Responding to Workplace Breakdowns

By Sheila Ferguson 

Over the last two decades, harm reduction relative to stress and mental illness has been a significant safety concern. Workplaces can be psychologically hectic spaces with limited time and high production demands. Let’s not forget personal stressors, anxieties, and individual trauma histories.

More workers have breakdowns on the job than you’d think. On any given workday, it is possible to witness a variety of stressors that can include crying in one’s cubicle, the lavatory, or a meeting that incites rage or fear. Most concerning include disorientation, threats, and overt violence (“going postal”, the so-called “postal” syndrome), which can result in attacks on supervisors and co-workers today called mass shooting.

Because these situations are so delicate, managers and team members might want to consider themselves “emergency first responders” who possibly can avert danger and act quickly when crises erupt. Today knowing how to respond and be of service is fundamental and essential!

Crying

Scenario: Most employees do not cry at work. However, there are a few occasions when it is perfectly normal to cry in the workplace. News of accidents, the recent death of friends or family, problems at home, arguments with a spouse or loved one before leaving for work, or a questionable or conclusive medical diagnosis can turn on a flood of tears. At the same time, it can also be any number of workplace stressors like being called out for poor performance, awaiting suspension, or complex communications with higher-ups that can leave workers vulnerable. 

First and foremost, avoid attaching a stigma to crying as it is a normal and natural response to stress. It’s always easier to respond to a co-worker’s tears behind the scenes than in a group meeting. No matter where it occurs, emotional sensitivity is required.

Your Best Responses: Approach the person after a brief silence, no matter where it occurs. Some of the most helpful responses might include:

  • Asking the person how you can help them
  • Asking if medical attention and support is needed
  • Handing them a tissue or bringing a cup of water
  • Taking a five-minute break from a meeting to give the person time to collect themselves
  • Resuming the conversation by asking if any medical assistance is needed or if they need to leave for the day

Anger

Responding to a co-worker or subordinate’s anger is never easy. These interactions are often so highly charged that they can frighten anyone and catch them off guard. However, with practice, you can respond appropriately. Take note that there are various reasons why people get angry. Expressions of rage may be both justified and displaced. Justifiable anger may relate to perceived unfair treatment or a misplaced assertion about a complex personal or work matter. Out of exasperation, the person may feel at a loss to express their feelings. In the case of displaced anger, the person is not resolving the conflict with the object of frustration. Instead, it’s directed to someone undeserving of it, like in the old kick the cat phenomenon. Therefore, it’s essential to listen carefully and empathically to angry responses.

Scenario: The president and a manager are having a closed-door meeting. During the discussion, the manager firmly disagreed with the president’s view that his sales performance declined in the last quarter. Throughout the conversation, the manager offers a series of legitimate explanations linked to winter weather advisory alerts and team illnesses. The president refuses to hear any of it and issues a written reprimand. The conversation gets more heated, and the lobby can hear the commotion. In the end, the manager storms out in embarrassment.    

Response: Both the president and the manager need to listen and maintain a calm voice and respectful demeanor. The goal is for the president to regulate and take charge of the conversation so that it does not escalate or spiral out of control. The two should additionally:     

  • Listen
  • Speak in a calm and measured tone
  • Repeat the main elements of the discussion to assure complete understanding
  • Agree to find resources and joint solutions between them to resolve the problem 

Co-Worker Mental & Physical distress

At least once in your working life, either you or a co-worker will experience the signs of distress indicative of declining mental health status or an episodic crisis.  

Scenario: Imagine that one of your co-workers appears to be dazed and disoriented. Though they are conscious and can walk about, their speech is slurred, and barely understandable. You know that something is wrong and suspect that they are ill and could have potentially suffered a head injury. You might even be worried that they have a stroke or a medication reaction. If they have a known history of severe mental illness, they could be having an episodic crisis, a mental breakdown or perhaps a toxic medication reaction. 

Response: Please avoid the temptation to ignore this person even if you are afraid. Be humane and try to calm them down in order to ask them how they are feeling. Also let them know that you think they may need immediate medical attention, and that help is on the way. Inform a supervisor of your observation and talk with the affected individual calmly and confidently. Call 911 for emergency medical services, give comfort care, continue talking with them, and keep them on the premises until help comes. Your 911 operator can be an invaluable source of support by telling you what to look for in breathing, speech, tremors, perspiration, and alertness. They may also begin talking to the injured party to comfort and support them.