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Last-straw survey

icon Stress test: See how you'd answer a series of questions from the Integra Realty Resources study on stress in your workplace  

Overworked, overwrought:
'Desk rage' at work

In this story:

Wages of success

Handwriting on the cubicle wall

Caustic contagion

Ticked off ... and ticking


NEW YORK (CNN) -- Do you have co-workers who lose their temper and yell at work? Or get angry enough to throw something -- a handful of paper clips? a sheaf of papers? a bare-knuckle punch?

Call it "desk rage" -- anger at work that takes the form of yelling, verbal abuse, attacks on office equipment (usually computers), and fistfights with office-mates.

While the evidence so far is mostly anecdotal, the number of these kinds of workplace outbursts appears to be rising. In a new national survey of more than 1,300 American workers, 42 percent said yelling and verbal abuse took place where they worked -- and 29 percent admitted that they themselves had yelled at co-workers.

graphic In one series of questions, the Integra Realty Resources survey on "desk rage" asked respondents about stress on the job. What would you say to these questions?

More disturbing, one in 10 respondents said they work in an atmosphere where physical violence has occurred. Attacks on inanimate objects were more common: 14 percent of respondents said they work where machinery or equipment has been damaged by an angry worker.

"This is something we should take seriously," says Sean Hutchinson, president of Integra Realty Resources, a national real estate valuation firm that commissioned the survey. "It suggests that stress in the workplace, and the pressure to produce, is uncommonly high. More people are being asked to do more than they can handle."

In fact, 50 percent of those surveyed said they commonly skip lunch to complete their workload. Fifty-two percent said they've had to work more than 12 hours in a day to get their job done.


Wages of success

"All these different rages -- road rage, air rage, whatever rage -- are all symptoms of the same thing: We all have too many commitments and too little time," says Lynne McClure of McClure Associates, which has advised Fortune 500 companies such as TRW and Motorola on how to prevent workplace rage and violence.

graphic Do you think "desk rage" is a serious and growing phenomenon in the workplace?

Yes. Work conditions are going down, production pressures up -- people are losing it.
I'm not sure. Some stress is natural to most work and some people will always be rattled.
No. I think "desk rage" is a mere buzz phrase that disgruntled workers and alarmists will love.
View Results

McClure and other business consultants blame the robust economy -- and resulting shortage of employees -- for increased workloads and increased workplace stress.

"With the booming economy, organizations are busier," says Steve Kaufer, co-founder of the Workplace Violence Research Institute in Palm Springs, California. "They're not necessarily hiring more people, but the people they do hire are doing more work."

More work in less time -- and often in a smaller space. It has been termed the "Dilbertization" of the workplace: the corralling of thousands of American office workers into cubicles barely bigger than a desk, like the cubicle that pens in the cartoon character Dilbert.


Handwriting on the cubicle wall

"One of every eight workers works in a cubicle -- and they show higher stress levels," says Hutchinson.

Fifty percent of respondents in the survey said they commonly skip lunch to handle their workload  

Cubicle workers complain most often about noise -- trying to hear themselves think over the sound of co-workers working, conversing, and talking on the phone.

"It is frustrating to try to put in an honest day's work when you have co-workers chatting on the phone at levels where the next three cubicles can hear the conversation," writes Deirdre Lawson on a message board about anger in the workplace. "We should call it 'cubicle rage' instead of 'desk rage.'"

A growing number of employers -- especially those in high-occupancy urban areas -- are assigning two or three workers to share cubicles designed for one. "We've noticed that there's a trend toward overcrowding people," says real estate analyst Hutchinson. "As companies realize they have to pay more for each square foot of real estate, they're saying, 'Well, we'll just put 100 people into that space instead of 50.'"

graphic Talk to us (don't yell, please) about "desk rage" -- people losing their tempers, yelling, screaming, becoming abusive and even violent at work. Have you seen it? More to the point, have you felt it? Click here to seethe.

Many people may arrive at work already seething: More and more workers are seeking cheaper housing that is often further from job centers. They have longer commutes -- often in bumper-to-bumper rush-hour traffic. "Desk rage" can be "road rage," carried in from the parking lot.

"The worker with the bad commute comes to the place of employment with his temperature already up," says Kaufer of the Workplace Violence Research Institute. "Something small is more likely to push them over the edge."


Caustic contagion

And what happens to the work environment when someone is "pushed over the edge," and explodes in anger? Think of it as a bomb explosion that pollutes the surrounding atmosphere with a kind of emotional toxin.

Many survey respondents said workplace stress and anger had caused them to eat chocolate  

"It can have a profoundly negative impact on those who have to work around the explosive person," says Dr. Eric Hollander, a professor of psychiatry at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York who is in the middle of a large study of those who intermittently explode in anger. "It can add to hypertension, stress-related illness. It can put them at risk of drug abuse."

In the survey on "desk rage" released today, 34 percent of respondents said they had suffered insomnia because of a stress-filled or anger-charged workplace. Eleven percent of those surveyed said they'd consumed excessive alcohol; 16 percent said they smoked too much. (And a surprising 26 percent of survey respondents -- 40 percent of the 561 women surveyed -- said workplace stress and an angry work environment had "caused me to eat chocolate.")


Ticked off .... and ticking

A growing industry of consulting companies is trying to persuade employers to become more aware of the causes of "desk rage" -- and work to prevent it.

"Aggression in the workplace has a business cost," says John Byrnes, president of the Center for Aggression Management, a consulting company in Winter Park, Florida. "When you have aggressors in the workplace, other workers don't want to be there. It starts with employee tardiness, then absenteeism, then turnover."

The Center for Aggression Management runs employee workshops on how to recognize and defuse the small irritations that can escalate into an office temper tantrum -- even into an all-office brawl.

Fifty-two percent of survey respondents said they've had to work more than 12 hours in a day to get their job done  

"Anger is contagious," says Kaufer. "If someone acts against you in anger, you're more likely to snap at someone else."

Not everyone is convinced that "desk rage" is a problem. "What's next -- 'life rage?'" writes Jason Leder on the message board. "'Desk rage' is a throwaway term that does nothing but sound important on television special reports."

But others warn against dismissing "desk rage" as just another American pop-syndrome with a catchy label. "When people explode in a work setting, and smash valuable objects or threaten others, that's serious," says Dr. Hollander. "This is not a trivial problem."



Review: Life's work, and work life -- 'My Job, My Self'
November 13, 2000
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November 13, 2000
Free-lancers found happier than salaried employees
November 8, 2000
Mirror on management
October 31, 2000
Review: Killer jobs -- 'The Violence-Prone Workplace'
October 30, 2000
Job satisfaction: Oxymoron?
October 24, 2000

Center for Aggression Management
Integra Realty Resources
McClure Associates
Mount Sinai School of Medicine
Opinion Research Corporation International
Workplace Violence Research Institute

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