HR Answers: Increase Workplace Wellness to Decrease Workplace Violence

coworkers doing yoga at the office
By Joy Stephenson-Laws, J.D.

3 minutes

Work environments and programs that provide ongoing education, support and healthy choices can reduce stress before it escalates. 

Workplace violence remains a real and increasing threat to America’s workforce. According to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, approximately two million workers are victims of workplace violence every year and this number is rising. 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, U.S. companies have almost universally instituted policies prohibiting any type of workplace violence, in addition to such precursors as inappropriate language, sexual harassment and bullying. While these measures have undoubtedly had some positive impact, it is clear from the statistics that they don’t go far enough. In my view as a health care attorney, business owner and specialist in proactive, preventative health care, these policies miss the mark by primarily aiming to control symptoms rather than addressing the underlying issues that contribute to workplace violence.

The job-related physical and mental health issues that can most trigger workplace violence are stress, anxiety, depression and other emotional issues that may be exacerbated by the workplace. According to the American Psychological Association, work-related stress can contribute to short temper. Many people resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms like smoking or heavy drinking that can actually worsen the situation.

Recognizing the signs of stress that can trigger a violent outburst—such as hostility toward co-workers, physical signs of exhaustion or taking more days off than usual—is a good first step to avoid workplace violence. So is offering formal employee assistance programs to help with stress management or emotional issues. But these programs alone may not be enough, since they are dependent on someone noticing a change in behavior or an employee asking for help. 

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 tends to wane after a few weeks or months, often leading to employers and employees feeling frustrated and discouraged. Even worse, after these programs lose support, any physical and/or emotional health benefits gained can quickly decline, potentially leaving people even less healthy and more stressed than they were before.

For 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. This education needs to give employees important and relevant health information in a way they will understand. It should address their personal needs, be readily applicable in their daily lives and focus on creating long-term attitude and behavioral changes.

A key element of this education is helping employees know what is going on with their bodies through comprehensive testing. Such testing could include nutritional, stress-level, and other key metrics. Armed with this information, wellness professionals can help your employees not only get healthier physically and emotionally, but take proactive steps so they can stay healthy.

Enhanced wellness programs need to provide ongoing support to keep employees on track and motivated to continue working at their personalized programs. This includes periodic check-ins to monitor progress, adapting the programs as necessary to help employees achieve their goals, and online and offline support.

Your credit union can also lead by example in creating healthy habits. While employees might turn to unhealthy foods when they are stressed, employers do not have to enable this behavior by providing junk food in 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 work environment. Your organization can also encourage opportunities to stand, stretch and walk during the day.

By better addressing the underlying causes of workplace violence through enhanced employee wellness programs, we may be able make our workplaces a safer place. Will this require an investment? Of course, it will. Will it be worth it? Most definitely.cues icon

Joy Stephenson-Laws, J.D., is the founder of Proactive Health Labs, Sherman Oaks, California, 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 health care law firm Stephenson Acquisto & Colman. Her latest book is Minerals – The Forgotten Nutrient: Your Secret Weapon for Getting and Staying Healthy.

Compass Subscription