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Violence in the Workplace

Updated: Jun 13, 2022

Joseph*, 28, was a software engineer working for a successful, progressive, and growing company. He was talented and moved up the corporate ladder during the five years he had been with the company. He put in late hours and at times would only get 3-4 hours of sleep at night. Colleagues saw him as a quiet, non-assuming guy who worked hard and kept to himself.

However, Joseph’s personality began to change. Co-workers were surprised to see the normally quiet Joseph begin a disturbing habit – he would angrily slam his hands on his desk or against his computer monitor. Uncharacteristically, he had begun to mutter obscenities under his breath. Some mornings, he would come in disheveled, carrying a tall mug of coffee in his hand. Recently, he had been loudly complaining that he had too many projects to complete and too many deadlines to meet.

One early afternoon, while eating lunch in the break room, Joseph got into a heated argument with a counselor over policies. Joseph’s voice grew louder until he was yelling at the counselor. Although it surprised his co-workers, no one seemed to make much of Joseph’s unpredictable behavior. In fact, there was a rumor floating around that Joseph had briefly dated a woman from another department and that they had recently broken up. As far as his co-workers were concerned, Joseph was probably just trying to get over the failure of his romance.

Unfortunately, Joseph’s temper tantrums flared up more often and his work performance suffered. One Friday morning, after he was reprimanded by his boss, Joseph told a co-worker that he felt like shooting his supervisor’s ‘bleeping’ head off. Aware of his company’s policy on workplace violence, Joseph’s co-worker immediately notified the supervisor who called the police.

Joseph was evaluated at a local ER where the doctors found out that he had been having increasingly pronounced anger episodes over the past few months. Additionally, he was experiencing erratic sleep, restlessness, poor concentration, racing thoughts, and increasingly impulsive behavior. He was admitted to the psych unit where he was successfully treated for a mood disorder. He was able to return to work in a much better frame of mind. He continues to work for the same company and currently receives outpatient psychiatric care at the Charak Center for Health and Wellness.

Workplace violence may be more common than we think

Even though workplace violence occurs much less frequently than homicides, each year between 1.5-2 million people get assaulted at work. Of those actually killed at work, about 80% die of gunshot injuries.

What constitutes workplace violence?

It can consist of any of the following: • Bullying • Harassment • Rumors • Threats of violence • Aggravated assaults • Rapes/ sexual assault • Robberies • Homicides

Warning signs

There has been sensational media coverage of high-profile stories of workplace violence lately: The Connecticut beer company shooting, the violence at the Fort Hood army base, and the shootings at the University of Alabama and Huntsville. However, it is usually not a single event that triggers somebody to engage in violent acts at work. It is usually a series of events, and a crucial ‘last straw’ that leads to such acts of violence as described above.

Although there is not a singular profile that fits all perpetrators of violence in the workplace, the following characteristics could be the warning signs of impending violence:

• Difficulty managing frustration • Difficulty expressing emotions • Feelings of having a ‘chip on the shoulder’ • Being disconnected to reality • Drastic change in behavior/ personality • Repeated conflicts/ arguments with co-workers, customers or supervisors • Inappropriate comments about guns/ other weapons • Expressing fascination within approval of workplace violence • A sense of desperation • Bringing a weapon to work • Substance abuse • Threatening behavior

Usual Triggers:

The most common trigger is lay-off or firing. Other triggers include: domestic violence, marital problems, divorce/ break up, financial problems, a sense of humiliation, etc.

What can you do?

Every employee has a role in preventing workplace violence. You can help by doing the following: • Be aware of any threats/disruptive behavior • Notify supervisors/manager immediately: do not feel like a tattletale • Do not confront the individual in question • Do take all threats, overt or veiled, seriously

Professions at highest risk

Retail sales persons are at highest risk for workplace violence. Other professions at high risk include police, detectives, sheriffs, gas station workers, security guards.

Psychobiological underpinnings

Most, if not at all, perpetrators of workplace violence suffer from some kind of undiagnosed psychiatric condition. In some cases, they may have an underlying biological condition such as brain tumor, dementia, etc.

* Names have been changed to protect privacy.

*The purpose of this article is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical or psychiatric issue. Dr. Rakesh Ranjan is a practicing psychiatrist and a researcher. He is a recipient of several research awards and has authored several peerreviewed journal articles and book chapters on psychiatric illnesses and their treatments. He is a national speaker for several organizations and serves on the medical advisory board for the NAMI of Greater Cleveland. If you or a loved one is experiencing any symptoms that would lead you to believe that there could be a mental imbalance, please email your questions to Dr. Ranjan at askthedoctor@charakresearch. com. All contact info will be kept confidential.

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