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Reducing the risk of workplace violence: by developing an anger management program, an EAP helped its organizational client prevent future incidents of workplace violence and heal the emotional scars of previous incidents.

Incidents of workplace violence have increased dramatically in the past several years, and reducing their number and impact and ensuring the safety of coworkers have become primary concerns for businesses today The Justice Department reports that nearly 400,000 aggravated assaults, 51,000 rapes and sexual assaults, 84,000 robberies, and more than 1,000 homicides occur in U.S. workplaces each year. The aggression continuum begins with verbal agitation and works its way through verbal hostility and threats to physical threats and ultimately physical violence.

Meanwhile, the costs of workplace violence to American companies are estimated to be $5 billion a year. These costs are the result of lost productivity, absenteeism, depression, anxiety, and stress experienced by employees working in what they perceive to be unsafe environments. The mere threat of violence can temporarily prevent an individual from functioning at a normal level in his/her job.

These statistics illustrate clearly the need for an employer to have a workplace violence policy in place and market resources that can help managers and employees recognize warning signs of potential at-risk behavior. This need is greater than ever today, as businesses ask employees to work longer hours in closer quarters and to "do more with less." With employees sitting close to one another in cubicles, there is no "escape," or refuge, for stressed or agitated workers. Other organizational causes of workplace violence include poor communication and leadership, a disrespectful work culture, fractious labor-management relations, unpunished and even condoned harassment, and non-existent wellness programs.

Additionally, with employees working emended hours, there is inevitably an imbalance in their work-life continuum. An increase in work hours leads to a decrease in energy, which tends to depress a person's coping ability, When coping ability is compromised, the capacity to manage emotions, frustrations, and stress are negatively affected.

Anger is one of these emotions. It is one of the first emotions human beings experience, and usually the last one they learn to manage effectively Anger can be defined as a "physical state of readiness," and to be angry is to be ready to act. Interestingly, anger does not have to be a negative emotion, but society and the media portray anger as an unacceptable emotion and relate it to negative situations, including violence.


According to Dr. Hy Bloom of Workplace Calm, Inc., workplace violence is "any actual or attempted physical or non-physical act or conduct that induces fear or causes concern about physical safety and/or psychological well-being in the worker." Non-physical acts of workplace violence include harassment, intimidation or threats of violence, and verbal, emotional, or psychological abuse.

Domestic violence can become workplace violence, especially for women. In fact, more women the in the workplace at the hands of spouses or boyfriends (current or past) than from any other cause. If victims of domestic violence change their home address to avoid danger, it puts them at greater risk while at work.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no absolute or recognized profile of a perpetrator of workplace violence. There are no recognized parameters--socially, economically, or in terms of position within a company--for perpetrators of workplace violence. Emerging profiles of a perpetrator may include the following characteristics:

* Has said s/he intends to commit violence against someone;

* Is on a real or imaginary layoff list;

* Has a history of filing or voicing grievances;

* Is a disgruntled employee;

* Is overly defensive;

* Has a history of violent behavior;

* Tends to be a loner;

* Purposely intimidates others;

* Is undergoing a very stressful situation (especially at work);

* Does not belong to management;

* Possesses a self-image that is crucially linked to his/her job;

* Is someone whose work performance has changed; or

* May have psychological problems.

Interestingly, there is a weak relationship between workplace violence and mental illness. Instead, the number-one cause of violent incidents at work is personality conflicts. People with personality problems have poor coping skills and thus tend to manage their emotions inappropriately

How can a company teach its employees to recognize personality conflicts and other warning signs of workplace violence and prevent violent incidents from occurring? The organization for which I provide EA services approached me to help answer this question. Together with personnel from the security and human resources departments and representatives from management, EAP staff formulated and implemented a workplace violence policy that mandated management training. We also designed workplace violence initiatives that concentrated on intervention and conducted "brown bag lunch" presentations for all work units in the company. In addition, we taught one-hour classes on anger management, dealing with difficult people, stress management, and creating and maintaining work-life balance.

Various marketing strategies were employed to promote the different resources available to employees, including the EAP. Overviews of EAP services were scheduled for all work areas, not only for management teams but line employees as well. Flyers, pamphlets, and posters were placed in break rooms and the company cafeteria reminding employees that there was "somewhere to turn" if they suspected the potential for violence.


Part of the management training focused on teaching how to effectively observe and document at-risk behavior and intervene early to avoid possible violent acts. Because past behavior is a good predictor of future behavior, it was necessary for managers to recognize common risk factors and respond accordingly to avoid escalating aggressive behavior by the employee. "Responding" meant providing a concrete consequence for the inappropriate behavior.

EAP staff wanted to develop an intervention that would provide assistance to an employee who behaved inappropriately but did not meet the criteria for termination. The result was the creation of the anger management program. After considerable planning and curriculum preparation, the EAP presented the proposal to the human resources department. Human resources agreed to use the program, but clearly established that it would be separate from any disciplinary action that was taken.

The identification of a potential anger management program participant is a formal process. First, EAP staff must decide whether the behavior fits the criteria for a fitness-for-duty evaluation. This decision is based on information and statements presented to the EAP by management and human resources. Once the need for a fitness-for-duty evaluation is ruled out, the process proceeds to the next step.

At this point, management, human resources, and EAP staff gather to review past behavior and discern whether attempts have been made previously to extinguish the behavior from the workplace. It is necessary for management to show that a pattern of behavior has been established, disciplinary interventions have taken place (and been unsuccessful), and an informal referral to the EAP has occurred.

After confirming all this and establishing that the behavior is continuing, the mandatory referral to the anger management program can happen. It is extremely important to reiterate that even though the referral is mandatory--and, thus, a condition of employment--it is separate from any disciplinary action. Anger management classes are not considered treatment and thus not viewed as a recommendation of the EAP; instead, the referral comes from the company and the classes are considered educational.

After an employee enters the anger management program, the following events occur:

(1) A meeting is held with the employee and representatives of the union, human resources, management, and the EAP to discuss the behavior, referral, and program requirements.

(2) The employee is required to attend a minimum of eight anger management classes, consisting of six consecutive weeks of classes and two months of "aftercare."

(3) The EAP communicates with human resources and management throughout the program to discuss the employee's progress.

(4) Three-, six-, and nine-month telephone follow-ups are conducted with the employee after successful completion of the program to assess continued use of new skills learned.

The anger management classes use a group setting because it offers a safe environment, which helps demystify anger. The first class concentrates on anger awareness. An anger management assessment is completed and definitions of anger and personal styles are discussed. The second class focuses on the cognitive aspects of anger, with discussions about activating events, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. This theme continues in the third session, as the group members complete a "belief inventory" and explore styles of family anger and the physical factors of anger.

In the fourth class, the focus turns to identifying negative expressions of anger, aggressiveness, and passive-aggressiveness and ineffective coping skills that the employees have used to control these emotions and hehaviors. The fifth session looks at communications issues, including the characteristics of poor communication and how to communicate effectively The sixth class concentrates on dealing with difficult people. Program participants define "difficult" and learn to recognize the types of people with whom they are most frequently in conflict.

The seventh and eighth sessions are designed as review periods. Group members are given the opportunity to practice, for 30 and 60 days, respectively, the new tools and techniques they learned in the previous six classes. They then come back to the group and report changes they have noticed in themselves and especially whether they are now more capable of working and interacting positively with others.

Homework assignments are given after each class, and weekly goals are established. A "final exam" is given prior to completion of the program. The company allows the EAP to determine whether to extend the Length of a particular employee's program.

An important aspect of the program is to assist participants' current and former co-workers with debriefing previous acts of aggression. Many employees who are referred to the program have a long trail of transfers in their records due to management not appropriately intervening and instead "fixing" the problem by transferring them to other areas. This means of resolution reinforces an employee's refusal to take responsibility for his/her behavior.

Referrals to the anger management program are not considered to be as serious as fitness-for-duty referrals. The two can be distinguished by the fact that the latter stems from a more severe, potentially life-threatening, and often acute workplace situation/behavior that results ill the need for an immediate psychiatric evaluation and intervention. An anger management referral is based on less severe (but chronic) "acting out" behavior in the workplace. The behavior is disruptive and has affected the employee's performance, but it does not meet the psychiatric criteria necessary to trigger a fitness-for-duty referral.


The anger management program works because it places responsibility on employees and holds them accountable for their behavior. Permission to be angry, is granted, and tools to manage the emotion are taught. The classes are experiential, with active participation a must for compliance. The program is designed to be repetitive in nature, with simple teaching and learning techniques. Classes are based on the idea that the group will not change a participant's personality but teach him/her appropriate coping skills to manage anger effectively,

By salvaging employees' careers and providing them with tools for use in all aspects of life, the anger management program also serves the larger organizational interest of avoiding workplace violence incidents and the resulting drops in productivity and morale. EAPs are well situated to help work organizations prevent workplace violence rather than merely respond to it.

Susan Phelps works for Horizon Behavioral Services in Winter Park, Florida, and serves as EAP coordinator in an integrated program. She has been in the mental health/EAP field for the past 14 years and is president of the Central Florida Chapter of EAPA. Susan is working toward a master's degree in human resource management at Rollins College.
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Title Annotation:EAP Services To The Organizational Client; employee assistance professional
Author:Phelps, Susan
Publication:The Journal of Employee Assistance
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2003
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