Violence in the Workplace

Considerations of human sustainability.

Posted Feb 09, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye

Have you ever wondered where the expression “going postal” came from? 

In his book entitled Dying for a Paycheck, Stanford Graduate School of Business Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, Ph.D., talks about how far most employers have to go in terms of learning to value employees as their companies’ most important human resource. He outlines many studies that show how toxic work environments result in employees becoming psychologically and physically ill. In fact, death by homicide is the number one cause of death in the workplace.

Early in my career as a trauma psychologist, I was in charge of a community crisis response team which was formed in the Level I trauma hospital where I was working at the time. One day in November 1991, I received frantic phone calls from hospital administrators telling me that I needed to get my team to the Royal Oak post office where an employee had gone on a killing spree and then killed himself. This event rocked the community, as well as the nation, and became headline news around the world.

In his book, Pfeffer explains that this and other post office shootings were what led to the expression “going postal” becoming a part of our vocabulary. The expression was initially used in an earlier 1986 post office mass killing in which 14 employees were killed and many others wounded.

But even though there had been prior employee shootings in post offices, the Royal Oak shootings led to a major spotlight being thrown on employee and management relations as factors that may contribute to incidences of workplace violence, highlighting the need to develop prevention practices. The horrific 1991 event was the subject of Congressional hearings and a Congressional report on workplace violence. I myself later gave a presentation at the American Psychological Association that addressed the need for workplace violence prevention measures and psychological care for those impacted by such traumatic events. (See Raymond B. Flannery Jr., Ph.D.’s book Violence in the Workplace.)

Pfeffer addresses how workers dealing with difficult work situations sometimes become physically sick and die, and some workers dealing with toxic workplaces take their own lives. Difficult workplace factors that Pfeffer identifies are low wages, shift work, and the absence of job control. He mentions a number of research studies that show low wages predict such conditions as obesity, anxiety and depression, low birth weights, and hypertension. 

These considerations are particularly relevant as we as a society are currently dealing with levels of extreme burnout among healthcare providers who are managing the COVID-19 pandemic. The current stressors healthcare workers are facing in hospitals and other medical facilities will hopefully remind healthcare administrators of the importance of making the mental and physical well-being of their employees their primary concern. Unfortunately, the headlines in many newspapers suggest, as is often the case, that economic factors are the primary consideration over the well-being of the healthcare workers.

Dramatic incidents such as the workplace violence events mentioned above are incredibly costly in terms of human suffering and sorrow, as well as astronomically expensive relative to the organizations themselves and society as a whole. Administrators and corporate leaders must always be mindful that considerations of employee wellness, health, and well-being must be of primary interest—because in the end, those factors ultimately predict the success of the organization.

My training analyst, who was a pioneer in modern psychological trauma theory and therapy and a Holocaust survivor, many times commented that societies are good at creating victims but not so good at caring for them. He reminded me that in fact, those who care for victims can also become victims themselves.

Vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue, and emotional exhaustion are health risks that those working in healthcare fields constantly face. With the pandemic, healthcare workers are now hailed as heroes, and rightly so. However, it’s a heavy title for them to bear—especially when they are often not given the support they need to cope with the trauma and extreme stressors to which they are exposed on a daily basis.

Unhealthy workplaces impact every member of society and need to be better addressed in business schools, boardrooms, and management leadership training. We need and deserve to create and work in environments that promote growth, health, happiness, and human sustainability.


Suggested Reading

Vern K. Baxter, PhD (1994). Labor and Politics in the U.S. Postal Service. New York: Plenum.

Raymond F. Flannery Jr., PhD (1995). Violence in the Workplace. New York: Crossroad.

Jeffrey Pfeffer, PhD (2018). Dying for a Paycheck.  How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance—and What We Can Do About it. New York: Harper Collins.

James F. Zender, PhD (2020). Recovering from Your Car Accident: The Complete Guide to Reclaiming Your Life. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

James F. Zender, PhD & Roger Wittrup, EdD (1992). Painful Lessons from the Royal Oak Post Office Shootings: Predicting and Preventing Workplace Violence and Homicide—Group Dynamics, Stress and Labor/Management Relations Factors. Proceedings of the Second American Psychological Association/National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health Conference on Occupational Safety.  Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.