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Anger In the Workplace, A Sign of The Times?

Turn on any news report, open any news publication and the topics include:  the Great Recession, record foreclosures, record unemployment, layoffs, increased healthcare costs, lost benefits, credit problems, economic loss, and competitive pressure from overseas.  We read articles about the loss of the American dream and the struggle this generation will have to live as well as their parents.

For business owners and managers this translates into challenges like lost revenue, fewer customers, and pressure to increase productivity,   

For employees this translates into fear of losing a job, doing more with less, feeling trapped and underappreciated.

The common denominator for business owners, managers and employees is higher levels of stress in the workplace that can lead to bad behavior.

Results from a March 2011 Harris Interactive online survey conducted for the American Psychological Association include these key findings:

  • 36% of workers said they typically feel tense or stressed out during their workday and 20% report that their average daily level of stress from work is an 8, 9 or 10 on a 10-point scale.

  • Employees cited lack of opportunities for growth and advancement, heavy workloads, unrealistic job expectations and long hours as significant sources of stress.

  • Nearly two-thirds of employed adults surveyed report their employer has made some type of cut due to the recession.  64% report that their employer has made at least one cut.  

  • The most common reported cuts are laying off employees followed by reducing or eliminating bonuses, reducing or eliminating social activities, and increasing employee contribution toward health insurance costs. Over half of the employees who indicated cuts were made report that the cuts have not been reversed.

While stress in the workplace isn’t a new concept, it certainly has escalated during these uncertain times.  “HR Magazine,” from the Society for Human Resource Management, introduced the term “desk rage” in an article in 2003.  “Stressed out employees are losing their cool, displaying anger and having temper tantrums at work.  Desk rage often takes the form of rudeness, yelling, verbal abuse, attacks on office equipment and even fistfights with co-workers.  Think of desk rage as stress on steroids.”

From the “Desk Rage Survey of American Workers” Opinion Research Corp. and Integra Resources reported:

  • 42% say yelling and verbal abuse occurs in their workplace.

  • 29% admit to yelling at coworkers because of stress

  • 14% say they have seen machinery or equipment damaged through workplace rage.

  • 10% say physical violence has occurred in their workplace because of stress.

Employees always have encountered workplace stress, but several economic and social trends have either intensified or heightened worker sensitivity to it – war, a bad economy, layoffs, greater workloads, increased productivity demands and longer hours.  Mix that with smaller, cramped workspaces that make employees feel restless and disorganized.  Add office clutter, shorter response time requirements and a dash of technology to increase customer expectations.  Beat out interpersonal communication.  Blend with shifting responsibilities and work that is never complete, reducing time spent off work.  Add a fluid, diverse, multi-generational workforce with different work process methods, and you’ve got a recipe for extreme stress.”

So, business owners and managers must be aware of this issue in today’s business environment, recognize the warning signs of hidden anger and arm themselves with tools to address workplace anger and conflict.

Kathleen Wentworth, SPHR is HR Head for Seonus.  Wentworth reports that Seonus works to keep signs of stress down in the workplace.  When they experience any act of violence in the workplace, immediate disciplinary action is taken.  

While yelling, name-calling, tears, and physical violence can be obvious signs of anger, there are a range of other behaviors that may signal a need for intervention:

  • Sarcastic, irritable, or moody behavior

  • Apathetic and/or inconsistent work performance

  • Employees or managers who are prone to making direct or veiled threats

  • Aggressive or anti-social behavior

  • Overreaction to company policies or performance appraisals

  • Touchy relationships with other employees

  • Bullying behavior towards others

  • Obsessive involvement and/or emotional attachment to a job

All of these may lead to serious forms of violence which speaks to the need to deal with these behaviors as they are observed.  

Pam Gibson, President of Idea Staffing tells of a time at a lunch meeting when a conversation turned personal and two women became very upset to the point that there was profanity and screaming.  She ended the meeting and met individually with each employee to let them know that their behavior was unacceptable and not to be tolerated in the workplace.

When encountering workplace anger issues, managers should do the following::

  • State a policy of zero tolerance for inappropriate behavior in writing and identify clearly the types of behavior that are inappropriate.

  • Encourage a culture of diversity and an environment of inclusion that values differences.  Training on diversity can help employees appreciate and learn to value differing ideas and approaches to work.  Help them understand differing styles of communication and how personality, style and personal prejudices can influence communication.

  • Don’t shrug off or avoid addressing workplace anger incidents.  If not addressed, they tend to get worse over time.  Utilize a progressive discipline approach to clearly identify the need to change inappropriate behavior.

  • Learn to recognize the symptoms of workplace anger and provide employees with constructive avenues to express frustration and concerns.  Arm them with stress reduction tools.

  • Make sure you have all the facts when providing constructive feedback or taking progressive discipline steps, especially if there appears to be any doubt about the issue.

  • Progressive discipline discussions and write-ups need to be centered on facts and job related data and not personalities, personal problems, or other issues.

  • Be a role model for your employees:  make sure your own actions and deeds are a good model.

  • Provide your employees with tools and training on effective communication with coworkers.

  • Offer your employees training and tools to handle conflict within the workplace.  Effective teamwork requires successful management of conflict between coworkers.  Show your employees strategies that they can use to address conflict so it doesn’t turn into anger or hostility within the work environment.

Positive anger free environments do exist.  Do your part to change the culture of your organization.  Everyone has a responsibility to contribute to a little more peace at work and in the world!

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