Going Postal and Beyond : Dynamics Triggering Workplace Violence
In the shadows of the Atlanta day trading tragedy, the Stress Doc reflects on his experience as a stress and violence prevention consultant for the US Postal Service and other organizations. The Doc also highlights key pressure points -- policies, procedures and personalities -- that contribute to a dangerously dysfunctional work environment.
In the wake of the Atlanta day trading shootings, a mental health professional emailed about dealing with the aftereffects. As I was mulling over the question, I had to place cause before effect. Memories were stirred of stress and critical incident consulting work with the US Postal Service and other federal agencies and corporations. And before jumping to conclusions, some of the specific "Postal" incidents (e.g., the first two on the list) involved postal employees being robbed and attacked by non-postal aggressors:
1) a carrier on a delivery route held up at knife point,
2) a female warehouse worker raped in an employee parking lot,
3) a supervisor receiving telephone death threats (perhaps involving a jealous triangle with the boyfriend of an another employee), and
4) a postal employee, a former Green Beret, making threats in his psychiatrist's office to kill two fellow workers for being "slackers."
Another critical incident intervention was with bereaved private sector staff after an employee who, under the influence of alcohol and depressed over the breakup of an unhappy relationship, wound up driving her car into a tree, killing herself instantaneously.
And then there was a "blue collar" government division in a white collar world, castoff by their agency as part of a lean-and-mean restructuring. The group was relegated to the basement of a huge federal agency, drifting, marking time, not sure where and when (or if) they would permanently wash up. Not surprisingly, during this period of uncertain survival all were on edge. Racial tensions flared: some white employees pulled up KKK websites; some black employees on cassettes played speeches of Louis Farrakhan. Grievance procedures were escalating. A manager in the Diversity Office finally realized that the government was hemorrhaging money in this administrative Armageddon. Was human blood next?
Three Key Hazardous Workplace Issues
Some questions must be reckoned with: a) are there incidence-prone work environments?, b) is there a violence-prone personality profile? and c) are their steps managers and all employees can take to reduce the numbers of violent incidents.
As a means for engaging with the first issue and aspects of the other two, let me grapple with the most frequently asked question when people discover my critical incident specialist background: Why is there so much violence in the postal service? (I was a postal stress and violence prevention consultant from the early to the mid-90s.) Actually, I don't know if statistically there is more violence in the US Postal Service than in other large companies or federal agencies. Most folks don't realize that the Postal Service, apart from the Defense Department as a whole, is the largest employer in the United States (if not the world). As of a couple of years ago, there were about 800,000 postal employees. In light of the numbers, periodic incidents of violence are not that surprising. Also, because almost all US residents use and depend on the USPS, I suspect there's a greater sense of personal identfication (if not perceived vulnerability) with postal shootings.
Still, with these conditions and caveats in mind, what are critical factors that contribute to a hazardous, occasionally lethal, work environment for postal employees? And while focusing on a predisposition for "going postal," none should be smug. A number of these dynamics exist in a myriad of work settings.
Top Ten Postal Pressure Points
- Fishbowl Pressure. To insure the protection and privacy of the mail, many postal employees are frequently being watched through above the workfloor viewing stations, two-way mirrors, etc. Not surprisingly, this kind of surveillance can induce its own brand of suspiciousness. Initially, in my rounds as a stress consultant, people were reluctant to talk with me. They assumed I was a postal inspector or a narcotics agent.
- Mail Mania. You have to be in "the belly of the beast," that is, on the workfloor of a huge Postal Processing and Distribution Plant, to appreciate the fact that the mail and handling the mail NEVER STOPS! It's a 24-7 operation and the time- and task-driven nature of the business inevitably creates stress. Not surprisingly, for some folks, such as yours truly, the midnight shift is a never-ending nightmare. Believe me, holding testy 3am management-supervisor meetings, dealing with racial tension or helping to defuse a volatile manager, supervisor or employee took a toll. I developed high blood pressure. Perhaps one night a week from 9pm-6am precluded ever adapting. But I think some people are just biorhythmically out of kilter working when the sun don't shine. And I believe the data overall indicates greater numbers of medical problems and even somewhat shorter life spans from years toiling on the "graveyard shift." Is there a message here?
- Overtime. A related pressure in light of cost cutting and price stabilization goals, is running a lean-and-mean postal ship. A consequence is less hiring of new, especially, full-time employees and more overtime for existing workers. Overtime is definitely double-edged. The pay is very good. Alas, sometimes too much of a good thing may create real problems. While it's usually voluntary, too many become dependent on constant overtime just to keep up with their monthly payments and charges. So overtime becomes a necessity.
I witnessed way stressed employees because of insufficient sleep and prolonged work hours. And I won't even bring up Christmas Rush when you have to have a dire emergency to be excused from overtime.
- High Pay and Nontransferable Skills. Ironically, one of the factors that may contribute to a volatile job/career situation is that many postal employees receive high wages for basically blue collar skills. For this they have strong union representation to thank. However, such a scenario can create stress in a couple of ways: 1) for some, their skills are very postalized and do not readily transfer to other industries and 2) many blue collar folks would not easily replicate their earning power outside the postal service if they did find an equivalent position.
So people experiencing some boredom or job dissatisfaction may be averse to making a career change. They don't fireproof their life with variety. It's a formula for burning out or burning up! And combined with the aforementioned indebtedness, one can imagine such an individual psychologically "losing it" if their uncommon bread-winning postal position, for whatever reason, was in jeopardy.
- Protective Unions and Management Networks. Postal unions are often in a double-edged position. In addition to advocating for wages and benefits, they rightfully need to challenge abusive, incompetent, or unprofessional management that threatens employees' fair wages, rights or their ability to perform safely and effectively. The dark side of this advocacy role is covering for union members who have serious work performance and/or behavioral problems. (The "as long as you show up your safe" standard.)
Unfortunately, I've also seen management play into this dysfunctional scenario. One example, mentioned earlier, is the station manager who overlooked or minimized the incessant, if not intimidating, razzing of two colleagues by the hard working ex-Green Beret employer along with a cohort. I suspect the postal manager allowed this disturbed postal worker to act out some of his (the manager's) anger toward "the slackers." The manager justified his not referring "the slackers" to the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) because of a previous unsatisfactory EAP experience. This EAP encounter had occurred years earlier and was not even in the same state.
In addition to an unprofessional or an inadequate manager, akin to union protection excess, there is the destructive "good old boy" (and sometimes girl) management network. This system continues to promote, rotate (to another plant or station), deny the level of incompetence or emotional problem of and/or give another chance to individuals who should not be in management slots.
- Employee-Manager Personality Profile. Again, one keeps coming back to the double-edged nature of the Postal Service. It has a reputation of providing employment opportunities for minorities and for folks on the psychosocial margins. The USPS has also always welcomed ex-military personnel, giving them extra points on the job application/exam process. Sometimes this influx makes for a volatile mix. My speculation - literary if not literal - is that you have a convergence of folks: from the Marine Corps to the inner city hard core (and plenty of country boys as well). One group often reveres authority, the other groups mistrust it. And numbers within all segments come from cultures where weapons use and violence are not foreign to their social world.
This combustible ground is not confined to supervisor-employee relations. I'll never forget the time a plant manager, a fairly charismatic leader who was building more open, trusting relations with the union and employees called me (the stress consultant) into his office. This man, a former submarine commander, not able to sit, on the verge of tears, verbally replayed an absolutely outrageous, screamingly abusive telephone attack he had been subjected to by a high up executive at L'Enfant Plaza, Postal Headquarters. This Plant Manager's numbers weren't "good enough." This was verbal and emotional battering of the most despicable kind. A culture that still tolerates or is infected by such toxicity at the upper levels is a danger to all concerned. Toxins flow downward and invariably poison the organizational ambiance. The Postal Service, to its credit, continues trying to eradicate such destructive postal "stress carriers." Alas, it's a long, hard fight.
- Destabilizing Effects of Downsizing. In addition to a "do more with less" environment, the postal restructuring in the '90s created stress in two fundamental ways. In the short-term, job/career transition centers that were supposed to provide positive motivation for employees, supervisors and managers without a position often had the opposite effect. These folks needed less corporate cheerleading/positive motivation and more venting, grieving and healing. As one up-and-coming employee derailed from her management fast track cried: "I once had a career path. Then this boulder fell from the sky and crushed it." You think this process can generate feelings of betrayal, abandonmentrage?! And as with every reorganization process for which I've consulted -- not just the USPS - the inevitable uncertainly, the rumor mill, the intentional or not misinformation only fuels fear and resentment.
Another consequence of the restructuring (the workforce was reduced by 50,000, but it was not called a downsizing; this voodoo semantics also grates on people) was the removal of numbers, if not layers, of supervisors and managers. The plus of such a step is a more direct chain of command and more efficient, hopefully, two-way information flow and collaborative problem-solving. Also, some that needed to cease and desist as managers did so. The downside, of course, is the critical loss of senior people with invaluable hands on experience and a sense of corporate history. The latter, for example, may help an organization avoid always having to reinvent the wheel. Too often, inexperienced or dysfunctional supervisors would replace effective veteran supervisors before the team had a chance to digest the change. Clearly, this is a formula for tension and conflict right out of the starting gate for a work group. And this destabilizing supervisory merry-go-round appeared to be a chronic issue, not just a glitch in response to major restructuring.
- Reliance On Temps. Another structural change in the spirit of cost-cutting was the dependence on temporary workers. Invariably, in a strong union shop, there will be tension generated between regulars and part-timers or temps. First, there's the sense of being treated like a second class citizen. Next, regulars objected when they felt temps were taking away their overtime hours. At the same time, regulars also believed temps were excused from taking on some onerous tasks. Clearly, this primes a sibling-stepchild rivalry scenario. Is big authority playing one group against the other to divert each from focusing on a common antagonist, that is, upper management?
Finally, the uncertainty for temps was chronic: would they ever become regulars? The time process was often strung out; people felt they were twisting in the wind.
- Partially Disabled/Chronically Injured Employees. For a significant number of employees, repetitive motion injuries - such as back problems from chronic lifting to carpal tunnel from constant data processing - was as predictable as black lung disease for coal miners. Relatively few employees seemed to gain disability discharge. Many of these working wounded were assigned to book shelf-like work stations where they would repair damaged letters or hand file mail not suitable for mass sorting or posting. Often these folks with straining pain thresholds complained about the productivity expectations, limited rest breaks, etc., that management imposed. The formula seemed to be no pain, no gainful employment.
In turn, management often felt there were plenty of slackers amongst these employees. (And truth be told, some were.) To prevent wandering and inappropriate socializing these folks were also confined to a leper colony-like bounded area. Again, at times, I sensed some managers almost encouraged regular employees to scapegoat these "protected" workers who weren't really earning their salary. The disabled were also a chronic mirror for what could happen to "you" -- the currently non-debilitated employee. I encountered several workers who played down and worked with serious pain rather than risk the stigma of even temporary banishment to the colony for the "damaged goods." This was a festering sore on the workfloor.
- Us vs. Them. The obvious divisions at the Processing & Distribution Plant were architectural, hierarchical and racial in nature. In the Tower were air-conditioned modern offices for managers and high tech workers along with more white than black employees. (Fortunately, the demographics were diversifying.) The workfloor was sweaty, dusty, noisy; a darkly cavernous, beware of being run over by a whizzing cart or truck world. The three huge, much larger than a football field, workfloors, were overwhelmingly staffed by minorities. The plant was not called "The Postal Plantation" for nothing.
In a racially diverse climate that involves people working in close quarters and that tolerates a high degree of razzing to break up workplace monotony, it takes an aware and skillful management to prevent these discordant elements from becoming frighteningly fractious. In one station, scratched car windows and hoods was wisely seen as a harbinger of even more hostile postal tidings. Professional conflict intervention short-circuited accelerating racial tension.
While focusing on hazardous workplace conditions and dynamics in the Postal Service, clearly, these danger signs are not limited to the USPS. As the recent events in Atlanta make clear, violence in the workplace is as American as apple pie or, at least, as prevalent as mismanagement, emotionally troubled employees, dysfunctional working conditions and readily available handguns.
The Dirty Dozen
Let's conclude with a capsule of key components of "A Dangerously Dysfunctional Work Environment":
- From TLC to TNC. Work environment driven by "time, numbers and crises" not by "tender loving care." Beware a philosophy that extols customers as kings while treating employees as peasants; it's a formula for revolt, inertia or sabotage.
- Rapid and Unpredictable Change. Can be either a downsizing or expansionary mode. Unstable leadership and work force; adjusting to new personnel; loss of wisdom. Rules and procedures don't appear to be operational; "the book" has lost some critical pages. Chronic uncertainty from lack of timely information or from communication not perceived as genuine or accurate.
- Destructive Communication Style. Excessively aggressive, condescending, explosive or passive aggressive styles of communication; excessive workfloor razzing or scapegoating. Managers talking over employees; nobody truly listening. Either defensive counterattacking or robotic groupthinking.
- Authoritarian Leadership. Rigid, militaristic mind set; "superiors" vs. "subordinates" or "inferiors." Typical slogans: "You don't get paid to think" or "My way or the highway." Leaders blow up if challenged and break up any participatory decision-making or team building efforts.
- Defensive Attitude. Dismissive attitude and atmosphere regarding feedback; little interest in evaluation of people and policies. Only numbers count. Not safe to give feedback; people quick to feel disrespected or rejected. Yelling or intimidation or, conversely, avoidance, preferred ways of dealing with conflict.
- Double Standard. Different policies and procedures, bias in application, for management and employees, blue collar or white collar, racial or sexual discrimination -- "Workfloor vs. Tower" dichotomy. Double standard also manifests as management gets substantial training or support for dealing with change processes and employees get minimal orientation and ongoing support.
- Unresolved Grievances. No mechanisms or only adversarial ones -- "us vs. them" -- to settle grievances. Or, dysfunctional individuals protected or ignored because of contractual provisions, red tape, old boy network or union cover, etc.
- Emotionally Troubled Personnel. Management not actively assisting, in a timely manner, troubled employee to get needed help; preferably voluntarily or through a supervisory mandate for EAP counseling. Not professionally engaging the troubled employee (or supervisor, etc.) can create a tumor for the work team -- scapegoating, loss of respect for leader, apathy and lowered morale, etc.
- Repetitive, Boring Work. Not just assembly line syndrome. Also, "The Bjorn Bored Syndrome": When Mastery times Monotony provides an index of Misery! Your niche of success becomes the ditch of excess and stagnation. Lack of opportunity for job rotation or not enough new blood coming into the system. (Also, see hazardous setting below.)
- Faulty Equipment/Deficient Training. Equipment or procedures (or lack of same) that don't allow people to work effectively or efficientlyand then workers are criticized for not being productive. Also, rapidly inundating people with new equipment and operational standards while not providing sufficient time and resources for successful startup.
- Hazardous Setting. Disruptive ambient work conditions -- temperature, air quality, repetitive motion issues, overcrowded space, problematic noise levels, excessive overtime, nocturnal schedule and interrupted sleep, etc. Personnel shortage results in lack of backup resulting in potentially dangerous work expectations and conditions.
- Culture of Violence. Culture or past history of individual and/or violence and abuse. Violent or explosive role models. Alcohol and drug abuse; employees with lingering Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Hopefully, this essay provides a slightly larger than life portrait of a hazardous work environment. While "blue" in tint, the "white collar" world also needs to pay heed. No matter the color, these dysfunctional workplaces both overtly drain and frustrate employees and generate a smoldering background. A seemingly trivial event can set off a chronically stressed, troubled individual. Of course, some folks are ready to go even in the best of environments. The numbers of "the working wounded" from all walks of life is truly troubling. The companion piece will examine in greater detail a composite profile of an explosive personality. It will also target intervention strategies for reducing, if not preventing, violence prone conditions and "postal" eruptions. Until then, of coursePractice Safe Stress!
To read the additional Parts in this series, please visit the archives of The Stress Doc Newsletter.