Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD
The recent killings in Orlando of five people by a disgruntled former employee is a tragic reminder that workplace violence remains a real and increasing threat to America’s workforce.
About 2 million workers are victims of workplace violence every year and this number is increasing, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Even more alarming is homicide being the fourth-leading cause of workplace deaths. In addition to the human toll, estimates put the economic cost of workplace violence at more than $55 billion.
response, companies have instituted policies prohibiting any type of workplace violence, including inappropriate language, sexual harassment, and bullying, to stem this tide. While these measures have had a positive effect in reducing the levels of some workplace violence, it is clear from the statistics they don’t go far enough.
In my view as a health-care attorney, business owner, and specialist in proactive, preventive health care, these policies miss the mark by primarily aiming to control the symptoms of workplace violence rather than addressing the underlying issues that contribute to it.
The job-related physical and mental health issues that often trigger workplace violence are stress, anxiety, depression, and other emotional issues the worker brings to, and which may be exacerbated by, the workplace. Work-related stress can contribute to short temper, according to the American Psychological Association. Many resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as smoking or heavy drinking.
Recognizing the signs of stress—hostility toward coworkers, physical exhaustion, or taking more days off than usual—is a good first step to avoid workplace violence. So is offering formal employee assistance programs to help employees with stress management or emotional issues. But these programs are dependent on someone noticing a change in behavior or an employee asking for help.
These elements, and employee wellness programs in general, are usually ineffective over the long term in identifying and preventing possible health issues that could affect an employee’s emotional well-being. In fact, more than 90 percent of companies, and most government entities, offer some form of wellness programs for their employees.
But most of these initiatives, while well intentioned, fall short of producing long-term benefits. Instead, the initial groundswell of enthusiasm for the programs wanes after a while, with both employers and employees left frustrated, discouraged, and wondering what went wrong. Even worse, any physical and/or emotional health benefits gained are quickly reversed and may even go into decline, leaving workers less healthy and more stressed than before.
For employee wellness programs to have a lasting positive effect on employees, and a higher probability of success, they must include a personalized, ongoing educational component. Most programs focus on short-term actions that produce quick results but do very little to create the attitude and behavioral changes that result in long-term benefits.
Only education not focused on immediate gratification or “quick hits,” can do this. It will provide employees important and relevant health information in a way they understand, that addresses personal needs, and is readily applied to daily life. A key element is helping employees know what is going on with their bodies is comprehensive testing. This may include nutritional, stress level, genomics, and other key metrics. Armed with this information, companies help employees not only get healthier physically and emotionally, but also take proactive steps to stay healthy.
Companies can also lead by example. Junk food is often used as a stress reliever. Providing healthy alternatives in vending machines can affect this. Encourage listening to the right kind of music. Research shows that relaxing music lowers stress and creates a calming environment. Encourage employees to stand, stretch, and walk during the day.
Enhanced wellness programs also need to offer employees tools needed to effectively and easily apply what is learned to their daily lives—nutritional supplements, lifestyle changes, and behavioral changes. They should be ongoing support to keep employees on track and motivated to continue their personalized programs. These measures include periodic check-ins to monitor progress, adapting the personalized programs as necessary to help an employee achieve their goals, and online and offline support.
By better addressing the underlying causes of workplace violence through enhanced employee wellness programs, it may turn the tide and make workplaces safer. Will this require an investment? Of course, it will. Will it be worth it? Most definitely. It will save lives—maybe your own.