This is part two of a two-part series on workplace violence. See Part 1 here.
Bullying in the Workplace
When employers fail to create a safe working environment, workplace bullying flourishes. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI)1, “Bullying is a systematic campaign of interpersonal destruction that jeopardizes your health, your career, the job you once loved. Bullying is a non-physical, non-homicidal form of violence and, because it is violent and abusive, emotional harm frequently results.” The WBI reports that an estimate 53.5 million American workers (35% of the American workforce) report being actively bullied at work by either a manager or a co-worker. While it provides a decent definition, the WBI fails to note that bullying can lead to physical aggression and even homicide if left unmanaged. This escalation is due to a number of reasons ranging from the core demographic makeup of workers to the cyclical nature of catabolic—that is, unproductive and unhealthy—conflict.
The problem with catabolic conflict is that it is cyclical and even viral if left unmanaged. According to Dr. Ron Claassen, professor at Fresno Pacific University’s Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies, there are five stages to the unmanaged conflict cycle: Stage I – Change: Confusion/Tension; Stage II – Role Dilemma; Stage III – Injustice Collecting; Stage IV – Confrontation; and Stage V – Adjustments. As a person walks through the stages she goes from feelings of confusion and tension to concern about her role or position. From there, a victim will start to look for other injustices that lead to confrontations and then make subsequent adjustments. If these issues are not properly handled and addressed, the conflict can then spiral out to others within a group or network2. Over time, routine cycling and spreading out can have an avalanche-like nature which has lead to the Avalanche Model of Unresolved Conflict to be posited. This cycle of unmanaged conflict has led to a condition that psychologists are now calling Post-traumatic Embitterment Disorder.
According to Dr. John Nickens, Post-traumatic Embitterment Disorder (PTED) is closely associated with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Though not well known in America, PTED has been greatly studied in Germany by researchers like Dr. Michael Linden. PTED differs from PTSD mainly because the effects do not have to be brought on by a life-threatening event. Symptoms of PTED are: a severe emotional reaction characterized by phobic avoidance of places related to the trigger event and a pathologically intense desire for revenge against the perceived central person(s) related to the trigger event. Such symptoms are brought on, and are characterized, by an exceptionally negative life event and repeated intrusive memories of the event. A person experiencing PTED usually has an unimpaired capacity for experiencing other normal emotions. According to Dr. Nickens, “Most debilitating among the symptoms would be the excessive rumination about revenge, in that it would usurp the individual’s time, mental energy and interest in other issues and activities that might improve the person’s living situation if proper attention were given to them. In addition the persistent avoidance of items, locations and people either directly implicated in the traumatic event or implicated by association causes the individual to alter normal patterns of living in favor of distorted expectations. The combination of intense pathological rumination and persistent avoidance can result in a severely limited life style3. Over time, using the Claassen-based models, and previous social science understandings of similar PTSD-related symptoms leading to catastrophic violence, one can see that bullying can become a catalyst for workplace violence.
Stress in the Workplace
Bullying compounds the already-stressful conditions of modern working life. Demographically speaking, the average American worker is under-paid and over-worked. For instance, US Census data shows that 1 in 2 Americans meet the federal guidelines for being “poor” or “low income.”4. According to Columbia University’s National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP), if a working family also has children they will need twice the federal poverty level for a family of four just to meet basic needs of rearing a child in the United States. According to the Economic Policy Institute, 8.7% of workers with bachelor’s degrees or higher are underemployed. Roughly 17% of all American workers, regardless of their education, are underemployed. If you are African American, that rate jumps to a whopping 24.5% while Hispanics have a slightly lesser underemployment rate of 23.9%5.
Despite being underemployed, American workers are taking on more responsibilities and putting in more hours now than ever in modern history. In 1999 alone some 25 million Americans reported working more than 49 hours a week with 11% reporting that they worked more than 59 hours a week. In 1990 the average American worked the equivalent of a month more than the average American worker did in 1970—and these numbers have only grown since these findings6. According to Expedia, Americans are now giving up four vacation days a year. This equates into 448 million earned vacation days given back to corporate America, free of charge, by employees. In total, Americans only get 18 paid days off each year. To put this number in international context, workers in Great Britain receive 28 paid vacation days a year, while workers in France get 37 paid days off annually. One reason that workers in America gave back time was their workload. Since the 2008 recession, the average worker now does the work of two to three normal workers without commensurate compensation. Many workers noted that bosses refused to grant days off due to workload constraints7.
This inability of American citizens to balance work, debt, family-related stress, recreation, safety, and other factors has caused groups like the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to take a serious look at the overall health and well-being of the American worker. According to the OECD Better Life Index, America rates 28th (9th from the bottom) among advanced nations in balancing recreation, meeting basic needs, stress, and other considerations8.
American workers already have cause to be stressed out and miserable. For the already socially oppressed and economically subjugated worker, adding bullying to the equation is like lighting a match over gasoline.
Active Shooter Scenario
These factors—bullying and undue workplace stress—boil down to concerns over what law enforcement calls an “active shooter” scenario. An active shooter is a person who goes on a rampage using a firearm to kill others in order to gain attention, make a point, or correct for a perceived wrong. For this reason, active shooters are a major concern for American workers by criminals, the public, co-workers/bosses, and domestic partners. As Dr. Lighthall9 notes, robberies account for the vast majority of workplace-involved homicides with 75% of all robbers shooting at least one of their victims. A close second is customers, clients, and patients taking out aggression on employees. However, some 11% of workplace-involved homicides are caused by other employees and managers. Workplace homicide is second only to domestic partner based homicide—which is a new category level event.
remedies for workplace violence
Most troubling is the fact that little emphasis is placed on the social justice issue of violence in the workplace. Most companies and even academics do not understand or appreciate the gravity of the situation. Workplace violence isn’t even on the radar of most unions and social activists seeking workplace reforms. So, what should be done?
First, workers and their duly-elected legal representatives need to talk with corporate officers about setting up workplace violence campaigns. Such campaigns need to be collaborative efforts with local outside resources. For instance, many court systems now have a Dispute Resolution Center (DRC) headed up by a mediator known as an Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) coordinator. ADR professionals from local DRCs are often volunteers who help the courts lower their dockets of costly civil trials through mediation. Many of these ADR professionals are happy to work with businesses to solve conflict-based issues. Along with DRCs, there are some 5,000 Restorative Justice (RJ) centers throughout the United States. Somewhat different from a traditional ADR, RJ facilitators focus more on “conflict transformation” than on “conflict resolution.” RJ facilitators are quite at home with concepts such as community-based mediation sessions. These concepts are also easily understood by conventional ADR professionals, making Collaborative Justice practices seamless with private conflict resolution mediation sessions for small issues and office- or department-based mediation sessions for larger issues. Additionally, RJ facilitators are especially adept at conflict circles. These circles allow for anabolic, or productive, conflict to be promoted while handling issues of catabolic conflict. Similar practices are used by many Fortune 500 companies.
Along the same vein, the psychological aspect must be taken into account as well. Luckily, most colleges and universities in the area will be happy to provide assistance with organizational psychologists and behavior analysts who can collaborate with the local ADR, RJ, and Collaborative Justice professionals in order to better create an overall organizational architecture that embodies a successful workplace violence campaign. Such programs often require a sincere “buy-in” and “ownership” by top level management. All levels of the organization are then exposed and expected to adhere to the new social protocols. The program is specially tailored to meet the demands and expectations of the workplace in light of its current and future levels of risk, and the new organizational architecture includes routine and systematic assessments that allow for monitoring and prolonged management maintenance by outside and in-house professionals. One such assessment should be a risk assessment that looks at layout issues of the facility, internal stress issues of employees, internal stress issues of managers/supervisors, communication and dialogue issues, and sources of risk associated with interactions with the public. The assessment should use benchmark standards of the industry and other organizations nearby to compare and contrast perceived successes and failures.
Unless one inherits a large sum of money or wins the lottery, work is a fact of life. Social scientists have researched, and even proven, positive benefits associated with taking pride in one’s line of work. However, threats of violence and risking one’s life do no one any good.
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