Ask any European (or Canadian, or Australian) what peculiar trait seems to most broadly define their image of America, circa 2013, and you’ll get a quick answer: The inexplicable mass shooting.

Once again, the headlines scream about another senseless workplace tragedy, this time an apparently grievance-related massacre at Washington D.C.’s Navy Yard, with 13 deaths – and the typical load of morning-after questions.

Our foreign friends have had their own atrocities in years past (with most Western countries responding with immediate and draconian gun restrictions), but … yeah, they’ve got something when they talk about an unpleasant erosion in the American psyche, one that seems to be escalating as the years pass and the Internet news cycle becomes more intense.

From the earliest of reports, Monday’s tragedy seems to be something of an absolute worst-case-scenario for HR managers and benefits providers: Shooter Aaron Alexis was a former serviceman with a long history of personal and workplace violence issues, and likely a litany of untreated psychiatric issues as well.

A troubled employee who, for whatever reason, decided to take out his frustrations on an unconnected population of workers with an assault rifle – that has become a sad cliché for workplace issue resolution.

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Having literally just moved to D.C. from Colorado, where our horrifying tradition of mass shootings is more related to post-adolescent psychosis than workplace vengeance, Monday’s atrocity is not a good sign of the state of affairs at even the most civilized and high-security of jobsites.

Skirting the gun control issue entirely (as the firearms used in the shooting are all technically illegal in the District), it seems like an ideal opportunity to consider what you as an employer or an HR professional can realistically do to help stem the next tragedy. As you know, there will probably be more.

You’ve already got some immediate answers in the form of your Employee Assistance Program, one of those hidden services dangled to most employees only on their orientation day and then never spoken of again.

Used effectively, they can provide an invaluable resource for workers who may not feel like confiding their pent-up issues to you as an HR official – or may be getting the insurance run-around as they try to access any counseling or mental health resources through their regular medical benefits.

And as we will discuss at length in the next issue of EBN, more and more employers are discovering ways to help provide counseling services to unhappy workers in a less obtrusive way than old-fashioned face-to-face meetings (electronic, teleconference-styled services can take a lot of the stigma out of sitting in a waiting room or signing up for an awkward group counseling session). Millennial employees, more used to time in front of their iPad than in front of a doctor, may also be better candidates.

Most of all, keeping an open dialogue – and a concerned eye – with your employees can be a literal life-saver. Problems develop in every workplace (it has been said that the office setting is perhaps the most unnatural environment for human interaction ever invented), but remaining vigilant and aware of major issues is going to become a crucial HR coping skill in the years to come.

Andy Stonehouse is Editor-in-Chief of Employee Benefit News. He can be reached at andy.stonehouse@sourcemedia.com or by telephone at (571) 403-3871.

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