COVID-19 has had an unprecedented impact on the American economy and the construction industry. Some of the ripple effects have been observable and measurable, such as stay-at-home orders, project slowdowns or delays, layoffs and phased plans to bring workers back to projects. Some of the ripple effects have been hidden and are expressed in silence. The stress has exacerbated existing mental health conditions, especially anxiety, panic, depression and substance use disorders.
Impacts of Prolonged COVID-19 Stress
The effects of COVID-19 on mental health and wellbeing have been far-reaching and will be long-lasting. The lingering uncertainty has impacted construction companies, leaders and supervisors, employees and their families. The effects of the pandemic have taken an enormous toll on mental well-being in every demographic.
What is unique about the pandemic is that multiple stressors have hit in a short period of time and these can compound and magnify the resultant emotional reactions. It is normal for people to react with fear, anger, frustration, anxiety (or pick another emotion) to an abnormal situation. These are common reactions to an uncommon situation. To react otherwise would be unusual.
Most people manage some stress in their life well. Problems can arise when people must juggle multiple stressors simultaneously, especially when there is no end in sight. COVID-19 produced an abundance of life stressors: isolation, loss of job, school-aged children home that need schooling, spouses always together, job loss and economic ruin, fear of getting sick, physical distancing, and total disruption of normal routines, just to name a few. Taken together, these weigh on a person's ability to cope.
Easing the Return to the Workplace to Reduce Stress
Returning to the workplace after such a prolonged disruption will present new challenges and frustrations. Companies should set realistic expectations for this process. Many companies will continue to use remote work and staggered shifts to maintain physical distancing and accommodate employees’ needs for work-life balance.
Supervisors should watch for concerning behaviors, but bear in mind that out of character behavior may not necessarily indicate trouble looming. It may suggest an employee is navigating through the change. Supervisors and coworkers may see a coworker who acts differently than normal. The key is to talk with the employee to understand their situation and offer encouragement or assistance. The following pointers will help ensure a successful return to the workplace:
- It is important to keep employees informed and prepare for their return with transparent and empathetic communication.
- Remind employees about the services and resources available from the company’s employee assistance program (EAP) and how to access them.
- Encourage employees to speak about their concerns, anxieties and suggestions. As employees transition back to their workplace, should they begin to manifest frustration or anger, leaders should ask themselves, “How realistic are my expectations in this situation?” “Am I giving them enough time, space and support to adjust?”
- Recognize all company stakeholders (employees, visitors, suppliers, contractors and professional partners) have had differing experiences during COVID-19. Some will be angry, many have experienced loss, and people’s views of the crisis and stay at home orders differ. Anticipate that these tensions can manifest in the workplace.
- Maintain sensitivity and situational awareness. Understand some employees may quickly move towards social interaction, while others may be reluctant to engage or want to isolate to keep their distance. This too can create added tension to an already stressful situation.
Rising Risk Factors for Workplace Violence in the Post COVID-19 Workplace
Many subject matter experts are expressing concern that workplace violence will rise after COVID-19. These experts point to escalating risk factors:
- Mounting job loss through layoffs and terminations
- Expanding financial pressures
- Increasing sales of alcohol and recreational drugs
- Increasing reports of spousal and child domestic violence
- Escalating call volume to crisis hotlines across the country
- Increasing reports of suicidal behavior
- Protests against government due to aggrieved personal and civil rights, or against a company for perceived lack of protective measures.
How & When Stress May Turn to Violence
COVID-19 is becoming a polarizing issue. Some are angered at what they see as government's usurpation of personal liberties while others look upon those persons with disdain because of their apparent lack of empathy and concern. Confrontations about wearing or not wearing a mask is an example of this tension. This is further dividing us when we should be uniting. This growing distrust and division based on grievances can heighten the risk of violence. These circumstances raise workplace violence concerns.
A key factor for consideration in violent ideations is how stress impacts a person’s ability to cope with the current conflict. As their resilience to stressors decreases, they begin to see fewer realistic solutions and pursue ones that are not acceptable. Despite perceptions that people just snap, generally, that is not accurate. Instead, a perceived grievance festers into a fixation for justice. Then, a decision is made that violence is an acceptable resolution to the current challenges they are facing. Individuals that may pose a future risk of violence demonstrate behaviors over time which may be visible to others.
Historically, in workplace violence incidents, concerning behaviors were present as patterns (or histories) of past behavior. Persons struggling with heightened stressors may likely maintain elevated stress levels. They will not immediately go back to a normal baseline. These persons may struggle with work and personal life stressors that collectively influence their violent ideations. Threat assessment can help companies deal with these concerns.
What Is a Threat Assessment?
Threat assessment is a multidisciplinary approach to identifying, assessing, and mitigating concerns of intentional violence. A threat assessment is a behavior-based process that helps organizations deal with the threat of targeted violence and those individuals who may be moving towards an intentional harmful event. A threat assessment team looks to develop prevention, mitigation and response plans to counter perceived threats of violence in the workplace.
What Is a Threat Assessment Team?
A threat assessment team focuses on behaviors, stressors, and mitigating factors. This multidisciplinary team incorporates insights from different stakeholders such as security, legal, human resources, safety/risk management, operations and law enforcement. This diversity of thought allows the company to better understand the issues of concern and the dynamics from many perspectives to problem solve.
Why Do Small & Midsize Businesses Need a Threat Assessment Team?
A small or midsize business may not have a formal threat assessment team. However, the same interdisciplinary approach used in large companies can provide great benefits to smaller companies. In smaller companies, an informal team consisting of company owner and key leaders from operations, human resources and safety can share insights and develop mitigation plans when threats arise. Additional support is available from your insurance, legal advisors and third-party consultants.
Preventive Strategies for Anticipating Potential Workplace Violence Incidents
- Review your code of conduct or employee handbook to ensure expectations for a respectful workplace is clearly communicated. Discuss this at office meetings and in jobsite toolbox talks.
- Supervisors should make looking for troubling behavior a priority to help ensure workers remain safe. Understand that out of character behavior may be a coping strategy, but talking with the employee can help determine if it is troubling.
- Develop or revise your workplace violence prevention policy or program and determine if you need to add in a threat assessment process.
- Connect with threat assessment professionals about workplace violence prevention training and resources.
- Conduct workplace violence training for leaders, supervisors and employees with a focus on risk factors and reporting channels.
There is near universal agreement on the adverse effects of the pandemic on the mental health and well-being of Americans. There are growing signs that the escalating stress is nearing a tipping point. The longer the disruption of personal routines and business operations continues, stress levels continue to rise exponentially. Rising risk factors may be a signal that conditions could spill over into violence.
It is often said in team sports that the best defense is a strong offense. Construction leaders are encouraged to take proactive measures to counter potential workplace violence through preventive measures. Maintaining frequent communication with employees and using reassuring language to reinforce a caring culture is a good first step. Now is the time to take preventive steps to help protect against the potential risk of workplace violence.
Editor’s Note: The lead author is a regular contributor to Construction Business Owner magazine. He has extensive industry work experience. He is a leading advocate in the construction industry for mental wellbeing, addiction recovery and suicide prevention. He champions stamping out mental health stigma by speaking directly about tough topics.
As a risk management and safety professional, he feels this topic must be addressed. By opening the eyes of industry leaders to an issue of this significance, he believes that creating and maintaining a caring culture can help prevent the potential for workplace violence as it offers employees hope, help and resources to promote healing and recovery.