Learn how to recognize and combat 'desk rage'

By Laura Stack Mar 3, 2008
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A Dallas newspaper printed a story last year about a man who got upset at his washing machine, dragged it out the front door and unloaded his shotgun into it. Police subsequently hauled him away. Reporting on the incident the following day, a reporter described the man's action as "appliance rage."

It seems that rage is all the rage-even in the office. While workplace violence that culminates in bloodshed garners a lot of publicity, far more common are the shouting matches and fistfights that don't make the evening news.

One reason behind the recent upsurge in desk rage may be new levels of stress. According to a new workplace survey by CIGNA Behavioral Health, "Worried at Work: Mood and Mindset in the American Workplace," workers are stressed to epidemic proportions. Forty-four percent of employees surveyed said their job was more stressful than a year ago. As a result, 45 percent said they've either considered leaving their job in the last year, left a job or plan to do so soon.

By learning how to identify employee stress before it blows up, you may be able to avoid "desk rage" and all of its problems.

First, be aware of the stages of stress:

  1. Physical stage: headaches, illness, fatigue.
  2. Social stage: negativity, blaming things on others, missed deadlines, working through lunch.
  3. Cerebral stage: clock-watching, errors in assignments, minor accidents, absentmindedness, indecisiveness.
  4. Emotional stage: anger, sadness, crying, yelling, feelings of being overwhelmed, depression.
  5. Spiritual stage: brooding, crying, wanting to make drastic changes in life, not relating well with people, distancing themselves from personal relationships.
The difficult part of this assessment is that two employees can experience the same situation and react completely differently-one person is challenged while another is profoundly affected. Managers must learn to distinguish positive stress signals in employees from negative ones.

If you see signs of high stress levels and inappropriate behavior in employees, you must intervene. Here are ways managers can combat desk rage and rudeness in the workplace:

  • Evaluate employee workloads. This almost goes without saying, but because overwork is one of the major causes of desk rage, try not to pile too much on one person. When you have key employees who work hard and effectively, you naturally delegate important projects and tasks to them. Unfortunately, your over-zealousness and confidence in your superstars can burn them out. Also, encourage employees to tell you if they're overloaded. Then, determine which tasks have little value and could be taken off their plates. Offer time management coaching or help in prioritizing tasks.
  • Confront employee aggression. If you observe someone brushing by a co-worker in the hall making a sarcastic comment, yelling at a colleague or equipment or calling people inappropriate names, you must intervene. Think of desk rage as a performance-management situation.
  • Schedule meetings with employees who are inappropriately angry. Thank the employee for meeting with you and express your concerns, noting where the behavior specifically affects performance. Listen actively and responsively while the employee explains the situation. Try to discover areas of stress and empathize with concerns. Share thoughts and ideas on how to overcome challenges, both in the workplace and with negative behaviors. Get agreement from the employee on the decided course of action, and arrange a follow-up date to determine progress.
  • Reduce noise levels. According to a 2002 study by Cornell University, employees who are exposed to constant, low-level noises in their environments-keyboards, voices or the hum of a photocopier-have elevated levels of stress hormones. Try white noise machines or headsets, and speak to your HR or administrative services about solutions to offset noise, such as relocating copy machines or installing higher cubicle partitions.
  • Encourage workers to get out of the office for lunch or breaks and get some fresh air. If you're going to be out of the office, offer your office to an employee needing privacy to complete an important task.
  • Encourage employees to take advantage of de-stressing programs. The Denver Water Department has private rooms where workers can shut the door and nap. Some organizations help with car pooling in the belief that decreased road rage equates to decreased desk rage. Managers should encourage employees to use these programs and should be a good role model by using them, too.
  • Sponsor stress-reduction seminars, which can help your employees learn how to identify the signs of stress, how to control anger and how to deal with an irate person. Without the tools to handle desk rage at work, employees will waste time worrying about or trying to avoid nasty people at work or will quit to avoid the person.
  • Evaluate people on civility. Specific policies and a new line on your performance appraisal rating employees on manners, civility and courtesy might alter behavior.
  • Encourage employees to take their vacation days. One in six U.S. employees is so overworked that he is unable to use up annual vacation time, according to a 2001 Oxford Health Plans survey. However, vacations aren't frivolous; they're essential to staying healthy and productive. Don't let employees wear "no vacation" like a badge of honor. Respectfully tell that employee it's time to take a break.
  • Lighten up the office environment. Boost employee morale with a few stress reducing, laughter-producing initiatives. One manager at Nextel routinely hands out stress toys and squeezies in the call center.
  • Encourage employees to use employee assistance programs and counseling. Although you can't legally refer an employee to an EAP, you could remind all employees of the availability of the service should they feel the need for some extra help to get through a difficult time.
  • Involve your HR department. Most companies lack procedures to report rudeness because being rude to a co-worker isn't against the law. Work with HR to create procedures so if employees don't feel comfortable going to you, they have somewhere to go. Employees should know where to turn when someone brings them to tears.
Lastly, make sure you don't contribute to the problem by controlling your own stress levels and taking the advice you're giving your employees.

Laura Stack is a certified speaking professional and trainer based in Denver. Her upcoming book, Leave the Office Earlier, will be released by Broadway Books in spring 2004. She can be reached via her web site at www.theproductivitypro.com.

Terms of Use: Advice for Supervisors from the Society for Human Resource Management © 2004 Society for Human Resource Management. Members of SHRM are authorized to distribute copies, excerpts or e-mails of this information for educational purposes internally within their organizations. No other republication or external use is allowed without permission of SHRM. The information is not intended to serve as a substitute for legal advice.

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