Defining Workplace Violence

Workplace violence is actual violence or the threat of violence against coworkers. It can happen inside or outside of the workplace and encompasses everything from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and homicide.

According to the Center for Disease Control, there are 4 types of workplace violence.

Type 1: Criminal Intent: The perpetrator has no connection or relationship with the business and is often committing a crime in conjunction with their actions. Examples include someone being attacked in a parking garage, shoplifting, or robbery.

Type 2: Customer/Client: The perpetrator is a customer/client of the employer and their act often occurs in conjunction with the worker’s normal duties. Healthcare workers are most often victims of this type of workplace violence.

Type 3: Worker-on-Worker: This type of violence is often called lateral or horizontal violence and the perpetrator is a current or former employee. Examples include bullying, verbal abuse that is offensive or vindictive, and harassment.

Type 4: Personal Relationship: The perpetrator often has a personal relationship with the victim. For example, a spouse or partner can follow an employee to their job and threaten them.

How Violence Can Affect the Workplace

Workplace violence occurrences can have a lasting impact on employees. Whether they were a victim or simply a bystander, they could be left with short-term or chronic consequences – anything from physical injury to mental distress to death. They could have added job stress, problems at home, or financial burdens as they process the trauma.

If they suffer from severe psychological trauma, it could lead to substance abuse, reactionary or retaliatory violence, illness, or suicide. Fear and anxiety often last much longer than physical injury.

Employees could find themselves in a full-blown crisis – a state of emotional turmoil where they are unable to cope emotionally, cognitively, or behaviorally. (Though perpetrators are often in a crisis state themselves.)

Biophysical manifestations include:
  • Rapid heart rate and hyperventilation
  • Raised blood pressure and chest pain
  • Stomach pain, nausea, vomiting
  • Involuntary shaking and rash/hives
Emotionally they would feel:
  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Shock
  • Guilt
Their behavior might change as well leading to:
  • Decreased problem-solving ability
  • The inability to focus
  • Bouts of crying
  • Self-isolation
  • Irritability
This feeling of crisis doesn’t happen at the drop of a hat, but is the final straw, so to speak, in coping mechanisms that have continued to fail.

Going beyond just the initial trauma to people, these events affect business as well. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that workplace violence costs 500,000 employees 1.2 million lost workdays every year taking a huge chunk out of productivity.

Employees may begin to distrust management for letting such an event occur and for not keeping them safe and view their environment as hostile. This will breed low morale and employee turnover if victims start leaving their roles.

It depends on the type of violence that occurs, but costs are sure to rise if there is property damage, the need for new or more security protocols, or Worker’s Compensation claims.

Risk Factors of Workplace Violence

Every workplace is at risk for workplace violence, and there are different types of risk factors to be aware of.
  • Environmental risk factors are the physical things specific to the workplace such as layout, floor design, and amenities available. This includes blind corners, poor signage, unsecured fixtures or furniture, and lack of or lax security.
  • Organizational risk factors have more to do with the policies and procedures in place. This includes management and staff attitudes toward the possibility of an occurrence, lack of security, lack of training, poor reporting, and overworked staff.
  • Underreporting is a serious issue in workplace violence statistics. People underreport occurrences for a number of reasons – it’s just part of the job, it’s complex to do so, it’s too time-consuming, it could lead to victim-blaming, etc.
  • Social and economic risk factors have to do with society and the surrounding community. This includes a high poverty rate, lack of community involvement, societal norms that could glorify or encourage violence, and social inequities.
Those most vulnerable populations are those that exchange money, work late, work alone, care for others, or are in an environment where alcohol is served. Industries that are affected more are healthcare employees, social workers, correctional officers, educators, and retail employees.

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Preventing and Handling Workplace Violence