Unhealthy Workplaces

In his book Modern Madness: The Hidden link between Work and Emotional Conflict, Douglas Labier asks some fundamental questions about the relationship between the mental health of employees and the health of organizations in which they work.

For example: What type of organizational environments are workers being encouraged (forced) to adapt to?  What are the implications for society when a maladaptive individual can flourish in a poisoned work environment while an adjusted individual is diminished mentally, emotionally and physically by the same work environment?

Too often we have seen the tragic answers to these questions when a worker, provoked by workplace stress, flies into a violent rage. People are killed and a community is shattered.  It is becoming so frequent that we have given these violent outbursts a name, “Going Postal.”

The phrase originated in the United States in the 1990s after several incidents in which individuals working for the United States Postal Service shot and killed fellow workers and members of the public.

The most recent example of “Going Postal” occurred recently in Manchester, Connecticut.

Omar Thornton, the newest driver for Hartford Distributors, a family-run wholesaler of beer and wine, was called in for a disciplinary hearing. He had been videotaped stealing a few bottles of beer.

He was given two options: quit or be fired. After agreeing to resign, he left the meeting and returned with a handgun and opened fire as he walked through the building. Eight people were killed, including fellow drivers, a company executive and a local union president. When he was done, 34-year-old Omar Thornton used the same gun to kill himself.

That could be the end of the story. But sadly, it is not.

It appears that Thornton had complained for quite some time that he was being racially harassed on the job. He showed his girlfriend pictures of the bathroom walls at the warehouse with racial slurs and a stick figure hanging from a noose.

Thornton had also once called his girlfriend from a bathroom at the warehouse and held the phone up so she could hear his supervisor and another employee talking disparagingly about black people.

The union says Thornton had never filed a complaint through the company’s anti-harassment policies.

From all accounts Thornton had no prior criminal history, apart from driving infractions. He has been described as “a quiet person, not a mean bone in his body,”

His final act was to call his mother to tell her he had shot “the five racists.”

“Those were his last words to her,” his cousin said. “He loved her, and they pushed him over the edge.”

The calls for help to 911 are chilling and disturbing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BA5I5j4fVho&feature=player_embedded

This type of violence cannot ever be condoned, regardless of what may have instigated it.

Workplaces are complex and complicated: they are rife with office politics and sometimes a culture that empowers some and demeans others. Racism and discrimination, however, can create an even more toxic brew.

In his book Douglas Labier says stress, anxiety and clear-cut psychiatric problems among upper level managers trickle down to affect workers at the lower levels in various ways.

“In one company a mid-level manager was reassigned to a different part of the organization and given new work. Managers there had a reputation for treating people like replaceable parts in a machine. They liked to joke that they were the company’s ‘S.O.B.-Team’. Soon they began complaining about her slowness and initiated steps to get rid of her. They saw a poor fit, and knew the situation was not bringing out her best, but they wanted a person who could produce, and didn’t care about helping her develop. She became anxious and depressed, and started popping Valium to get her through the day.”

Organizations must have anti-harassment and anti-violence policies in place, not only to protect workers, but to protect the organization itself. Managers must also be held accountable for their actions at all times and all employees must be told they are responsible for creating and maintaining a respectful workplace.

No doubt there will be an extensive investigation into what happened before Omar Thornton, an obviously deeply troubled man, opened fire on his co-workers.

But this tragedy should be a reminder that we are all our “brother’s keeper” in the workplace. If a co-worker is showing signs of stress, it should be reported to a supervisor or manager. If employees witness unfair treatment or harassment of a co-worker by a manager or anyone else, that too should be reported.

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