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After Workplace Violence Incident, Mental Health Resources a Must

Employers also should work to make sure employees are trained in techniques that can help them prevent or escape violent scenarios.

May 30, 2012
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Physical attacks on employees are rare but when they happen, employers should be ready to provide psychiatric resources for victims as they work to cope with trauma.

Violent incidents involving customers, co-workers or outside aggressors can leave workers who have experienced or witnessed attacks with depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

As they seek to help traumatized employees, companies can turn to specialty insurance coverages to pay for counselling.

Whether they have coverage or not, experts advise employers to be ready to provide the resources employees need.

"If it does happen, it is so emotionally, financially and psychologically devastating to the employees and the organization that we do strongly counsel people to make sure that you're prepared," said Gregory Bangs, vice president and product manager for crime and kidnap and ransom insurance at Chubb Corp. in Warren, New Jersey.

Michael Mantell, a clinical psychologist and corporate workplace violence consultant based in San Diego, said people tend to experience a range of emotions after being victimized or witnessing an attack.

Healthy individuals often feel shock, disbelief or denial in the days or weeks after an attack, followed by a "cataclysm of emotion" that stems from traumatic anxiety and can involve a "roller-coaster" of reactions related to the office violence, Mantell said.

A third stage of coping occurs weeks or months after a violent incident, Mantell said, when people start to confront and deal with their reactions.

While most people reach emotional equilibrium in the third stage, some individuals go on to develop PTSD or other long-term mental effects that could hinder them from moving forward, Mantell said.

Larry Poague, senior loss control and prevention specialist with Lockton Cos. L.L.C. in Kansas City, Missouri, said the range of reactions can be based on how an employee learned to cope with traumatic events as a child, or whether that person has positive relationships at work and home that can serve as a support system.

Employees who experience difficult reactions to workplace violence often can become less productive or experience absenteeism compared with coworkers who are more effective at processing such traumatic events, Poague said.

"Some people are going to be back (to work), and work is what's going to carry them through," he said. "But there will also be a six-month or eight-month lag for some folks before they start to experience what happened."

While rare, workplace violence can be costly when it occurs, according to NCCI Holdings Inc. Sources agree that companies that have had an incident of workplace violence need to make sure they provide mental health resources to help employees move forward in a healthy fashion.

Jay Supnick, a clinical psychologist and owner of Law Enforcement Psychological Associates in Rochester, New York, said it can be necessary for companies to offer multiple group counseling sessions or "debriefings" for employees that allow them to discuss trauma and process their emotions.

"One person may need a number of sessions, another person may not need anything," Supnick said.

Experts say employers that hold debriefings should make sure that such discussions are helping employees rather than harming them. For instance, Mantell said, a counseling session may be ineffective if it talks only generally about the stages of grief but doesn't give employees a chance to discuss their own feelings about recent violence.

"If debriefing sessions turn into complaints about the company, it really fosters a lot of negativity, and that attaches itself to anxiety," he said.

Supnick said companies should try to schedule debriefing sessions when employees seem ready to discuss the situation, rather than forcing workers to talk immediately after workplace violence. He encourages companies to seek professional help in striking the right balance.

"I think you need to have some skilled clinicians that do this kind of work, and it probably should not just be one session that happens," Supnick said. "It should be tailored to people's needs."

Chubb's Bangs said most individuals can benefit from intensive counseling for a 10-day period after workplace violence. But he said some workers could need additional counseling to process traumatic events.

Insurance coverage can help pay for the cost of such assistance. For instance, Chubb offers workplace violence insurance that will pay for such benefits as crisis mental health counseling and a consultant to help ensure that a facility is "hardened" to prevent future attacks, Bangs said.

Chartis Inc. also offers a product as part of its employment practices liability coverage that helps pay for costs that result from workplace violence. That includes employee counseling, security counseling or public relations consulting that can help companies allay reputational damage, said Joni Mason, senior vice president and employment practices liability product manager for Chartis in New York.

Companies that experience workplace violence should evaluate whether they missed signs or did not provide effective procedures to help prevent attacks in the first place, experts say. Such introspection can lead companies to make security improvements that allow employees to feel safe at work again after violence occurs, said Kim Brown, senior workers' compensation consultant for Lockton.

Employers also should work to make sure employees are trained in techniques that can help them prevent or escape violent scenarios, Chubb's Bangs said. That information can help employees feel empowered if they face an unlikely event of workplace violence, he said.

"If you do that up front, you're going to help things down the road," Bangs said.

Sheena Harrison writes for Business Insurance, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.

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