Fisticuffs in the cube

Stressed-out office workers are succumbing to "desk rage."


Jon Bowen
September 7, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Just when you were finally getting a handle on your road rage problem, along comes a new anger epidemic to ruffle your feathers -- desk rage.

A new British study shows that mounting workplace pressure is leading to an increasing incidence of squabbles and outright slugfests between colleagues who are stressed out.

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A survey of more than 600 workers in England revealed that 64 percent felt they were bothered by workplace stress. Fifty-six percent said they were losing sleep, 26 percent had gotten sick and 28 percent had suffered a bout of desk rage that led to -- as the British so daintily put it -- a "stand-up row" with a colleague. Twenty-eight percent had turned to booze to settle their nerves, and one in three puffed cigarettes to cool down.

To avoid desk rage, psychologist Sue Keane of the British Psychological Society urges workers to take breaks throughout the workday. She told the BBC, "We are seeing desk rage as stress builds to intolerable levels and conflicts boil over between colleagues. Just a few minutes out of the office or workplace at lunchtime could make all the difference."

The Brits don't have the corner on the desk-rage market. "Americans have the same problem," says Dr. Paul Rosch, president of the American Institute of Stress (AIS). "You've got people shouting at each other, throwing things at their computers. What we have in the American workplace is an extreme time emergency -- there's not enough time to do everything you're supposed to do."

And time is always money. According to information on the AIS Web site, job stress costs U.S. industry $300 billion annually due to absenteeism, diminished productivity, employee turnover and medical, legal and insurance fees. The market for stress-management programs, products and services was $9 billion in 1995 and is projected to be $11 billion for this year, according to AIS.

Everyone knows that stress is bad for your health. AIS links stress to a long and varied list of ailments including cardiovascular disease, cancer, cirrhosis, gastrointestinal foul-ups, emotional disorders, herpes, arthritis and the common cold.

One more for the list: the illness of being chronically, psychopathically pissed off. A Washington radio broadcaster speaking on condition of anonymity describes a work environment where writers and broadcasters on deadline are "screaming and cussing, slamming their mouses" -- that's computer mouses -- "on their desks. One of our co-anchors loses his mind every time the printer jams. He starts banging on the printer, throwing tape reels. His outbursts are legendary."

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Rosch thinks the whole desk-rage issue can be traced to a widespread incidence of "techno-stress," the epidemic of anxiety created by technology overload. "We're seeing the total depersonalization of the work environment," Rosch says. "You have people sitting 6 feet apart who never talk; they communicate through their computers. The computer has become an extension -- or a replacement -- of the persona."

From a physiological standpoint, it's no surprise that office stress leads to fights. The Mayo Clinic says that when your body is under stress it basically behaves like it's under attack. Chemical messengers are released that prepare the body for "fight or flight."

Rosch believes the simple solution is to give workers more jurisdiction over their time and environment. "Workers need to have a better sense of control over daily activities," he says. "We need to create a personalized work environment. But we're a long way off."

Meanwhile, stressed-out workers around the world are clearing out the chairs, squaring off, and putting up their dukes. If you can't control your desk rage, you might want to follow the Mayo Clinic's tips for dealing with co-worker conflict. After all, as the optimistic tipsters say, "Although conflict usually is viewed as negative, it can be an opportunity for growth."

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Jon Bowen

Jon Bowen is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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