‘Desk rage’ on the rise in high-stress offices

By LISA GIRION

Los Angeles Times

As a human-resources executive responsible for hundreds of insurance company employees, Maggie Jennings saw her share of office temper tantrums: arguments between co-workers, pen-throwing managers and even a guy who kicked in his computer screen.

Jennings’ experience is not unique. Two new studies involving thousands of people suggest a significant portion of the U.S. workforce is suffering everything from uncomfortable and distracting incivilities to stress-induced attacks on trash cans, keyboards and even co-workers, all expressions of what one survey called "desk rage."

After 30 years in the field and weary of struggling to bridge the gulf between employee needs and corporate demands, Jennings, a 52-year-old Long Island, N.Y., resident, jumped at an early retirement offer last spring.

"Once in a while, out of sheer frustration, I’d just go to the ladies room and close the cubicle and cry," said Jennings, who channeled her angst by launching a gripe site called thisjobstinks.com. "After a while, I realized there was little I could do. I hated my job and used to mutter in my head, ‘This job stinks.’ "

Nearly a third of 1,305 workers who responded to a telephone survey about desk rage admitted to yelling at someone in the office, and 65 percent said workplace stress is at least occasionally a problem for them. Work stress had driven 23 percent of the respondents to tears, and 34 percent blamed their jobs for a loss of sleep.

While workplace stress is nothing new, many experts and workers said several economic and social trends have intensified it, or at least heightened sensitivity to it. Layoffs have instilled a lingering sense of job insecurity in many workers, while making it more difficult to meet productivity demands that have risen dramatically.

At the same time, an increasingly fluid and diverse workforce that includes more women, more dual-career couples and more generations exacerbates on-the-job tensions. And there’s a growing sense that workplace innovations, from cell phones to e-mail, are really high-tech leashes that make it impossible to ever really escape.

If workplace stress is bad for business, coping with it is big business. It has become an industry employing legions of organizational psychologists, security agents and researchers. And it is grist for a spate of recent books that suggest it is indeed a jungle out there, including "Anger and Conflict in the Work Place," "Managing Workplace Negativity" and "Violence at Work: How to Safeguard Your Firm."

"We’re leading these nonstop lives, and we’re continuing to accelerate the pace," said business consultant Leslie Charles, author of "Why Is Everyone So Cranky?" (Hyperion, 1999). "We’re surrounded by noise and distractions. And we’re so preoccupied with what we’re doing and what’s next that we have an inability to process what’s just happened or what’s bugging us. We’re overwhelmed, overworked, overscheduled and overspent."

To keep up, many people resort to multitasking, an attempt to handle many jobs at once, which usually only adds to their aggravation, said Jerry Rubenstein, a professor of counselor education at the University of Rochester in New York.

"The brain tends to like to function linearly. What we’re doing is creating overload situations," Rubenstein said. "Most people in the workplace are functioning in the yellow zone, which means ‘Pay attention,’ and it doesn’t take much to take them into the red zone, which is ‘Danger.’ "

Awareness of workplace stress and its adverse effects is growing, said Paul Spector, a professor of industrial and organizational psychology at the University of South Florida who has been studying desk-kicking and other counterproductive work behavior for 25 years.

On anonymous questionnaires, a wide variety of employees have confessed a great deal to Spector and his associates. Two-thirds admit to having "tried to look busy while doing nothing," and 23 percent say they have "started an argument with a co-worker." A little more than 6 percent of workers admit to having purposely damaged work equipment or property, and 28.4 percent say they have purposely worked slowly when things needed to get done.

Employers need to look at such behavior as an expression of need, said Jeff Krause, manager of consultation services for Minnesota-based CIGNA Behavioral Health.

Krause supervises a team of eight psychologists who offer behavioral advice by telephone for managers at 650 client companies with 1.5 million employees. Krause said the calls range from helping a manager approach an employee about a bad-breath problem affecting other workers to "I’ve got an employee who’s locked herself in her car. What do I do?"

Although such employee-assistance programs began in the 1960s to prevent perceived personal problems from affecting an employee’s job performance, Krause said, today’s employers are more likely to view such troubles as at least partially work-based.

"If desk rage had been coming up as a term 15 years ago, the assumption we would have made is, there is something going on in that person’s home and they are bringing it to work," he said. "Now, while what we are seeing is an increase in stresses at work and home, work is seen as the culprit and we have to look at that."

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