Anger in the workplace: are there lessons from Virginia?

Some signs should suggest that a work colleague is in sufficient distress to warrant seeking assistance for them

Vester Lee Flanagan, who was known on-air as Bryce Williams,  shot himself after  shooting dead  Alison Parker, a WDBJ reporter, and Adam Ward, a WDBJ photographer,   in Virginia on Wednesday  while they were  conducting a live interview. Photograph: REUTERS/WDBJ7/ Handout via Reuters

Vester Lee Flanagan, who was known on-air as Bryce Williams, shot himself after shooting dead Alison Parker, a WDBJ reporter, and Adam Ward, a WDBJ photographer, in Virginia on Wednesday while they were conducting a live interview. Photograph: REUTERS/WDBJ7/ Handout via Reuters

 

We all looked on in shock at the events that unfolded in Virginia on Wednesday. Our multimedia world means the true horror of events such as this one are brought right into our homes. In this instance, the murderer even recorded his actions throughout the dreadful event.

This kind of coverage raises the fear that it could happen to any of us at any time. However, it is important to remember that these occurrences are extremely rare, even in a gun culture such as prevails in the US.

Reports to date indicate this man was unhappy, angry and hard to work with. It has been further reported that he was easily angered by office humour.

I don’t think I am stretching conjecture to say that he clearly had serious anger issues. What we have not been made privy to is this man’s family history.

In such violent cases you may sometimes find a history of childhood trauma – physical, emotional and/or psychological. There can also be a history of psychiatric issues in the family.

What led to this heinous act? We will understand a lot better when we know all the facts.

Not wishing to infer anything about this man’s former place of employment, we can make some general remarks about what creates a healthy work environment.

What are some of the symptoms that might indicate an employee has a disturbed state of mind? How might others predict extreme behaviour? Here are some signs that should suggest that a work colleague is in sufficient distress to warrant seeking assistance for them:

1. A sudden withdrawal from previously enjoyed responsibilities and activities. 2. Uncharacteristic aggression towards those with whom the person related well. 3. Ongoing conflict with both colleagues and/or service providers. 4. Loss of a close family member coupled with an inability to resume duties after a reasonable amount of time after the event. 5. Physical or mental illness of the person or someone close to them, followed by notable symptoms of stress such as lack of concentration, depressive behaviour and/or uncharacteristic changes in their demeanour.

So what can an organisation do when it recognises that one of its employees is in distress? Regrettably, many organisations adopt an adversarial stance and try to get rid of the person by whatever means they can.

While this type of treatment of vulnerable employees may provide a short-term solution, it undermines morale and ultimately affects profit margins as a result of the inevitable stress across an organisation that such treatment of an employee brings.

A far more progressive approach for organisations would be to commit to taking care of the physical and mental health of their employees well before problems arise.

‘Family’ care

I long for the attitude of my father’s employers when I was a child. Many of us will fondly reminisce about how the Guinness “family” operated in the halcyon days of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

All employees and their families had access to medical and dental facilities at no charge. They provided comprehensive sporting facilities for everyone. They even sent home a multivitamin drink to families of young children. I still remember the taste.

I also regret that, with the arrival of outsourcing, this wonderful ethos diminished. I know this because my father lost his job as a result of the new policy.

Such a scenario may seem trivial, but it is anything but. We now live in an era where employees are treated as disposable and the resolution of difficulties rests with unions, law firms and courts.

Inevitably, unhappy individuals are no match for the vast resources of large organisations. There are huge stresses involved for isolated individuals, and the big boys always win.

A far more compassionate approach to resolving conflict (even if its genesis lies with the individual’s personal circumstances) would be to develop a system whereby problems could be filtered and those involved directed towards professionals who could facilitate a mutually acceptable compromise.

If the filtering process indicates that a person has a mental health issue, this should be dealt with in a sensitive manner.

If the issue is between work colleagues, mediation should be the approach. Better still, I believe organisations need to create work environments that create happy spaces for their employees.

Inclusive system

The best way to manage a conflict is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Create an inclusive system where communication is encouraged across all levels of authority. Provide time for social engagement. It strikes me that many of the biggest organisations in the world are recognising the benefits of a happy workforce.

Would such a utopia have prevented the killings in Virginia? Even President Obama lamented his own culture’s affinity with guns when commenting on this latest tragedy.

When a significant proportion of the population passionately believes that it is acceptable to maintain the right to resolve conflict by means of a gun, and equate the ownership of a gun with their “freedom”, the incident in Virginia is unlikely to be the last one of this nature.

But whether in the US or here, the need to create and maintain a workplace imbued with support and compassion has never been more evident.

Dr Mark Harrold is a clinical psychologist

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