Of Sound Mind? Evaluating the Workforce

Article excerpt

GRAPHIC AND DEADLY EPIsodes of workplace violence continue to make the headlines. While these incidents of disgruntled employees with AK47s are real, the media's focus on them reenforces a distorted view of the problem. Violence in the workplace takes many forms. Sexual harassment is a form of violence. Threats, vandalism, belligerence, and conflicts that turn into fights are all types of violence.

Whatever the form, workplace violence does not materialize in a vacuum; it evolves from smaller incidents, often because the work environment provides fertile ground. Consequently, many incidents of violence in the workplace are predictable and preventable, given the right tools.

Supervisors and co-workers can learn to recognize symptoms that would indicate when an employee may be on the verge of acting out, notes Jurg "Bill" W. Mattman, author of The Complete Workplace Violence Prevention Manual, and principal of The Workplace Violence Research Institute (WVRI), based in Newport Beach, California. These are fairly clear behavioral indicators, and employees should be trained to report them.

Even these signs may appear too late to provide the opportunity to reverse the process. Such training is, therefore, still crisis intervention. A truly preventive approach to workplace violence requires the recognition that the acting out is the end result of an invisible process that goes on inside the mind of the potentially violent individual who perceives that he or she has bee treated unfairly, discriminated against, harassed, or purposely exposed to stress by a supervisor.

It is important to see violence as the end product of a series of events that can be studied and measured. Mental factors such as stress, discrimination, or harassment may accumulate over time, and eventually an individual can snap. Therefore, violence can often be the result of cumulative traumas, which are a series of events that can be studied and measured.

Microtraumas can be psychological as well as biomechanical. Violence in the workplace is often the result of a mental cumulative trauma disorder (CTD).

The principles of ergonomics offer one approach to dealing with CTDs in the workplace. Ergonomics consists of adapting workplace tools, procedures, methods or the environment to fit the worker.

To date, most ergonomics usage has focused exclusively on the biomechanical and physical aspects of the job. For example, California's 5110 Ergonomic Regulations, which are to be implemented in 1995, define ergonomic risk factors as wholly biomechanical in nature.

Cognitive ergonomics is the application of the same sound and reliable general principles to the psychological or mental workplace environment. It should not, however, be thought of as merely the detailed analysis of the perceptual processes and task requirements involved in doing a job.

Cognitive ergonomics also applies the ergonomic principles to real world problems, such as those familiar to the clinical psychologist or psychiatrist who does workers' compensation evaluations or the human resources manager who tries to deal with a personality conflict between a supervisor and a subordinat or a disruptive love affair between two co-workers.

Just as an ergonomist goes into a facility and measures the biomechanical factors that may be contributing to musculoskeletal injuries, a cognitive ergonomist can go into a workplace and analyze the psychological factors that may be contributing to perceived or real incidents of stress, discrimination, harassment, job dissatisfaction, or fear.

These precursors to violence can be measured well before a situation precipitates a dangerous or lethal act. An ergonomic analysis of employees' perceptions about these factors can be used to statistically predict hot spots in the employee base.

This concept is not a new idea. Industrial psychologists and human resource managers have been using tests for most of the past half century. …