Benefits Column

In the Aftermath of Sandy Hook

The recent tragedy in Newtown, Conn., has stimulated a broad discussion of gun-control laws and the inadequacy of mental-health treatment in the United States. But we'd be remiss were we not to also consider the workplace implications - and the need to provide employees with a safe place to work.

Monday, January 14, 2013
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Most generations are partly defined by the "where were you when . . . " question. I'm too young for the President Kennedy query, but I know exactly where I was on 9/11 and will forever remember the recent shootings that took place in Newtown, Conn.

While I was horrified by what happened to the children, my follow-up concern was for the Sandy Hook Elementary School's employees. That's partly due to my professional work with employers and was enhanced by my mom being a teacher. I couldn't shake my focus on how the school's employees were feeling and what their employer was doing to support them.

I have experienced both workplace violence and personal-safety issues during my career. The experience that stands out most in my mind happened when I led a major rehabilitation hospital's industrial medicine department. A patient assaulted one of my employees and then ran out of the building. The security guards were afraid to stop him.

Once I knew my staff and patients were fine physically, I asked our program's psychologist to meet with the clients and requested the employee-assistance program to send a counselor to our location immediately.

It took a couple of hours before my team hashed out their major concerns and fears. And I still recall how I felt initially -- as though I had missed something with this patient and had placed my employees in jeopardy.

My staff wanted to know the specific actions that would follow this incident, including whether the hospital would press charges against the patient. The group ultimately rejected the idea of having a security guard placed in our clinic. However, for as long as they needed, we arranged for guards to escort them to and from their cars.

My inclination is to seek out experts when topics capture my attention. I turned to two colleagues -- David Whitehouse and Mike Critelli -- to discuss the concept of worker safety as a basic employee benefit.

"Employees shouldn't be more hazarded by being at work," says Whitehouse, a physician and recognized leader in neuroscience and behavioral health. He adds that employees generally believe their employers wouldn't deliberately place them at higher risk.

However, when something happens in the workplace, Whitehouse says, employees turn to their employers for help as if they were part of their extended families. "After 9/11, we saw people seek out their employer's advice regarding how to talk with their children about the event."

Fortunately, employee-assistance programs are superb at answering these questions. HR executives can partner with their EAPs for support in how to make workers aware of these services without heightening the sense of threat.

"One of the most effective responses we witnessed post-9/11," Whitehouse says, "is when senior managers sat with employees during the EAP sessions. The message was clear that everyone was impacted by the event."

So, if taking advantage of EAP services is a good response following an episode of workplace violence, what can employers do to minimize the chances of a safety event occurring and preparing employees in advance of something happening?

Critelli, the retired CEO of Stamford, Conn.-based Pitney Bowes, says companies and HR executives have to take everything seriously. "You can't assume what people might or might not do. You need to anticipate problems and act early to avoid them."

Critelli explains that his former company took several tacks with its employees. First, they made it comfortable for workers to privately tell HR leaders or managers when a personal situation at home might cross the workplace threshold and endanger them or co-workers.

Second, the company used "informal, soft interventions with people -- such as private counseling -- when managers or others observed employee behaviors that gave us pause."

But, sometimes bad things still happen at work. In that case, Whitehouse champions that "preparedness is the name of the game."

Workers who are trained in how to respond to different situations and understand what is expected of them do not experience the same level of post-traumatic-stress disorder as those who are not. Whitehouse says preparedness is key because employees need a fairly automatic response when they are threatened.

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In the case of preparing teachers, schools can walk educators through potential low-end incidents, such as a divorced parent without custody rights coming to pick up a child; to mid-level events, such as what to do with cases of suspected child abuse; to high-end situations, such as someone entering the school with a gun.

In a similar vein, following the Newtown shooting, a supermarket near my home reviewed with employees what they expected associates to do in the event of a robbery.

The last part of the workplace safety debate that has come to the forefront recently is whether schools and other places of employment should use strategies such as armed guards, metal detectors and bullet-proof entryways.

Critelli counsels that we should not have a fortress mentality. "We can minimize workplace violence but we can't eradicate it."

Whitehouse concurs and backs up his viewpoint with neuroscience. He says our brains are taught to scan for threat. Initially, people don't think of schools or workplaces as unsafe places. If a metal detector, for example, is placed at an entranceway, our brains are signaled that it is not irrational to look for potential threats.

As HR executives, the Newtown tragedy avails us the opportunity to review how to prepare employees for possible events, to explain what the company expects of them in different situations and to consider how to best make employees aware of services like the employee-assistance program.

We may live in a time when mass violence is becoming more common and, therefore, it is more important than ever before to prepare and support our employees through such difficult times.

Carol Harnett is a widely respected consultant, speaker, writer and trendspotter in the fields of employee benefits, health and productivity management, health and performance innovation, and value-based health. Follow her on Twitter via @carolharnett and on her video blog, The Work.Love.Play.Daily.


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