occupancy offices, consideration should be given to additional security to reassure staff and act as a deterrent.   

Understanding the new risk landscape and how to access risk and crisis management advice is important for organizations of all sizes especially in times of heightened uncertainty. Specialist insurance can assist by providing risk and crisis management services to policyholders, helping them to embed practices that lower the risk and offer post-event support as well as risk transfer. Those looking to manage their exposure should speak to their insurance broker about what coverage is available. 

1 Forbes, Here’s How The Coronavirus Recession Compares To The Great Recession (May 2020)

2 Fortune, Real unemployment rate soars past 20%—and the U.S. has now lost 26.5 million jobs (April 2020).

3 The Times, Recession Blamed for Sharp Increase in Shooting Sprees (April 2009)

4 New York Times, What Drives Suicidal Mass Killers (December 2012)

5 CNN, Three family members charged in shooting death of security guard who told a customer to put on a face mask (May 2020)

6 Washington Post, McDonald’s customer shoots employees after being asked to leave because of coronavirus restrictions (May 2020)

7 The Lancet, The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it (February 2020)

8 CBS, Americans prioritize staying home and worry restrictions will lift too fast (April 2020)

9 Everytown for Gun Safety, Extreme Risk Laws Save Lives (April 2020)

About the author:

Chris joined Beazley in April 2011. His role within Beazley is head of the Terrorism, Political Violence and the Kidnap & Ransom underwriting team. Chris started his career at Willis in the Marine Reinsurance market in 1990 and joined the Political Risk market in 1995 whilst still at Willis. In 2004 he moved to Marsh and assumed responsibility for the Bowring Marsh Terrorism and Political Violence business in 2006.

Chris Parker
Chris Parker

Head of Terrorism and K&R