When software technician Michael McDermott allegedly opened fire at his Wakefield, Mass., Internet firm on Dec. 26, killing seven coworkers, it marked just the latest episode in what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called a national epidemic of workplace violence. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 645 workers were killed by attackers on the job in 1999, including 62 by coworkers or former coworkers, and more than 1 million American workers were physically attacked in the workplace.
With public concern rising, correspondent Barbara Sandler asked Dr. James Cavanaugh, professor of psychiatry at Chicago's Rush Medical College and a corporate and government consultant on workplace violence, to explain what causes the incidents and what can be done to prevent them.
Why have we seen this increase in workplace violence?
For many people, the workplace is the last intact social structure in their world that has rules, expectations and regulations. Other structures have weakened—family, churches, community—and people are simply more likely to act out their problems within the only organizational structure left that involves regular contact with their fellow human beings. In a sense, your work is now your home and your community.
Is it worse in the U.S. than elsewhere?
Yes, and it is due to the escalating stress on the American worker, who works longer hours than people in any other industrialized society, with the possible exception of Japan.
Who are the killers, typically? Are they aggressive personalities?
They aren't necessarily known as aggressive or troublemakers, but these people—85 to 90 percent of whom are men—do have a lot of difficulty with anger. They might not be showing it behaviorally, but internally they are smoldering.
Does that mean that a blowup is inevitable?
Most people who smolder don't blow, and if they do, very few do it with an AK-47. A number of factors usually come to bear—it's like a set of interlocking chains in a chain-link fence. In some cases, we're talking about psychotic behavior. In others, a cluster of problems and obsessions is detonated by an individual or dynamic in the workplace.
What are the major trouble signs?
There is a range of signals to be aware of in an employee—things like changes in attendance, decreased productivity, changes in personal hygiene, social isolation, fascination with weapons, substance abuse and blaming behaviors—assigning blame to somebody else for one's own shortcomings. The person doesn't need to have all of these qualities, and a couple of them don't necessarily mean there's an incident waiting to happen. But they are typical signs.
What tells you the person is about to become violent?
There are three stages. The first is characterized by objectifying and dehumanizing others—through comments, rude language, harassment. The second includes arguing frequently or intensely and making verbal threats. The third is characterized by physical confrontations or committing assault.
What can companies do to prevent violence?
Make zero tolerance for violence the mantra in the workplace. Employers should train workers to be aware of early-warning signs and managers how to handle them—first by interviewing coworkers, then the employee himself. If there seems to be a problem, it helps to bring in someone higher up and ask for professional help.
Is there some danger that the intervention might precipitate an incident of violence?
No one can say for sure, but if the worker is so fragile that intervening might flip him into a rage, you at least have the chance to call in help and prevent it. Otherwise it could happen sometime in the future, and you'd look back and say, "If only I'd dealt with it then."
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