On Monday 1st September 2014 an extremely distressed client walked into the Work and Income office in Ashburton, New Zealand, and shot two of the front line workers.
All the staff at that office were working under stress and the client was even more stressed. None of them had the skills to manage his anger over time until he finally cracked and the results were tragic. While the harm done in this situation was clearly visible and extreme, there are many workplaces where the damage from stress is not so obvious, but can be nearly as destructive.
The stress that many workers experience can be difficult for them and for their families and it should be taken seriously as a health and safety issue. While the results of stress are not as extreme as on that Monday in Ashburton, managers still need to see workplace stress caused by angry customers and challenging colleagues for what it is: a major health and safety issue that has consequences for individual workers and their families as well as for the business, the team, and the manager themselves.
While workplaces take expensive steps to make the environment physically safe by installing barriers, CCTV cameras, panic buttons and security guards on the door, very little attention is paid to teaching staff the skills to calm people down and reduce the need for such costly security measures.
What actually happens when you are confronted by an angry customer?
Angry customers have strong emotions and they trigger several physical reactions in your body. Emotions in a sense are contagious; you feel it when the other person has a strong feeling. When somebody is angry and upset they often show this through shouting, facial features, body language and the words that they use. All of these signals indicate a threat to you and so your body instantly reacts to defend itself against something bad that it perceives could happen. The same effect is produced even if the angry words and tone of voice is over the telephone or in an email.
The physical reaction you have to angry customers or even when someone looks threatening is because of the way that the brain has developed over many thousands of years to protect you in times of danger. Central to this is the amygdala which is sometimes referred to as the security system that alerts all parts of the body to be ready for fight or flight when danger is perceived. The amygdala sends signals to the Reptilian Brain which in turn sends out adrenaline and noradrenaline so that you have extra strength and energy to survive the danger by fighting, fleeing or freezing (and not being noticed). The physical symptoms from increased adrenaline include:
- Quick shallow breathing
- Heart rate increasing
- Increased muscle energy
- Stomach turning over (actually it is shutting down the digestive process so all your energy can go into your muscles, ready for fight and flight).
These physical responses can happen in an instant. While you are reacting, involuntarily, as if you are going to actually have to fight or run away from the perceived danger, the angry person may finish their rant, turn around and walk out. That leaves your body all geared up for action with adrenaline coursing through your body and nowhere for it to go. This is one of the reasons why some people shake after such incidents, their adrenaline filled muscles are ready for action but have nowhere to go.
These reactions can happen in face-to-face encounters, over the phone and even through email correspondence when what is written is perceived as an attack. When such incidents are repeated several times in a day and over time, the increased adrenaline and noradrenaline produced eventually has a detrimental effect on the body. This is called stress. The long-term effects of stress can have serious health implications.
The health and safety legislationin New Zealand says that an employer is liable for the well-being of their employees. Employees are also required to take steps to ensure their own safety, so both employer and employee are responsible. However, few people learn the skills to deal effectively with angry customers at work when they are growing up in their family of origin. These skills need to be learned and practised as they relate to the specific situation that workers find themselves in.
Much of the training and coaching that is given about dealing with angry customers is inadequate. It is not enough to simply tell staff to not take it personally, show empathy, stay calm or ask questions. Neither is it enough to give lots of information about emotions. Dealing with emotions requires a carefully worked out plan that teaches the vital behaviours required to stay calm, show empathy and engage in a positive way with the difficult person.
No matter how skilled you are at communicating with angry customers, every situation requires a conscious effort to be tactful, appropriate, and alert. Those who deal with angry customers need to develop the skills of self-care. It is not enough to simply tell people to chill out, not take it personally or focus on the good customers.
To reduce the stress created by highly emotional situations at work staff need specific skills training in three main areas of their functioning.
Three areas of de-stressing:
Here are three areas you can focus on that will help you when you have to deal with difficult people, whether they are angry customers, colleagues, or upset family members.
1. De-stressing thinking:
Training in a step-by-step process to change the way you think about yourself and the upset person. We know from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) that the way people think about situations has a major effect on the way they feel about them. Training that helps you change the way you think can be very effective in developing personal resilience and managing difficult people.
There are many free online CBT courses that can help you learn to manage stress and worry associated with dealing with difficult people. A Google search reveals over 31,000,000 results. The TUF programme uses action methods to help participants think differently about difficult people.
2. De-stressing feelings:
One of the most effective ways of maintaining good emotional health is to talk about your feelings with someone who is a skilled listener. The TUF programme trains people to practice effective listening with colleagues. In the workshops and the online training this module is very powerful when participants realise that they can learn to listen in a new way and acknowledge the other person’s experience fully. They notice how much in their normal workplace conversations they interrupt others – which inhibits effective emotional debriefing – and they learn skills to avoid doing this.
When colleagues learn these skills they can very effectively de-brief each other without taking large amounts of time. They learn to stay separate from the other person’s problem at the same time as being empathetic listeners. When someone experiences being heard and acknowledged themselves, they learn just how powerful this process can be for others who are upset or stressed following a difficult encounter.
3. De-stressing the body:
This area of emotional management is what most people think about when they think of de-stressing. Deep breathing, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system (the opposite of the fight/flight sympathetic nervous system that is activated when somebody feels under pressure) is perhaps the simplest first step.
Other ways of de-stressing the body include:
- Playing sport
- Playing music
- Yoga and meditation.
Stretching is particularly good if you cannot get away from your workstation and you need to de-stress your body throughout the day.
The least recommended things to do are
- Drink coffee
- Smoke cigarettes
- Drink alcohol
- Take mind-altering drugs.
While giving some immediate, short-term comfort, these substances can intensify the physical experience of the unpleasant incident and reinforce the long-term memory of the unwanted feelings, leading to the opposite outcome of what is required.
Attending to stress created by angry customers or challenging colleagues, in yourself and your staff, is an important health and safety issue. As well as ensuring that you have a safe and healthy workplace, training in more appropriate responses will also mean you get better efficiencies from your staff; they will take less time off through sickness; they will reduce your risk of a health and safety complaint; and they will be better equipped to respond to angry and upset people wherever they are.
Stress - the hidden workplace hazard
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