Losing the plot: when rage rears its ugly head

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Losing the plot: when rage rears its ugly head

What should you do if a worker flies into a rage or an altercation turns violent? Gaby Grammeno explains.

Conflict between co-workers is a perennial bugbear for managers. Even at the mild end of the spectrum, if staff refuse to cooperate with each other it can mean mutual irritation, lower staff morale and significant loss of productivity, not to mention eating up management time listening to complaints and attempting to deal with them.

But what if an altercation turns violent – if someone takes offence, flies into a rage and abandons self-control? In some workplaces this may be extremely unlikely but, in others, the potential for rage and violent reactions is all too real. And in the event that someone does ‘lose the plot’ and lash out, the danger of serious assault and other harm can mean everyone in the workplace is suddenly at risk.

Preventing workplace violence


Employers’ obligations under health and safety laws require them to manage any foreseeable risk of violence, along with other types of risk, as far as is reasonably practicable. Any incident where a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in the course of their work is considered to be workplace violence.

In practice, managing the risk starts with considering whether that type of risk exists at your own workplace. Injury data show that there is a foreseeable risk of violence if staff are dealing with the public, working with unstable, distressed or volatile people, or handling cash, drugs or valuables. In any situation where there is a foreseeable risk of violence, employers should put appropriate preventive strategies in place, such as physical barriers to protect staff, procedures for responding to violent incidents, duress alarms for workers and training in how to de-escalate potentially violent scenarios.

Where violent outbursts are unexpected, however, such precautions will probably not seem necessary. Nevertheless, it may still be worth establishing a policy of zero tolerance for violence at work and stating the consequences – for example, immediate dismissal – in no uncertain terms, when recruiting and inducting new staff members. Workers should be instructed to report instances of inappropriate behaviour, and procedures should be in place for handling grievances and emergencies.

It's also important to remember that management sets the tone and exerts a powerful influence, whether consciously or not, on the ‘culture’ of the workplace – that is, its norms and general standards of conduct. Though people with hair-trigger tempers can regrettably be found in any industry, an open, collaborative management style can greatly reduce the likelihood of uncontrolled aggression breaking out.

Where no preventive measures are in place and a violent incident does occur, the employer has a duty to respond as effectively and rapidly as possible.

What to do with a raging worker


It seems that road rage, sport rage and tantrums in other settings are so commonplace that advice abounds on dealing with them. Guidance from government regulators and other authorities recommends approaching an offender to prevent the situation from escalating, but exactly how to do this is often far from clear.

Depending on the nature and severity of the incident, calm verbal and non-verbal communication and distraction techniques may assist in defusing the heat of the moment. An even, calm tone of voice, speaking to the person by name and adopting an open posture with arms by the sides, palms forward and slow movements can all help to ease tension. It may also help to approach the person from the front or side, rather than from behind. 

If enquiring about a worker’s concerns, offering to help resolve the problem and issuing verbal warnings and directions to back off and calm down are ignored, and the person is seriously out of control, it may be necessary to call for assistance, for example, from security staff or police. Attempting to physically restrain a person who is throwing punches or brandishing something that could be used as a weapon is fraught with danger, especially if the aggressor is large and strong, and entering the fray is not recommended.

After a rage event


Immediately after a violent incident, seek support from other staff, calmly ask the aggressor to leave and retreat to a safe location. Make sure everyone is safe, and provide any first aid or other medical treatment if needed. In reassuring any staff who may be hurt, shocked or distressed, remember that your body language and your tone of voice conveys more than your words. If someone has been criminally assaulted, call the police. Investigate the incident and complete a report outlining what happened, when, and who was affected. 

Once the immediate aftermath has settled and any follow-up disciplinary action has been decided on, it is advisable to carry out some sort of debriefing or review with the staff affected, and offer counselling if appropriate. And if possible, agree on some procedures that could better prevent and deal with any such incident in the future.
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