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Work Stress and Workplace Aggression
Clinical Psychology Associates of North Central Florida
2121 NW 40th Ter. Ste B, Gainesville, FL 32605    352-336-2888               CPANCF.COM
While we may believe that recent life or job changes have made workplace stress more frequent or worse than in the past, it likely did not start last week.  Job stress was described as the 20th Century Disease in 1992.   Some studies have found 20% of employees report high levels of daily work stress, and 70% feel their job is stressful (Akinboye, Aki & Adeyemo, 2002).
In understanding the relationship between workplace stress and aggression we must first understand a bit about both stress and aggression and the factors that mediate these.  A distinction is often made between stressors, stress response, and the subjective experience of stress.  Perception of stress sis often an interaction of the environment and the individual. Individuals may vary in what stressors cause them stress.  A quiet desk job assignment might be quite stressful for someone who prefers to be a road warrior. Public speaking can be a stressor for someone who prefers to be a writer. Life changes which are usually associated with positive prospects such as having a child, getting a raise or promotion can involve change and be considered stressors, as can injuries, illness, overwork, or workplace politics and bullying.  Stressors can also involve environmental or operational factors such as shift-work, lighting, noise, and harder to capture factors such as corporate culture.
Studies have demonstrated a relationship between stressful life events and risk of cardiac disease, accidents, and injuries. Acute and chronic stress lead to physiological changes commonly associated with cardiac and GI disease, mood and behavioral changes.
Physiological arousal associated with the fight or flight response can be effective for combating short-term challenges or threats, but this state can cause people to over-focus, become tense, and over-react. Irritability can be a common symptom of excess stress, anxiety, or depression. 
Frustration can also result in anger, or withdrawal and depression.  Some individuals who become depressed may turn this outward through depression and irritability rather than complaints of being sad.
When sources of personal or workplace stress are not adequately recognized, managed, or treated, aggressive behaviors can develop.  While there is often heightened concerned about the potential for severe workplace violence such as workplace shootings, this is actually quite rare and very difficult to predict. 
More commonly, workplace environments that don’t recognize and manage stressors well or employees who are not managing their own stress or stressors well may directly or indirectly show aggressive behavior.  This may involve individuals becoming irritable, engage in bullying behaviors that are disrespectful, threatening or emotionally mean, engaging in sabotaging behavior, or indirectly through excess absenteeism, failures to assist or be courteous to others, missed meetings, poor morale, and reduced productivity.  Interactions can become become quite dysfunctional with individuals bouncing off of each other in response to bullying, passive-aggressive behavior, threats or fear.  Victims of aggressive or passive-aggressive behavior can become angry or fearful, and can be at risk for becoming more aggressive.
Organizational efforts at providing educational support about resources to reduce stress, referrals or instruction in stress management strategies, as well as assistance in problem solving, and emotional support can serve as buffers to workplace stress.  Improving communication skills and allowing for reasonable choices also can reduce aggressive behavior and reduce the stressful feelings of not having any control.
Certain behaviors can trigger, escalate or de-escalate aggressive behavior and stress.  Less stress and aggression is likely when changes or tasks are presented in a predictable calm manner.  Tone of voice, rate of speech, posture, movement and proximity are all factors that can be seen as signaling threat and triggering a fight-or-flight response, but can also be used to de-escalate an aggressive interaction.  The presence of an audience also can increase threat and risk, and the old adage of praising in public and criticizing in private is often sage advice for avoiding unnecessary stress and creating potentially aggressive interactions.  Self-awareness of voice, tone, and even one’s physical size and personality can be critical in not being perceived as a threat and triggering aggressive interactions.  Avoiding passive-aggressive behavior can also help reduce negative reactions by others. Active and conscious effort at de-escalation, sincere apologies for transgressions, listening to others and respecting boundaries are also important in surviving stressful environments without damaging relationships.
Individuals may exhibit increased health, mood, and behavior symptoms with increased work stress with varying needs for intervention. The following table is adapted from.
Signs / Symptoms
(Adapted from Annscheutz (1999))
Suggested Action
Phase 1: Warning signs are often more emotional than physical and may take a year or more before they are noticeable.
Feelings of vague anxiety, depression, boredom, apathy, or emotional fatigue.
Talking about feelings; taking a vacation; making a change from regular activities; taking time for yourself
Phase 2: Mild Symptoms   Warning signs have progressed and intensified. Over a period of 6 to 18 months, physical signs may also be evident.
Sleep disturbances
More frequent headaches / colds
Muscle aches
Intensified physical and emotional fatigue
Withdrawal from contact with others
Irritability intensified
More aggressive lifestyle changes may
be needed
short-term counselling
Phase 3: Entrenched Cumulative Stress
This phase occurs when the above phases continue to be ignored. Stress starts to create a deeper impact on career, family life.
increased use of alcohol, smoking, or nonprescription drugs,
physical and emotional fatigue
loss of sex drive
loss of personal well being
marital discord
crying spells
intense anxiety
rigid thinking
help of medical and
professionals is highly
Phase 4: Severe / Debilitating Cumulative
Stress Reaction
This phase is often considered "self-destructive" and tends to occur after 5 to 10 years of continued stress. Careers end prematurely.
heart conditions
severe depression
lowered self-esteem/Self-confidence
inability to perform one’s job
inability to manage personal life
uncontrolled anger/ grief / rage
suicidal or homicidal thinking
chronic fatigue
overreaction to minor events
frequent accidents
from professionals
Akinboye, J. O., Akinboye D. O., & Ademyemo D. A. (2002) Coping with Stress in Life and
Workplace. Strutin-Horden Publications Ltd.
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