Violence happens in the workplace. The incident at the Empire State Building on Friday morning, in which a fired employee shot a former colleague in the street, is a grim reminder that employers not only need to have a plan in place should something happen, but also need strategies for preventing issues escalating to such extreme levels.
“The workplace environment is a major influence about how people feel, whether they’ve been laid off or passed over, or whether they feel they have been ignored,” says Bill Wilkerson, co-founder of the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health. “An employer can’t prevent [violent acts] completely, but it can work toward a psychologically healthier workplace where those kind of sentiments do not fester.”
What employers can do
Ensuring employees are safe during a violent event is the first priority, but once the incident has passed, an employer’s work is just beginning.
In the Empire State Building incident, in which a current employee died, there needs to be a resource people can turn to, to grieve and deal with the thoughts they’re having about the event.
Wilkerson says employers need to ensure that employees have facts available to them of what happened and are able to discuss the incident openly—be it via an open forum or personal counselling. “It’s important that there is a strong sense of direction tomorrow, the next day and the day after,” he says.
“After trauma, having a debriefing time is important,” adds Dr. Katy Kamar, a psychologist with the Work, Stress and Health Program at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. “Everyone responds differently. Some people may be able to come to work the next day; others might require more time. Employees need to perceive a high quality of support from employers.”
She adds, “I think following any tragedy, we want to go back and reassess the situation. What can we learn from it? Is there anything we could have done differently? We can’t turn back the clock, but is there anything that I can use to put toward tomorrow?”
Wilkerson agrees, saying that employers need to examine how the events escalated to that extent. “Examine how we reached the point [at which] an employee felt this strongly and, in this state of mind, to take it out on a former boss or co-worker,” says Wilkerson. “There has to be some history there.”
See more on creating a psychologically healthier workplace on Monday.