Fear: An Emerging Workplace Trend


A new workplace trend is emerging and it is one I believe speaks volumes about the current state of affairs.

Human Resources professionals are calling National EAP at an increased rate to discuss the presence of fear in their workplace and to learn ways to best respond to it.

Fear has always existed but usually over layoff’s so why the new uptick in calls?  The fear they are calling about is employees fear that they could be subject to an active shooter event at work.    

The why’s for this specific fear increasing differ.

For some the cause was the T.V. reporter shot live on air by an ex-employee.  For others, it was the San Bernardino event and most recently the Orlando shooting.  Often it is a fear born out of the termination of a perceived “unstable” employee.  The most recent call was because death threats were made by an ex-boyfriend towards an employee.

Threats of violence in the workplace have always existed

What has changed remarkably is that a real and palpable fear now exists in the hearts and minds of employees believing gun violence at their worksite is a real threat.  And not just gun violence, but a mass shooting event. 

Employees, management and HR are now talking about what to do if there is an active shooter event.  Discussion is happening around whether it is better to run, hide or fight.

I have conducted training on workplace violence for the past decade and ten years ago most people’s biggest fear was an act of physical violence from an angry colleague or damage to their personal property, work or car.  Not a shooting.  We didn’t discuss best practices in case there was an “active shooter event” then.  But we do today.

The mood and mindset has changed.  There are many reasons why we, the collective (consciously and unconsciously) now believe an active shooter event could happen in our workplace.  When concern is raised about a colleague’s behavior, it doesn’t take long for someone on the team to whisper the question “what if they come in and shoot us one day?”   

It used to be a big leap of the mind to believe that something like a shooting could happen “here”, wherever that was.  Now, not so much.  We are all so much more on guard, more raw, more exposed to how quickly things can change and how the random and unpredictable could happen in “good” places and to “good” people.  Yesterday’s bombing at Istanbul’s Atatürk international airport will only serve to further escalate our internalized fear.

Fear is a palpable energy that spreads like wildfire through the workplace.  As HR, if you haven’t already, you will find yourself in a position attempting to answer fear.  Employees want to know:

  • How are you going to protect us if a shooting happens?
  • What if John* wants payback for me firing him?
  • What should we do if John shows up unannounced?
  • I feel threatened because of what Jim said to me.  Can you fire him?
  • What if a client is unhappy with our services and goes off the deep end?

It’s a case of the “what if’s” and the “what if’s” are hard to answer.  

As HR it is important that you educate yourself as much as possible, review and improve your safety plans and then lastly, train and educate your leadership and employees on PREVENTION and what to do if the “what if’s” happen.
Even though you may not believe something bad could ever happen where you work, you still have a responsibility to respond to the fear that might exist and manage it when it arises so it doesn’t wildfire through your organization.

Aoifa O’Donnell, LCSW
CEO, National EAP, Inc.

EAP Member        Employers

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