This is part one of a two-part series on workplace violence. See Part 2 here.
The sweat drips from their brows. A surprise attack has left two dead and more injured. The brave souls in this skirmish add to the nearly 2 million of their kind who have been violently attacked each year1 since 2001. But who are these people? They aren’t soldiers—they’re just ordinary working Americans. There is a force at work even more violent than hostile enemy combat in a war zone. Indeed, the American workplace is the most dangerous environment any American can be in.
According to Dr. David Lighthall, of the Relational Culture Institute, the American workplace is fraught with danger. Dr. Lighthall notes, for instance, that in 2002 a Congressional subcommittee hearing revealed that workplace violence costs about $3 to $5 billion annually with $6.4 to $36 billion in indirect costs due to lost productivity, higher insurance costs, and poor public image. These figures do not take into account the $55 billion that workers lose in wages. Some 18,000 assaults cause approximately 500,000 American workers each to lose 3.5 days per incident, or about 1,751,000 total days annually. Workplace violence is the leading cause of death for women in the workplace. Add to this fact that approximately 18% of all crimes are committed in the workplace and you have nothing short of a powder keg ready to blow2.
Workplace violence happens more frequently than many suspect, but the causes of such violence are well-documented, and effective preventative and restorative measures are available but too often ignored. The primary causes of workplace violence, often facilitated by employer negligence, include bullying and occupational stress, which may lead to a psychological condition, similar to PTSD, called PTED. Solutions to workplace violence are available publicly through local courts’ Dispute Resolution Centers and privately through Restorative Justice centers.
Four Areas of Employer Negligence
Not surprising, the Workplace Violence Research Institute (WVRI) corroborates Dr. Lighthall’s findings, stating that each workday an estimated 16,400 threats are made to employees; 723 workers are attacked; and 43,800 are harassed. The WVRI points to a similar study, done by the Northwestern Life Insurance Company, that found that “one out of four full-time workers had been harassed, threatened or attacked on the job, leaving the victim angry, fearful, stressed or depressed. Coworkers accounted for most of the harassment; customers were responsible for additional attacks.” Another study that the WVRI points to, by the American Management Association, found that 50% of the companies surveyed by the AMA reported experiencing incidents or threats of workplace violence in the last four years. Of those companies surveyed, 30% reported multiple violent occurrences. This survey also found that 25% reported that the incident was by a current employee while 9% reported the problem was caused by a former employee. When incidents were reported, only 42% of the companies implemented a training program compared to only 18% of the companies reporting no incidents and proactively establishing a training program. According to 25% of the companies reporting a violent incident, the victim ignored or was unaware of warning signs.
WVRI reports that, in civil suits brought on by workplace violence, there are four areas often brought up against the employer: negligent hiring, negligent retention, negligent supervision and inadequate security. The WVRI notes that negligent hiring is the improper screening of employees prior to hiring, which may mean that a new hire has a criminal history of previous violent acts. Negligent retention is the company’s keeping the employee on after a violent act has been properly reported to superiors. Manager’s and supervisor’s failing to properly monitor worker’s interactions and job duties can lead to what is known as negligent supervision. The inability of a company to safeguard customers and employees against a potential threat is commonly the standard for determining most forms of inadequate or negligent security3.
Bullying in the Workplace
When employers fail to create a safe working environment, workplace bullying flourishes. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), “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-worker4. 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 network5. 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 style”6 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.
See Part 2 Here.
Juliana Birkhoff explains how her activism at Syracuse did not produce the rapid, peace-making results that she now gets working at Resolve.By Juliana Birkhoff