Workplace violence remains a real and increasing threat to America’s workforce. According to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), approximately two million workers are victims of workplace violence every year and this number is increasing. Even more alarming is that homicide is the fourth-leading cause of workplace deaths. In addition to the human toll, estimates put the total economic cost of workplace violence at over $55 billion.
In response, companies have almost universally instituted policies prohibiting any type of workplace violence—including inappropriate language, sexual harassment and bullying—to stem this tide. While these measures have undoubtedly had a positive impact in reducing the levels of some workplace violence, it is clear from the statistics that they don’t go far enough. In my view as a healthcare attorney, business owner and specialist in proactive, preventative healthcare, these policies miss the mark by primarily aiming to control the symptoms of workplace violence rather than addressing the underlying issues that contribute to it.
The job-related physical and mental health issues that can most trigger workplace violence are stress, anxiety, depression and other lifetime emotional issues that the worker brings to—and which may be exacerbated by—the workplace. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), work-related stress can contribute to short tempers. Many people resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms like smoking or heavy drinking to cope with this stress.
Recognizing the signs of stress that can trigger a violent outburst, such as hostility toward co-workers, physical signs of exhaustion and taking more days off than usual, is a good first step to avoid workplace violence. So are offering formal employee assistance programs to help employees with stress management or to work through emotional issues. But these programs may not be enough since they are dependent on someone noticing a change in behavior or an employee asking for help.
These elements, and employee wellness programs in general, are usually ineffective over the longer term in identifying and preventing possible health issues that could impact an employee’s emotional wellbeing. In fact, over 90% of companies, and most government entities, offer some form of wellness programs for their employees.
But most of these initiatives, while well intentioned, fall short of the goal of producing long-term benefits. Instead, the initial groundswell of enthusiasm for the programs tend to wane after a few weeks or months with both employers and employees left feeling frustrated, discouraged and wondering what went wrong. Even worse, any physical and/or emotional health benefits gained are quickly reversed and may, in fact, even go into decline, leaving people even less healthy than they were before. This can leave workers even more stressed or anxious than they were before.
For employee wellness programs to have a lasting impact on employees, and have a higher probability of success in reducing the consequences of mental and physical health issues in the workplace, they need to include a personalized, ongoing educational component. Most programs today focus on short-term actions that produce quick results but do very little, if anything, to create the attitude and behavior changes that result in long-term benefits.
Only education which is not focused on immediate gratification or “quick hits” can do this. This education needs to give employees important and relevant health information in a way they will understand, that addresses their personal needs and that they can readily apply in their daily lives. A key element of this education is helping employees know what is going on with their bodies through comprehensive testing. This could include nutritional, stress level, genomics and other key metrics. Armed with this information, companies can then help their employees not only get healthier physically and emotionally, but also take proactive steps so they can stay healthy.
Companies can also lead by example. While it is easy for employees to turn to unhealthy foods when they are stressed, employers do not have to enable this unhealthy eating choice by providing junk food in the vending machines. Instead of having a ban on music, perhaps the right kind of music can be encouraged. Research shows that relaxing music can lower stress and create a calming environment. And employers can encourage opportunities to stand, stretch and walk during the day.
These enhanced wellness programs also need to offer employees the tools they will need to effectively and easily apply the personalized education they receive to their daily lives. These could include nutritional supplements, lifestyle changes and behavioral changes. They also need to provide ongoing support to keep employees on track and motivated to continue working at their personalized programs. These include periodic check-ins to monitor progress, adapting the personalized programs as necessary to help an employee achieve their goals, and online and offline support.
By better addressing the underlying causes of workplace violence through enhanced employee wellness programs, we may be able to turn the tide and make our workplaces a safer place. Will this require an investment? Of course, it will. Will it be worth it? Most definitely. We will save lives—maybe even our own!
Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD is the founder of Proactive Health Labs, a national non-profit health information company that provides education and tools needed to achieve optimal health. She also is founding and managing partner of Stephenson Acquisto & Colman, a healthcare law firm. Her latest book is Minerals—The Forgotten Nutrient: Your Secret Weapon for Getting and Staying Healthy.