The traditionally curmudgeonly British character shouldn’t lead us to overlook the risks anger at work can pose to staff health and wellbeing, writes Virginia Matthews.
Victor Meldrew-style grumpiness may be a familiar part of British life, but according to author and critic AA Gill, writing in The Angry Island, the English are also “naturally, congenitally, collectively and singularly livid much of the time… incensed, incandescent, splenetic, prickly, touchy, and fractious… they’re living on top of a keg of fulminating fury.”
And the anger isn’t restricted to road, shopping or Naomi Campbell-style air-rage either.
According to recent research from employment law firm Peninsula, eight in 10 of us suffer from ‘work rage’ triggered by anything from lazy colleagues to ill-defined job roles. As many as seven in 10 report that verbal abuse and shouting is common in their place of work.
Seeing a colleague hurl their BlackBerry at the wall or square-up to an unpopular boss may be diverting at the time, but according to Dirk Hansen, director of clinical and service quality at Employee Advisory Resource, a persistently angry colleague can be highly disruptive in a team.
“Anger makes people say hurtful things and it triggers insecurity and lack of trust. Staff may become tentative in their approach to a colleague with anger problems, obstructing the work process and flow, and in the case of explosive anger, may become fearful of violence.”
He advocates a zero-tolerance approach when the red mist comes down. “Line management should directly confront any individual who exhibits anger in the workplace and HR should not hesitate to deal with it in a disciplinary context.”
Mike Fisher, founder of the British Association of Anger Management, says most organisations are in denial over work-rage, making it “the hot potato that nobody wants to touch”.
He argues that while stress, anxiety or low self-esteem are already familiar territory to managers, the gnawing rage suffered inwardly by some staff tends to be hidden under a veneer of self-deprecation and sarcasm.
“While HR has come to embrace the problem of work-induced stress, the anger that invariably follows it is still the elephant in the room,” says Fisher, a self-confessed ‘passive-aggressive’.
“Yet this is a problem that will only continue to rise along with the country’s current economic problems,” he adds.
Although most flare-ups at work are minor – an oath, a phone banged down or a slammed desk drawer – work rage can, on occasions, be dramatic.
Paul Dubois, senior anger management instructor at Reed Learning, talks of the two senior surgeons referred to him after they set upon one another with scalpels and knives in an operating theatre: Ivan Robertson of occupational psychologists Robertson Cooper, remembers seeing a colleague coolly smash every single window pane in his office with a metal waste basket.
In Fisher’s view, though, the problem of “calculated subversion” is far more of a danger to most employers.
“Although it is still deemed acceptable in our society for senior directors to blow their tops and bawl out colleagues, overt aggression is very rare among the lower ranks.”
For those workers who feel they don’t have a voice at work, undermining the organisation at every possible opportunity can be a far more subtle and deadly way of fighting back, he says.
“Spending extra time at lunch and on breaks is a favourite, as is lying on expenses forms. Angry staff will also spread malicious rumours, phone in sick when it’s most inconvenient, be less caring towards customers and be downright obstreperous towards new members of staff,” Fisher says.
“You won’t even realise what they’ve been doing until there’s a wave of resignations or you lose your biggest customers or contracts.”
When it comes to figuring out why we are so angry in the first place – and the rage appears to affect teachers and doctors as much as call centre or sales staff – the consensus of opinion is that lack of autonomy and control, as well as ill-defined work roles, are the number-one suspects, along with mounting workloads and smaller staff numbers.
In the Metropolitan Police, which recently launched ‘Shrinking Clouds’, a toolkit that aims to combat absenteeism, it is stress, not anger, that receives the most attention.
“I’ve never yet seen a doctor’s note that says: ‘Mr So-and-So is off work due to anger problems’,” says chief medical officer Dr Eileen Cahill-Canning.
“I consider stress to be a far less pejorative word than anger and far easier for people to talk about, even though the two are inextricably linked.”
She adds: “Our officers are highly trained not to react emotionally or angrily when faced with highly stressful situations. While it is possible that repressing anger in this way could lead to severe problems later on, we believe our concentration on stress, together with our falling absenteeism levels, speak for themselves.”
The right target
For many organisations, anger management only hits the radar when there’s been ‘an incident’ – a shouting match in the middle of the accounts department, or wilful damage to company property.
Yet the individual chosen to receive lessons in managing their anger is not always the right one, says Dubois.
“In many cases, employers are happy to blame individual members of staff for the outburst against a manager, without examining either whether their treatment at work has been fair or finding out whether there’s another reason – perhaps a deeply personal one – for their display of anger.”
“Although our courses tend to be filled with staff, not their managers, in nine cases out of 10, I would argue that it is actually their bosses who need to manage their anger better too,” he says. “Ultimately, we teach people how to say ‘no’ to their employer, but to do it in an assertive, rather than aggressive way that avoids both manipulating others and resorting to threats or violence.”
If you are a police officer walking the streets of somewhere like Peckham or Brixton, it is highly likely that you will need to take time out on a regular basis when the stress of the job gets too much, says chief medical officer Dr Eileen Cahill-Canning.
“We train our managers to pick up on any signs of their officers performing less well or being preoccupied – being different to their usual selves really – and whether they are referred to occupational health for assessment or choose to self-refer, all treatment is confidential and voluntary.
“If their stress levels – and this can of course include repressed anger – mean they are no longer fit for work, or are not coping, we encourage them to have a break from their front-line, operational duties. We call this being switched to a ‘recuperative role’, and it means they are treated, in effect, as back-office staff until they are fully recovered,” Cahill-Canning says.
“Life getting on top of you is a pretty common occurrence in the Met – whether caused by stress at work or problems in their private lives – and having invested so much time, energy and money in these men, we do all we can to help them recover from stress rather than see them walk out of the door.”