Canadian Consulting Engineer

Workplace Violence

January 1, 2002
By Shelley Boyes

According to news reports, for weeks after the attacks in New York last September, employees stationed on upper floors in office towers all over the developed world were still expressing anxiety about...

According to news reports, for weeks after the attacks in New York last September, employees stationed on upper floors in office towers all over the developed world were still expressing anxiety about going to work — and showing unprecedented interest in emergency drills and escape routes. Attendance, overtime and productivity all dropped as people retreated to cocoon in the relative safety of their homes. The emotional aftermath took its toll in fatigue and depression — even on those only remotely connected to the tragedy. The anthrax outbreaks in the U.S. prolonged fear and anxiety in many workplaces, while the war in Afghanistan spurred universal worry about terrorist reprisals. Many engineers working abroad were summoned home, or they helped provide training and support on dealing with the risk of kidnappings, bombings or other hazards.

Since we now seem to be working and living in an increasingly dangerous world, employers need to know about tools and strategies that can help their employees cope and recover their emotional equilibrium and performance.

“We’re still seeing the effects of the terrorist attacks and I expect we will for a while yet,” says Gerry Smith, vice-president of organizational health with Warren Shepell Consultants in Toronto. The firm provides counselling and other services through employee assistance programs for 1,500 employers across North America.

Rising workplace violence

Employees in general are exposed to a rising level of violence in society at large and in the workplace. Bomb scares, robberies, threats and violence from dissatisfied customers have almost become occupational hazards in sectors like government, banking, airlines and retailing. While engineers are not immune to any of these, those who work on international projects face greater risks from muggings, kidnappings, sabotage or getting caught up in civil wars or other local upheavals. No matter where it happens, a colleague’s violent death or serious injury can have a deeply unsettling impact on co-workers.

Then there is the contemporary phenomenon of an unbalanced employee “going postal” — coming into a workplace armed and with the intention of killing or maiming as many managers and co-workers as possible. While these episodes aren’t as frequent in Canada as they are in the U.S., of about 550 murders in Canada last year, over 60 occurred at work. (And, of course, two of the grimmest mass murders in Canada in recent times occurred in halls of engineering academe: the 1989 “Montreal Massacre,” where 14 female engineering students were murdered at Montreal’s cole Polytechnique, and the killing of three colleagues by Concordia engineering professor Valery Fabrikant in 1992.)

The majority of murders in Canadian workplaces last year were committed by male spouses or partners of female employees. Along with the influx of women into the workforce, more threats and violent altercations arise when spouses, who know they can do damage to their partner’s career, bring their grievance to the spouse’s workplace and create a scene — or worse.

Combine any traumatic event with the residual effects of something like September 11, and you have an employee population at risk, Smith says. Teaching people to recognize the signs of traumatic stress and providing them with some very simple ways of coping that are focused on getting them to talk about how they’re feeling about the event or “defusing” it, is sufficient to help most, though seldom all.

Why do some people appear to cope better with traumatic events than others? Most people react in fairly predictable ways, Smith points out. “They’re normal reactions to abnormal situations. However, as a manager, you won’t necessarily know what else is going on in an employee’s life. Other stresses can kick in. Or an event can trigger very stressful and unresolved memories of an earlier event.”

Disorder signs

Managers not only need to be aware of the signs that an employee is not coping well e.g. excessive or chronic worrying, fatigue from insomnia, difficulty concentrating, abdominal troubles, dizzy spells, irritability, insomnia, they also have to be able to identify these symptoms in their own cases. In other words, a manager who is a basket-case him/herself isn’t likely to be a lot of help to anxious employees.

If an individual is still experiencing difficulty sleeping or concentrating months after a traumatic event, or appears to be “self-medicating” with alcohol or drugs, those are signs that the employee isn’t coping and could be suffering from an anxiety disorder. In these cases, employers should encourage the affected worker to seek a professional diagnosis and treatment, Smith suggests.

The Anxiety Disorders Association of America ( traces such problems (which affect about 10% of the population to a greater or lesser degree) to a complex set of factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, personality and life events. The most common is “Generalized Anxiety Disorder,” characterized by excessive, unrealistic worry that lasts six months or more. In adults, the ADAA says, the anxiety often focuses on issues such as health, career or money. Again, other symptoms include uncontrollable trembling, muscular aches, insomnia, dizziness and irritability.

Perhaps the best-known problem is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD, known in years past as “shell-shock” or “battle fatigue syndrome” since it was most often diagnosed among war veterans. Today, it’s found among victims of earthquakes and other natural disasters, plane crashes, accidents, rapes and other violent assaults. The three main symptoms associated with PTSD are “reliving” the traumatic event through flashbacks and nightmares, avoidance behaviours (e.g. a new-found fear of flying) and “emotional numbing” (often demonstrated by social detachment) as well as the more typical physiological dysfunctions such as insomnia and poor concentration.

Macho denial

Still, employers’ biggest concern may be those who deny feeling any emotional repercussions from experiencing or witnessing threats or acts of violence, Smith suggests.

“In male-dominated industries or professions especially, there are still some pretty macho attitudes, where it’s perceived as a weakness to be too affected by these kinds of things. So, feelings go underground. Instead of being processed in a positive way … through talking about them, you see the classic, negative responses — falling back on booze, drugs or overwork, angry outbursts, unreasonable fears, that sort of thing.”

Nor can management decide when the time has come for employees to “get over it and get back to business as usual,” he adds.

“People have to be allowed to process their reactions in their own way, depending on their unique circumstances. Some may take less time to do that, some more. And that will be the case no matter what management thinks the timetable should be.”

Shelley Boyes is a Toronto freelance writer.


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