Firms try to alleviate worker stresses

With 'vengeance' homicides on the rise at US offices, more firms take on role of psychiatrist.

After allegedly killing seven of his co-workers, Michael McDermott was arrested as he sat in the office lobby cradling the three guns he'd used to make his point.

The killing spree in Wakefield, Mass., coming so cruelly the day after Christmas, seems to defy logic. But as workplace homicides rise in the US, even as murders in general have been dropping, more firms are devoting more time to understanding stresses at play in the modern workplace.

One result is that companies increasingly are monitoring not just employees' work performance, but also their emotional well-being - sometimes acting more like counselors and psychiatrists than bosses. Keeping a sharp eye out for aggressive behavior, personal struggles, and financial trouble is now a routine part of management in many firms, even in smaller ones.

"Workplace avengers just don't snap and begin shooting anything that moves," says James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston. "They don't leave weapons in the trunk of their car for just such an occasion. These are well-planned efforts to get even with those they hold responsible for their personal or financial difficulties."

In Tuesday's mass shooting, police report that Mr. McDermott - a recently divorced software tester at Edgewater Technology Inc. - was going to have his wages garnished by the IRS after the first of the year.

It's not clear if this was the trigger, but experts say such actions didn't occur in a vacuum. Such was the case in the Honolulu shootings in November 1999, when seven people were killed in a Xerox Corp. building. At the trial, it was revealed that the shooter was prone to fits of anger at work, even kicking in the elevator doors at one point.

Indeed, a 1999 study by Yale University's School of Business found that a quarter of respondents said they were angry at work.

"Our study has important implications for management," wrote Sigal Barsade, co-author of the study. "One is that they have to be aware that the workplace is not devoid of emotions. People don't check their emotions at the door.... [Managers] have to set up a workplace that people feel comfortable in."

A growing number of companies, big and small, are beginning to realize that they need help. Calls to organizations that specialize in preventing workplace violence are on the rise.

"[The Massachusetts shooting] shows that things like this can happen even at smaller firms," says Jay Supnick of Law Enforcement Psychological Associates in Rochester, N.Y. "A lot of times, people at smaller companies say, 'It's not going to happen here. We're too small, too much like a family.' "

Dr. Supnick adds that while homicides nationwide are down overall, murders by co-workers are not. While still relatively rare, the numbers have doubled since 1980.

Today, some six people are killed at work each month by co-workers and former co-workers. But criminologists say it's important to remember that the majority of the 1,000 workplace homicides that take place each year occur in high-risk fields like law enforcement and at businesses that are frequently targeted by armed robbers, like convenience stores and taxicabs.

But these type of killings aren't on the rise, while killings by disgruntled workers are. "It's the vengeance worker who seems to be the problem," says Jack Levin, director of Northeastern's Brudnick Center on Violence.

Part of the reason for this increase may be that some workers have difficulty adjusting to changing times, in which old assumptions about employers' responsibility to employees no longer apply. Workers aren't guaranteed lifetime jobs anymore, as was common in the 1960s and '70s. Further, the downsizing epidemic of the early 1990s left many believing that loyalty to the company doesn't pay off, says Dr. Levin. "So when they do get fired, they come firing back."

Also different from the 1960s and '70s is today's increasingly isolated environment. Traditional support networks, including family, friends, and church, are not always as strong, and people are looking to work to fill their emotional needs. "There has been an eclipse of community throughout our country, and many middle-aged men just don't have their support systems in place to get them through the bad times," says Levin.

Some of the things employers can do include paying attention to warning signs (in almost every case, anger is displayed at work long before the shooting occurs), assessing the work load and pressures of their employees, implementing counseling programs, and setting up a group to look at the issue of workplace violence.

"In so many situations, there are warning signs that people don't act on," says Richard Denenberg, co-director of Workplace Solutions in Red Hook, N.Y.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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