It's Official: 'Going Postal' Is Epidemic

Stress, Loss of Job Security Prompts Workplace Violence

Workplace violence has reached epidemic proportions, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, with an average of three or four supervisors killed each month in the United States.

The term "going postal" came into our vocabulary on August 20, 1986, at a post office in Edmond, Oklahoma, when employee Patrick Henry Sherrill, known as "Crazy Pat" to some who knew him, shot two of his supervisors then continued his rampage killing a total of 14 co-workers and injuring seven others.

Ultimately he turned the gun on himself and committed suicide. After this incident, there seemed to be a rash of work-related violence in post offices, hence the term, "going postal." What motivated Sherrill's action? He believed he was about to lose his job, investigators found. Experts believe the availability of firearms (75 percent of these incidents involve guns) combined with work-related stress, smaller workforce, decreasing wages and the loss of job security are the main contributors to the violence.

Workplace violence has occurred in every level of workplace environments from factories to white-collar companies. The most common thread among those employees, who become violent, is a change of status in their employment. Situations such as a change in a shift, an unfavorable review, a decrease in hours, a cancelled contract, or permanent separation are examples of what triggers an unstable employee to commit murder.

Researchers say these attacks do not always come out of the blue. Many times those who commit the violence have demonstrated questionable behavior before their attacks. Threatening, aggressive behavior toward co-workers and supervisors, confiding in others about their intention to kill their supervisor, family violence, and other warnings many times are ignored or not confronted -- out of fear or discomfort of how to deal with such an employee.

Fatalistic Attitude

Domestic disputes have also been a contributor. A jealous or estranged spouse or boyfriend is the most common perpetrator -- when they attack their ex-partner or whomever they believe might be cause of the failure of their relationship.

More than 30 percent of those who have committed work-related murders, end up killing themselves after the attacks. Research shows a correlation between how many people are killed to the likelihood of the perpetrator turning the gun on themselves. The more people they kill the more likely they are to commit suicide.

Often the employee who exhibits extreme anger or physical attacks at work has "given up" and has a fatalistic attitude toward life, including his own. The rage and need to get even overpowers the desire to live. The decision to kill themselves and "take down" those they believe are to blame is not uncommon.

Homicide is, of course, not the only form of workplace violence. It can also take the form of shouting, profanities, name calling, and harassment. None of these are acceptable behaviors in the workplace.

Because of the dramatic increase of incidents of violence in the workplace, employers have begun using tools and training to learn how to recognize troubled employees and learn ways to dislodge the rage that may be brewing inside them.