DESK RAGE: Dealing with employees who lose it

We’ve all had those eerie experiences when a co-worker went too far, said too much, got too loud. It might have been something as simple as a lost phone message or as important as a lost customer, but your co-worker reacted–overreacted.

“Desk rage” is a new buzz phrase in the world of stress and violence. But while extreme violence and situations make the headlines, the raised voices and raised fists of everyday work rarely do. But it’s still happening.

The Marlin Co. of North Haven, Conn., conducted a study on workplace violence and a surprising 42 percent reported that they worked in offices where yelling and verbal abuse happened frequently.

“People are being asked to do more and more to get their jobs done,” said Leslie Graham, lead therapist for outpatient services at Munson Medical Center and coordinator of the Employee Assistance Program. “Ultimately, the issue is finding work/life balance.”

The most likely to act out in the workplace are men between the ages of 25-45, reports the Marlin Co. But it is actually women who report the most stress.

“A lot of people have what I’ve coined ‘performance guilt,'” Graham said. “They can’t give their best to every aspect of their life. Their job takes priority out of necessity and they have less time to take care of themselves and the people around them. It’s a domino effect.”

The result is often acting out.

“To diffuse the feeling of not being able to perform as well as they want, they place it on other people. It might be physical pushing and shoving or verbal lashing out. It’s abusive and it sets people back in the workplace.”

John Darrow, Employee Assistance Program coordinator located at Catholic Human Services in Traverse City, has seen the need for their services increase in recent years.

“There’s downsizing, fewer employees and greater work, single parents and children to be raised,” he said. “They have a full plate when the unexpected happens and they can’t take care of it.”

The EAP is a consultation program that employers can purchase to offer their employees free confidential help in many areas of their lives. Darrow noted that they have roughly 50 contracts with local employers with three or four more added each year. EAP does not provide treatment, but rather refers employees to proper resources, be it personal, emotional, financial or otherwise.

“Often people become overwhelmed with changes in the workplace or how the organization is handling changes,” Darrow said. “People have acted out and gotten to the point of getting physical. The stress level of workers climbs when you consider the intricate factors that make up most workers’ lives: a workweek that is climbing to an expected 45 hours, dual-income families, higher technology, younger competition.

Graham quoted a recent study that showed three out of 10 workers feel overwhelmed and overworked. A full one-quarter feel they can’t take their vacation time. For many, the workplace stress compares to that of an interpersonal relationship, Graham noted.

“It’s like threatening abandonment; they fear the loss of their job and don’t take vacations they have coming to them because they’re afraid they’ll be replaced by another human being or a machine. They like to be irreplaceable.” So what can employers do to help employees juggle it all? First and foremost, Graham says to give them permission to do just that. “They may be able to take a 15-minute break, but they feel guilty doing it,” she said. “Employers need to encourage it and support it. It shouldn’t be punitive for walking away from the computer for 10 minutes or leaving to take care of family.”

Crystal Mountain Resort in Thompsonville has gone one step further and given their employees permission to have fun.

“It’s a balancing act between work and life,” said Marty Beard, director of human resources. “We offer recreation benefits, which doesn’t sound like much on the surface. But it helps our employees lead healthier lives and be more focused and ready to deal with things when they get to work.”

The perks of skiing and golfing are two-fold. It also gives employees a sense of what the company is all about. “It’s part of the lifestyle we try to promote,” Beard said. This is a philosophy that plays into Graham’s second most important detail in managing workplace stress: making employees feel like they’re part of an extended family.

“There is a huge absence of loyalty in the workplace,” Graham said. “People switch jobs all the time, and not for the best insurance package but for employers who seem to care and are flexible. They take pay cuts to go to work for someone who supports work/life balance.”

Beard agreed, noting that they strive to promote a “culture” at Crystal Mountain of flexibility and resources.

“It takes more than one program to do it,” she said. “We offer flexible schedules, recreational benefits, an Employee Assistance Program and work-from-home options. These are all part of the culture of helping people through rough spots and getting them in touch with resources in the community.” BN