Workers losing their tempers and yelling? Or worse, throwing something or damaging equipment, committing physical violence and even murder? Does this describe the modern workplace? Has "desk rage" now replaced road rage and air rage?

Integra Realty Resources, a national real estate valuation firm, which conducted a workplace survey, concluded that stress in the workplace had escalated in the U.S., reporting that 50% of respondents commonly skip lunch to keep working, and 52% indicating they worked up to 12 hours a day to complete their work. In Integra's survey of American workers, 42% said yelling and verbal abuse took place where they worked, and 29% admitted they had verbally abused co-workers. More disturbing, 10% of respondents said they worked in a place where physical violence had occurred.

John Challenger, CEO of a Chicago based workplace consulting company, reports that their surveys show that up to 3% of people admit to pushing, slapping or hitting someone at work. With roughly 100 million people in the U.S. workforce, that's 3 million guilty workers.

According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and a report entitled Compensation and Working Conditions conducted by the University of Virginia , in 1998 alone, 700 homicides occurred in the workplace in the U.S. A U.S. News and World Report poll says that 89% of U.S. workers said incivility is a serious problem and 78% said it is getting worse. The cost of workplace violence to employers is estimated somewhere between $6 to $36 billion annually.

Along with the increase in "desk rage" has been the "Dilbertization" of the workplace--corralling workers into increasingly smaller workplaces in cost cutting measures. Integra reports that 1 in 8 office workers now work in a cubicle.

The Workplace Violence Research Institute reports that many workers have long and difficult commutes, and often arrive at the workplace already stressed and even angry. Anna Maravelas, author of How To Reduce Workplace Conflict and Stress, says that rudeness and anger has spread from the home to the workplace, and is so common that people are less and less embarrassed about it. According to C. Leslie Charles in her book, Why Is Everyone So Cranky? American workers are "overwhelmed, overworked, overscheduled and overspent."

Harvard Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, writing in the Harvard Business Review, cites the recent case of a JetBlue flight attendant, who verbally abused a passenger and then made an angry exit down an escape ramp. His actions are reminiscent of the movie Network, in which a fictional newscaster, Howard Beal, stands up in the middle of the broadcast to yell that famous expression, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore."

Kanter says that as a result of layoffs and cutbacks, fewer and fewer people are asked to do more and more, and then told to be happy about it, and that can lead to anger and rage. There is potential for workers to "go postal"--an expression indicating extreme physical violence. Kanter argues that the root causes for "desk rage" is anchored in the American culture and reflected in the media's desire to feature if not stage rancorous political fights as public entertainment. Behind the lost desire to treat people with respect and dignity is the pressure for short-term financial gain at the expense of people, Kanter argues.

The Desk Rage trend is a not-so-hidden time-bomb that could have serious detrimental effects on both productivity and workplace culture. Whether it's the result of austerity measures such as downsizing and layoffs, or a result of increased workloads and stress, or a reflection of a society becoming increasingly uncivil, remains to be seen. Needless to say it is a disturbing trend, one that employers and executives need to take seriously.

You are reading

Wired for Success

How Militarism is Changing America's Identity

How growing U.S. militarism threatens economic and social stability.

Why Solitude Is Good and Loneliness Is Bad

Loneliness is becoming an epidemic but the value of solitude is unappreciated.

Myths and Truths About Successful CEOs

How CEO stereotypes persist despite contrary evidence