U works to prevent violence in the workplace

Michelle Kibiger

Workplace-related violence is on the rise, but predicting violent behavior is nearly impossible, said David W. Johnson, director of the University Employee Assistance Program. Prevention and intervention are keys tolleviating workplace stress, he added.
Employees report about 111,000 violent acts each year in the United States. The most common forms of workplace violence include fist fights among co-workers and incidences of domestic violence that spill over into the workplace.
Currently, workplace attacks are the fastest growing areas of violence. Five percent of all persons murdered each year are murdered at their workplaces.
One such incident occurred Feb. 14, when University student Kami Talley was shot and killed at her northeast Minneapolis workplace by her ex-boyfriend, Louis Cardona Buggs.
Also, more than half of workplace violence incidents go unreported. Therefore, employers seek ways to remove sources of organizational stress.
To improve employees’ abilities to deal with stress both in and out of the workplace, employers are opting to provide counseling for workers. Two such offices serve University employees, said James Meland, director of the Employee Assistance Programs.
“These (programs) are there to help the employees with any personal or work-related problems that they have,” Meland said. “They help individuals with their personal adjustment.”
Counseling programs’ staff members focus on short-term problems such as job and career issues. However, the groups also deal with marital and family relationship problems, which can be very emotional for clients.
The programs also have legal counsel available to advise clients free of charge.
One office serves faculty members, academic professionals, academic administrative staff members and their immediate families. The other meets the needs of civil service and bargaining unit employees. A separate service deals with University Hospital employees.
Johnson, director of the group dealing with civil service employees, said the staff works with about 550 clients each year. All the programs are private, confidential, free and voluntary.
Johnson said many of the problems employees face on the job are symptoms of other problems in their lives. He said employees are dealing with other unresolved issues that are brought out by a workplace incident.
“It’s usually not just one thing,” Johnson said. “The workplace can be the focus, but it’s not really the core issue.”
About 80 percent of the clients are referred outside the University for further assistance. Those clients need long-term professional assistance.
The programs also offer consultation for managers on how to handle crisis situations and tension on the job. Johnson said he just finished a round of seminars managing stress and dealing with difficult people.
“It’s not like an epidemic, but it’s enough that we’re doing a good bit of training,” Johnson said. “(Employees) need to find better ways of expressing anger.”
Johnson said some employees have made idle threats in the past. In such situations, managers are asked to determine how serious the employee was. If necessary, a threat-assessment team is available on campus to help diffuse potentially violent situations before they become worse. The team acts as a third party to verbally diffuse situations, and, if necessary, provide physical intercession.
Increased frequency and severity of violent episodes mirror increased stress and changing structures in the workplace.
Employers are encouraged to keep emotions in the workplace low, so that they do not flare up and lead to violence. Furthermore, employers should emphasize the importance of leisure activities and minimize overtime.
Also, high-profile supervisors, such as University President Nils Hasselmo, know that they must be prepared for some forms of retaliation. Persons will tend to direct frustration at an organization’s figurehead, Hasselmo said, and he realizes that’s part of his job.
Clients from the University assistance programs have given the service high marks. Johnson said the offices just completed a two-year survey in which clients evaluated the programs. On a scale of one to seven, Johnson said the programs received a 6.5 rating.
“Employees are so appreciative that the University provides a service like this,” said Johnson. “It makes them feel so valued as an employee.”