The workplace has never been immune from human problems, including disagreements among employees, arguments, physical threats, drug abuse, and violence. Safety and HR professionals work hard to minimize and mitigate such threats. Whenever the landscape of humanity changes, such as during a pandemic, novel threats arise that require, above all else, novel awareness.
I recently spoke with Ty Smith, Founder and CEO of Vigilance Risk Solutions (VRS), about some of those threats and what can be done about them. If he sounds familiar, that’s because last week, we published an article based on the same interview in which he unequivocally said we might all come out of the pandemic with some form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Getting Back Into the Office Properly
Experts agree that you cannot just reopen your doors and conduct business as usual. Even without the weight of human violence, the pandemic itself offers great dangers to your staff and customers. Care and consideration need to be applied to the reopening of your office or business. Smith says that means “that we have to start addressing really uncomfortable conversations,” such as:
- What’s going to be an acceptable distance between people and between workstations?
- What’s going to be an acceptable use of proper personal protective equipment (PPE)? What PPE will be mandatory?
- Are we forcing everyone back to work, or are we putting programs in place that allow us to stagger reopening? Are we giving employees the ability to choose for themselves what they want?
- Are we prepared to accept that some people won’t want to come back and that there will be reduced productivity?
These and other considerations are critical before reopening. However, it’s not just COVID-19-related decisions that have to be made. There is another threat that has been growing as the months have passed: the psychological impact on employees.
New Pressures Create New Problems and Exacerbate Old Ones
Smith warns that we all “have to understand that a lot of the pressure that people are dealing with at home as a result of this pandemic—more than likely, a good portion of that is going to spill over into the workplace.” Indeed, the pandemic has changed all of us and put incredible pressures on almost every aspect of home life, from child care to marriages to personal space.
Smith says, “People may come back to work even ahead of them feeling like they’re ready. But when they come back to work, they’re not going to be themselves. People are still going to be very stressed out; people are going to be scared.” What will the consequences be of such pressures? Smith says, “People are going to be very short-fused, and we’re going to see all of these things lead to an increase in conflict and violence in the workplace.”
The spillover, as Smith puts it, of at-home pressures into the workplace is nothing new. Domestic violence, for example, has always been at risk of working its way into the office. That specific pressure has been shown to increase during crises, and the pandemic is no different. In fact, it may be considerably worse because “the home is now the workplace; the home is now the elementary school. The home is now the refuge that a person would typically have in order to” get some space from his or her abuser, says Smith. That refuge is now gone. Some minor problems between partners have been morphed into major problems. And major problems have heightened to severe problems. And victims and abusers alike will be reentering the workforce with new emotional and physical scars.
Legal Guns and Ghost Guns
Domestic violence is an example of a serious problem made even more severe. And there are other examples, as well. Workplace shootings, according to Smith, will likely see a rise. He cites the increased sales in guns as the problem. Increase is a tame word; the near-record-high gun sales during March (1.9 million sales) have only been beat by the 2 million guns sold in January 2012 after Obama’s reelection.
It is not only legal gun sales that concerned Smith. He also cited increased sales in so-called ghost guns. Briefly put, ghost guns involve the legal purchase of various gun parts that are then assembled at home. The problem is complex, but two major issues make ghost guns potentially dangerous. First, the restrictions for buying guns do not apply to the various gun parts bought separately. Those who can’t buy a gun can buy these parts and put them together into a fully functioning weapon. Second, these guns aren’t registered. There is no need to register gun parts, so when one of these weapons is assembled, there is no record of that weapon’s existence. That means that even red-flag laws won’t help should someone intending to commit violence purchase and assemble such a weapon.
What does all this mean? Data show that when there are more guns, particularly in the hands of those who have never owned a gun before, there is more gun violence. A general increase in gun violence will mean more gun violence in the workplace.
Homegrown Terrorists and Novel Means of Attack
Smith also noted that according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), “homegrown terrorists are accelerating their plans. We are seeing a spike in people that are creating hoaxes in order to disrupt business continuity. We see people that are attacking Asian people just because they think Asian people are responsible for coronavirus.” An increase in racial violence, as well as the emboldening of certain groups, most certainly will spill over into the workforce.
Homegrown terrorists, according to Smith, are the most likely to use new methods of attack. He cautions, “We have to take a look at the possibility of people using COVID-infected human beings in order to stage their attacks. We have to consider the possibility of people using COVID-infected blood or urine in order to attack other human beings.” We’ve all read stories about poorly adjusted individuals intentionally coughing and sneezing on others as a directed threat.
Awareness Is a Powerful Tool for Developing a Plan
All of these threats, and many others that we still do not understand, can be terrifying. The most important thing leaders within organizations can do is be aware of them and prepare the workplace to start having difficult conversations. We cannot open the doors and conduct business as usual.
Leaders must make unbiased assessments of the new risks and begin asking questions like: How do we protect our employees? How do we protect our disabled employees? How do you balance accommodations with new requirements for security? Smith says, “Leaders can’t make the decisions in a vacuum. We have to do it as a group of leaders in order to make sure we’re considering all the different viewpoints of our employees.” And I couldn’t agree more.