There was an air of relief to Tuesday afternoon’s coverage of a mass shooting in Half Moon Bay, CA, particularly as it emerged that this brutal attack was likely an incident of workplace violence.

As if to say that, opposed to getting unexpectedly shot to death at a ballroom dance hall on a Saturday night, Americans should know it’s completely normal to be targeted at your place of employment.

There may be few workers who face more serious possibilities of being threatened, assaulted or worse in the course of a regular work day than healthcare providers. It’s gotten so bad that some 25% of clinicians in a new global study said they were willing to quit because of the issue, with a majority reporting that they had faced some type of violence and felt unprepared to deal with it.

It’s pretty hard to deal with a gun being pointed at you when you’re in a place that’s all about routine and rhythm, and, in a nursing home, providing a sanctuary where people come to heal. And yet, the fear of experiencing just that is increasing.

The irrefutable fact that those fears will become reality for more workers has led both the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to refocus their workplace violence prevention programs in the last few months.

But increasingly, the idea of preventing workplace violence feels like a lost cause. Not that we shouldn’t try to head off issues before they develop, to offer interventions and policies that might help calm disgruntled patients, family members or co-workers.

But as someone who’s seen the fallout of a deadly workplace shooting, albeit from afar, I hope that any new emergency planning policies and those tasked with implementing them won’t overlook what it takes to recover from such an event.

Do we even recover? Can we “move past it” when a place that should feel safe, where on many days we spend more of our waking hours than in our homes, becomes a crime scene? Where people we may have greeted happily every morning spent their last moments in terror?

My guess is no.

Four and a half years ago, I was spending a lazy summer day at the pool with my young kids when news first broke that a gunman had blasted his way into the offices of my former newspaper in Annapolis, MD. 

It was my post-college training ground, the place where I spent 15-hour days with others who were equally exhausted but committed to the idea of community journalism, much in that way that you are committed to caring for your patients day in, day out. I’d been gone nearly 15 years, but the organization and the characters who gave The Capital its unique charms still held a special place in my heart. As news trickled in that night, I learned that three of the five victims were former co-workers.

I sat through their funerals in the next few weeks, reminiscing with other old colleagues and showing support for those who’d witnessed the carnage or just escaped it. Those who somehow remained standing to honor the dead, who really hadn’t even begun to understand what had happened or why.

Had I still been part of that office, I’d never have been able to return despite the appeal of grieving alongside those who shared an experience unimaginable to those on the outside. Miraculously, many staff members did go back to work for the paper. But as I’ve watched some leave journalism and others deal with varying degrees of survivor’s guilt, deep depression or declining physical health, I can’t say whether it was for the best for any of them to jump back in.

I’ve never asked, but I doubt my former publishing company had a policy on what to do after a mass shooting. They certainly weren’t federally required to have the kind of broad emergency preparedness plans that healthcare settings do.

But even the best plans in nursing homes and elsewhere likely under account for what comes after a shooting. How much time off will survivors get? What resources will you provide them? And if they want to keep doing the jobs they love, but still struggle five, 10, 15 years later, will your organization be prepared to keep the support flowing?

There are certainly de-escalation techniques and physical precautions physical facilities can take to try to head off or limit the damage in the event of workplace violence. But as this issue comes before you and your leadership teams, remember that the planning exercise could one day become a true test of your organization.

And an organization is nothing more than its people. In your case, staff, residents and families. A true workplace violence program will prepare them for the unthinkable as best as it can. But it also should be designed to guide them and offer them grace as they struggle to return to their workplace (or a new one) if and when they’re ready.

Kimberly Marselas is senior editor of McKnight’s Long-Term Care News.

Opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News columns are not necessarily the opinion of McKnight’s.