By Bert Alicea | Employee Assistance Report

The headlines cannot be ignored – it’s become all too common to read or hear a news report about tragic incidents of violence in the workplace. In fact, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that approximately two million Americans are the victims of workplace violence annually. The threat is real, and while no one is immune, there are steps that can help minimize the risk as well as precautions to protect employees should something happen.

Understanding the Threat

While it may be difficult to ever feel truly prepared for a tragedy of this nature, understanding workplace violence is the first step toward reducing the probability of an incident and keeping organizations and their workforce safe.

Just what is workplace violence? Workplace violence is considered to be “any action, whether verbal, physical or written, that is intended to cause, or capable of causing, death or serious bodily injury, emotional injury or property damage.” This includes intimidation, disruptive and harassing behaviors, threats, and acts of sabotage, among others.

While active shooter incidents are often the first scenario that comes to mind when thinking of workplace violence, especially considering recent incidents in the news, it can encompass a wide range of situations, including:

  • Domestic violence;
  • Fights between colleagues;
  • Angry customers;
  • Property damage;
  • Written threats; and
  • Many others.

According to a recent study from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), of the 160 active shooter incidents that occurred from 2000 to 2013, approximately 80 percent happened in a workplace. Workplace violence, including these shootings, impacts two million Americans each year, causing an average of 700 homicides. In addition to the invaluable cost of human life, the annual economic cost of workplace violence is $121 million.

Outside of the obvious costs, violence in the workplace is a significant occupational hazard for both organizations and their employees, leading to:

  • Physical and emotional trauma;
  • Poor morale;
  • Increased healthcare and workers’ compensation costs; and
  • Decreased productivity.

So what factors can contribute to a threat of violence in the workplace? Issues that cause stress also have the potential to lead to violence. Outside of work, the fragmentation of the family structure, easy access to weaponry, TV and other media, substance abuse, and financial issues can all tip someone over the edge toward violence.

Domestic disputes that spill over to the workplace are also a major issue. Seventy-one percent of HR and security personnel have reported an incident of domestic violence on company property, endangering both the victim and his or her coworkers.

Within the organization, workplace stress, downsizing, feelings of being undervalued or unheard, or rigid management styles can all lead to potential issues. Failed office romances can also create problems.

Identifying the Threat

Knowing some of the factors that can lead to violence is key to identifying potential risks within an organization. So who poses the greatest risk of violence to organizations? While delusional people are potential threats, more frequently the perpetrator is a disgruntled employee or someone involved in a domestic disturbance that has spilled over into the workplace.

Issues at work such as downsizing or feeling undervalued could be triggers for employees, as well as personal problems like relationship trouble, legal issues or a financial crisis.

Early warning indicators may include:

  • Increased absences;
  • Deteriorating performance on the job;
  • Friction with managers or other employees;
  • Change in attitude or appearance;
  • Excessive complaints; and even
  • Substance abuse at work.

Further, increasing patterns of signals like acting out, crying, throwing objects, or paranoia could indicate the potential for an issue. Anyone experiencing situations such as divorce, loss of a loved one, or other issue may also be experiencing increased stress, which can put someone on edge and increase the probability they could act out. Demonstrating one of these signs is not a direct indicator of a threat of violence, but multiple issues could point to a potential problem that should be addressed.

In these instances, leadership determines outcomes. Many managers and supervisors may feel challenged to understand issues employees may be experiencing at home while concerned about privacy issues. However, by being supportive of employees, it is possible to have an open a dialogue that can allow for any issues to be addressed together, whether they be work-related or otherwise.

While a non-supportive supervisor may be demeaning or sarcastic to employees and look the other way when someone is experiencing an issue, a strong supervisor clearly defines expectations and communicates frequently with employees. If they believe an employee is facing a set-back or challenge, they reach out to offer support, either from HR or other outside resources like an EAP.

Further, they follow-through to ensure that employees feel supported and valued. When employees are treated with dignity and respect, they are less likely to act out, minimizing the potential threat to an organization.

Managing the Threat

Even before a potential issue is identified, organizations need to take the time to prepare in order to minimize risk and perhaps prevent incidents of violence. However, the majority of businesses do not currently have a program or policy in place to address this issue. Brokers and consultants have the opportunity to help organizations by connecting them with resources and training to ensure all supervisors have the knowledge needed to address potential problems and respond appropriately.

When creating a prevention and response program, it is important to consider the following:

  • Enforce existing policies – Enforcing anti-harassment and weapons policies as well as the code of conduct can go a long way toward prevention of violent incidents within the workplace.
  • Assess the risk – Leadership and HR can work together to analyze any previous incidents, determine the current potential for issues and assess preparedness in order to create a plan that fits the specific needs of the organization. Following the initial assessment, periodic reviews should be conducted to determine if any changes should be made to the program.
  • Establish policies and procedures – Consider adopting a zero tolerance policy that has buy-in from all levels of the organization and includes reporting and investigation procedures as well as intervention standards. Ensure this policy is communicated to all employees and posted prominently where people will regularly see it.
  • Introduce training – Both employees and managers should participate in expert-led training to raise awareness and recognition of potential issues, educate on diffusion techniques and appropriate intervention, and understand the policies put in place.
  • Create a crisis team – This cross-disciplinary task force can help establish and review policies, conduct training, connect people with resources and services, and be a first point of contact to investigate or respond to potential issues.


Many organizations already have access to resources that may be able to help when creating a program and in the event an incident occurs, including HR and security, emergency hotlines, local law enforcement, and Employee Assistance Programs.

While it may not always be possible to prevent an act of violence in the workplace, by preparing and planning ahead, it is possible to minimize the risk and protect employees and the organization.

Norbert “Bert” Alicea, MA, CEAP, Executive Vice President of EAP+Work/Life Services at Health Advocate, is a Licensed Psychologist and premier trainer with over 25 years of experience in the EAP field. He has a specialization with executive coaching and management consultations in assisting with difficult workplace situations and also conducts corporate training locally and on a national level on topics including Harassment Awareness; Violence Prevention; Drug Free Workplace; DOT Compliance Training; and EAP Supervisor Training for High-Impact Referrals.

For more information about Health Advocate and the EAP+Work/Life program, visit Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on BenefitsPRO and is reused with permission. See

By Nancy S. Shriner | Employee Assistance Report

Two years ago, the country was reeling from the mass shooting at a country music concert in Las Vegas. Fast forward to this summer, and America has once again been shaken by not one, but two large-scale mass shootings in less than 48 hours. Following the recent tragedies in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, our nation and workplaces continue to be traumatized by these senseless events.

When I started working in employee assistance nearly 30 years ago, our organization would typically manage three counselor responses a month, usually less. Most frequently, clients requested support following a bank robbery or an unexpected employee death. Today the requests are numerous, daily, and much more violent.

Crisis Situations Abound

For example, our EAP recently assisted an independent construction company who had experienced a very violent incident. A small group of employees was working on a city street when one employee was targeted and killed by a perpetrator with a high-powered rifle driving by in a speeding vehicle. A nearby co-worker was then chased down the street while he dodged bullets.

This small, family-run company had never experienced anything like this in the past and did not know how or where to begin to provide support to its employees. Further, ownership struggled with remorse because they had unknowingly hired an employee involved with a gang, which led to this violent event happening at their worksite, impacting other employees and potentially the public.

Our EAP was on-site to support both employees directly involved in this traumatic event, as well as those struggling with mixed grief and betrayal issues. Equally as important, our counselor was able to support leadership through these uncharted waters by providing clearheaded, objective feedback, and guidance to help this organization move forward effectively.

Sadly, events like these drive home the importance of EAPs in helping surviving co-workers and families cope with the aftermath of a horrible tragedy. Of course, it doesn’t necessarily take such a dramatic event to require support for employees when a co-worker dies. It could be a heart attack at an office desk, cancer, or perhaps a car accident. It could be anywhere at any time, because every day people die, and the odds are high these individuals are in the workforce.

Disruptive Event Management Arrives

In the 1980s, Dr. Jeffery Mitchell and Dr. George Everly coined the term Critical Incident Stress Debriefing. The concept was designed to prevent or reduce post-traumatic stress for police, fire, and other first responders. For many years, EAP staff used that same terminology and applied parts of that same concept to our responses.

Recently, EAPs began using the term disruptive event management (DEM), a term that more broadly encompasses some of the reasons employee assistance professionals are called on-site in a post-trauma situation, such as the death of an employee, serious accident on the job, violent incident or natural disaster.

For instance, an EAP could be asked to have a counselor on-site for an incident that occurs out of state, or in a different location other than the company’s headquarters. Massively tragic events such as the El Paso or Dayton shootings, for example, also could negatively affect employees in various locations who may have friends or relatives who were injured or killed in these tragedies. EAP clients could request a counselor on-site to support their employees, even in some cases when they may not have been directly impacted other than what they saw through the news media.

DEM entails delivering a customized response to worksites impacted by any event that disrupts employees’ ability to work. In the case of an employee death or trauma, the central focus is to provide support to leadership and employees by helping to create a culture of psychological safety, decreasing stress, and acknowledging the employees’ reaction to the loss or devastation. This support results in less absenteeism, with a quicker return to the same level of functioning as before the event and continued productivity.

The overriding idea is people have a right to lead productive, meaningful lives, which means providing an objective, timely, and thorough response that helps with the human side of recovery.

Employee Deaths Drive EAP Involvement

It may surprise you that among common disruptive incidents, the biggest reason our firm gets involved is due to employee deaths, which account for 70 percent of clients’ requests for help. As we are all aware, not just the elderly or the very ill die; often death is unpredictable.

When an unexpected death occurs, it’s important that leadership acknowledge the event and freely share the information that they have with employees. Today’s social media can move information quickly, but not always accurately. Experience has proven that facts can reduce fear for employees. Certainly, it makes sense for employers to consult with their EAP regarding next best steps to support their staff through this loss.

Most of all, it’s good to remember that these scenarios can be very fluid, there is not necessarily a one-size-fits-all solution or response, or way of presenting the best possible strategy following an employee death. Some employee deaths come after a long illness, and co-workers have had time to grieve this potential loss. Other natural deaths are sudden and unexpected, and some deaths are a result of a tragic accident or situation. The impact to co-workers as well as the organization is likely very different. EAP counselors are able to adjust their strategies to the needs of a client. Flexibility is crucial.

Leadership’s Role in Managing through a Disruptive Event

When a tragedy strikes, employees look to leadership for direction. Leaders must present competence and compassion. An empowered leader demonstrates the seriousness of the loss, an awareness of the impact to the organization and its workforce, while also communicating an expectation of recovery.

It is important that whatever loss or trauma has occurred, it is acknowledged by leadership with transparency and accurate facts. The trauma or loss should be named with language that is specific. For example, if there is a fatality, don’t be afraid to use the word death.

Effective leaders acknowledge the personal impact as well as the effect on the organization, and most importantly, recognize the loss and devastation to the team members. Leadership should communicate an expectation of recovery while recognizing that the workplace will be flexible with reasonable accommodations as people progress back to work as usual.

Planning, EAP can Help

A critical incident or death of an employee is traumatic on many different levels. Yet, death is a fact of life. With proper planning and a strong EAP-driven program in place, employers can meet the challenge of helping their workers and families deal with their grief and its impact on the workplace.


Most of all, it’s important that leadership be prepared and plan for this kind of event, because if it hasn’t happened yet, it certainly will. When something as traumatic as a co-worker’s death occurs, employees are looking to leadership for direction and support.

Nancy Shriner is Training and Critical Incident Coordinator for Health Advocate, a national health and patient assistance company headquartered in Plymouth Meeting, PA. Health Advocate makes healthcare easier for over 12,000 organizations and their members by leveraging a combination of personal support, data and technology to engage people in their health and well-being.