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ATD Blog

Handle With Care: Workplace Mental Health Issues and Violence

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one in five Americans suffered a mental illness in 2016, and 71 percent of adults indicated having at least one symptom of stress. While periods of stress can pass on their own—either because the individual seeks help or the situation improves—at times, the stress and feelings of despair and isolation escalate. Further escalation can lead to an individual having suicidal or outwardly hostile thoughts or actions.

Unfortunately, these can play out in the workplace, as we’re seeing on an increasingly frequent basis. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration states that 2 million American workers report being victims of workplace violence each year. The potential for workplace violence is real and something that organizations need to prepare for.

Setting the Groundwork

To help address mental health issues, organizations can create a culture of work-life balance, provide employee assistance programs with resources to deal with stressors, and offer screening tools that suggest treatment measures.

But organizations need to go beyond that to create emergency action plans for potential violent situations, plans that every employee is briefed upon and has practiced. Donna McEntee, author of “Workplace Violence: Recognize, Prepare, Respond,” says that these plans should include worksite layouts, structural features, and emergency systems and an explanation of training programs that include each employee’s role and responsibility in an emergency. McEntee, who manages more than 900 courses and designs effective compliance training programs, is Skillsoft’s director for environmental, health, and safety compliance products.

An organization’s preparedness for possible violence should include a backup strategy for instances where the attacker knows the ins and outs of the initial emergency action plan. Leaders set the tone for an organization, so they should lay the foundation for a strong culture of safety and compliance. Local law enforcement also should be part of an organization’s plan. Law enforcement personnel who are familiar with an office layout will be able to act more quickly in time of crisis.


Knowing How to Respond

As part of preparing for an incident, employees should be instructed on a three-prong response method.

Escape. Getting out of harm’s way is the best response to an active shooter situation. Employees should follow the planned escape routes and exits they learned from training, alerting others along the way. A planned meeting place away from the office will allow leaders to ascertain who is safe and those who may still be inside the building. This information can then be shared with emergency personnel once they arrive on-site.


Hide. When escape routes are blocked, an employee may have to choose to hide. Cell phones should be turned to vibrate: “If people are hiding, they should turn off the lights, silence their phones, and keep quiet and low to the ground.” McEntee continues, “If possible, they should call 9-1-1 and leave on the phone; this enables the operator to hear what is going on and relay it to the police.”

Engage. A last—and scary—resort is to engage with the active shooter. This may be part of a hide situation, with employees looking for objects that may help them fight the assailant. Some things to consider are keyboards, fire extinguishers, and chairs.

While none of us want to think about being in an active shooter situation, having a plan and training employees is essential for every organization today. McEntee recommends that organizations change the drill mindset of such training so that individuals are comfortable with what they’re supposed to do. Rather than a mock crisis, a walk-through allows employees to ask questions, practice hiding, and retain their learning.

Note: The February 2020 issue of TD at Work, “Workplace Violence: Recognize, Prepare, Respond,” upon which this article is based, is intended to provide a general educational background on workplace violence, including active shooter events. An employer’s HR department, senior executives, and local law enforcement should develop and maintain appropriate procedures tailored to that employer’s unique needs and circumstances. The Association for Talent Development is not providing health, safety, or legal advice relative to workplace violence, mental health, or active shooter scenarios, and nothing contained herein should be relied on as such. ATD expressly disclaims any liability resulting from any such reliance.

About the Author

Patty Gaul is a senior writer/editor for the Association for Talent Development (ATD).

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