Workplace violence: A new or old problem?

These articles were published as a five-part series in the industry journal, Workplace Today Inc.  This is Part I of a five-part series on workplace violence which appeared in the December 2001 issue of Workplace Today. Reproduced with permission from Workplace Today® Inc. ©2002 All rights reserved.

How did workplace violence become such a big problem? Or did it? The truth is that workers have been "going postal" long before that term was coined following a series of single and multiple workplace homicides at the US Postal Service during the early to mid 1990s.

Incidentally, studies have shown that the US Post Office is no more dangerous, on a per capita basis, than most other large employers.

The fact is that experts don't have a clear understanding of the scope of the problem. One reasonable view is that workplace violence, like other areas of intrusive, inappropriate or exploitative behaviour (e.g., domestic violence and child sexual abuse) has probably always been around in some form or another. It just came out of the closet.

What has happened is that we've become much better at identifying it, and people have become less afraid to come forward.

The reporting of workplace violence incidents in the media, followed by the inevitable media hype, has many in corporate health and security, human resources, union officials - just to name a few of the stakeholders - very concerned.

Organizations are intent on meeting their due diligence obligation around workplace safety. If this wasn't already their direction, then the need to focus on workplace violence safety issues have been made clear by the coroners' inquest juries' recommendation in the Sears case in Chatam (a manager killed a store employee that he had been stalking and then killed himself) and in the OC Transpo case in Ottawa, in the summer of 1999 (OC Transpo worker Pierre LeBrun killed 4 randomly selected co-workers and then committed suicide).

Amidst the uncertainty of knowing the exact scope of the problem, there are some humbling truths.

Firstly, Canada holds an unexpectedly high rank in workplace violence incidents. Following a 1996 study, a Geneva-based international labour organization determined that Canada ranks fourth in the world (would you believe, higher than the USA) in workplace violence incidents (albeit not homicides).

Again, whether this alarming statistic represents the reality, or is more a function of the reporting system in Canada, is not easily determined.

Another important question that experts find difficult to answer is where exactly the current workplace violence problem has come from.

As always, there are theories. There are a number of theories, in any event, about where aggression comes from.

Is it hardwired in the person's biology, instilled as a value by family, culture, and subculture, or psychologically programmed as part of adaptation, or really, maladaptation, over the course of the person's development.

Social disenfranchisement and alienation in a complex and uncaring world are at least two socio-cultural theory for workplace aggression (much in the same way that these theories have been drawn upon to explain schoolplace violence). Social stressors and demographic factors in this rapidly changing society are also implicated. The family unit and church no longer provide the same level of support for many as these previous pillars of social stability did years ago.

Work roles are changing, and the demography of the workforce is changing so that workplaces are culturally and ethically diverse. Male dominance is no long the order of the day.

An equal amount of attention has been paid to stressors within the workplace, like upsizing and downsizing, competition and workplace stress.

One US author writes "American corporate structures have generally become less nurturing; downsizing and accountability has increased workplace anxiety and fostered a milieu in which workers can be more vigilant, confrontative, and argumentative.

No discussion on the origins of violence these days, especially in the wake of a number of horrific schoolplace incidents, is complete without reference to the role of media violence. There is an increasing awareness of high levels of exposure to media violence by susceptible individuals and the association with the risk of increased violence in those exposed.

The recently fired or otherwise disgruntled, half or fully crazed employee, with a longstanding preoccupation with guns and violence - the often kicked around profile - is a profoundly incomplete answer to the problem. Workers and the stresses that imbalance them are only a part of the story. Workplaces can be as sick as any gun wielding worker is, but systemic sickness is harder to define (see Part III of this series in the February 2002 issue of Workplace Today).

All of these sectors contribute some of the incendiary materials that ultimately combust, when the right spark is applied, in a workplace violence conflagration.

New types of anger, and the risk for violence that attaches to them are being invented every day. We have all heard about air rage and road rage, but 'desk rage' and 'tech rage' (turning your aggression on the computer that frustrates you) are fairly new. Frankly, rage is all the rage.

Those of us who thought of large firms - workplaces, primary and high schools, universities, and religious institutions - as safe environments, have been rudely awakened. No workplace - or any place for that matter - is safe anymore, an unfortunate lesson of the times that we live in.

The news isn't all bad though. A workplace can be made safer, firstly by being reasonably vigilant about safety issues and changes in workers, and secondly, by taking appropriate steps to identify risk factors for workplace violence, and either reduce them, or in some cases eliminate them completely.

Workplace violence consultants are riding out the lucrative wave of public anxiety about workplace violence, but at the same time, there are experts out there who can help organizations make their workplaces at least safer, and potentially, conflict free and harmonious (and consequently more productive, happier, and ultimately, more profitable).