The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist
August 1999, No. 1, Sect. I
Fight when you can
Take flight when you must
Flow like a dream
In the Phoenix we trust!
Table of Contents
Announcements: AOL Chat Group and Q & A Links/Archives Q & A: The Corporate
Narcissist: Can You Afford to Keep Him? Shrink Rap: Murders Before Mountains and Other
Absurdities Main Essay: "Going Postal" and Beyond: Workplace Violence Dynamics
Reader's Submission: Reflections on "The Mountain"
News Flash: Alas, only for AOL members, stop by my online "Shrink Rap (TM) and
Group Chat," Tuesdays, 9-10:45pm EST: (Email for the link or go to Digital
City--Washington, DC.) It's a dynamic, lively, at times witty and always warm, thoughtful
and supportive problem-solving group. We raise questions and share our ideas, hopes and
experiences with each other.
Special Announcements: 1) In order to make the letter more readable and printable for
Internet subscribers, I've reduced the graphics and the number of links. Hopefully, the
writing will be so colorful that a reduction in background color, links, etc. will hardly
be noticed. 2) For all cyberspace travelers, there's the new Ask the Stress Doc Q & A --
Work Stress Digital City - Washington, DC - Ask the
Stres... and Love and Relationships Digital City - Washington, DC - Relations .
Also, check the Doc's Q & A Archives: Stess Doc's Q&A
and Q&A: Love and
Ask the Stress Doc Q & A/Digital City--Washington, DC Work Stress
1) The Corporate Narcissist: Can't Survive with Him, Can't Survive without Him
Q. Dear Doc, I need help deciding how to cope with a workplace Narcissist. He's very
skilled (sometimes brilliant). Firing him would affect my business badly. Yet he has
caused at least one employee to leave, and exhausts everyone else with his chaotic
behaviors. He flashes hot and cold, first charismatic, then raging or rejecting. The worst
is his artful evasiveness and/or fabrications when asked direct questions. When he senses
female vulnerability, he charms and engages his new "friend" for a short time,
then drops her. In short, he creates chaos. Yet, it's hard to let him go because for years
he has asked me (and I believed he was sincere) to help him overcome his condition (which
he acknowledges one month and denies in anger the next)! Are there effective ways to
contain or manage or negotiate with a narcissist to decrease the impacts of his condition
in a workplace environment? How can one temper the interaction with the Narcissist to keep
him productively on the job?
A. Being a mostly reformed narcissist, maintaining a detached perspective is a bit
tricky. I must admit for years I've been talking about starting an NA -- Narcissists
Anonymous -- Group: for those of us who are truly legends in our own minds. Anyway...You
certainly capture the narcissistic profile: an elusive, often volatile person with some
talent and, often, a bigger sense of entitlement. And while there may be a capacity for
some pseudo intimacy, the person's often clueless about emotional boundaries. This
individual was likely scarred in childhood -- abandonment, underlying humiliation, trust
and control are often key issues. And when the necessary headwork, heartwork and homework
is neglected, the person believes he deserves special treatment, both because of his
"unique" gifts and because of his previous victimization. And always lurking is
instantaneous shame and rage when feeling belittled, misunderstood, ignored, etc. This
person's sensitivity is definitely double-edged.
It's also important to underscore the double-edged impact on your business: while there
are company benefits to his brilliance, there are painful costs. If left to his own
devices, he will be a "stress and chaos carrier" for many other employees, as
As for effective strategies with this guy, several come to mind: 1) limit as much as
possible the amount of interaction he has with other employees, 2) have him report to you,
less that you are checking up on him, more that you want to stay cutting edge. (You may
need to swallow some rage here.) And, finally, the only strategy I believe really has a
shot is 3) having a psychological counselor/coach who understands this personality meet
with both of you. I also envision two possible directions: a) frame the intervention
initially as follows: "I need help in learning how to integrate your creativity and
complex and uncommon personality into the organization." (Stroking a narcissist's ego
is almost failproof. Or add a touch of humor, this will also appeal to his vanity and be
less threatening to a vulnerable ego: "I need help in order to not let you drive me
bananas." In light of you being female and of his issues with women, the consultant
should be a male. The goal would be to have the narcissist bond with the coach, begin to
recognize and control his shame and rage. Hopefully, he will also get some grounding and
sense of boundaries with this male authority; b) the second option emerges if you've
reached the point of knowing "freedom 's just another word for nothing left to
lose." Have a joint meeting with the counselor or conflict specialist, and just be
real with your anger and concerns. Let Mr. N know that you'd like to work out any issues
the two of you have, support his getting counseling, etc. But you will not be able to
accept his dysfunctional behavior in the office. And that's the bottom line! And that's
how you...Practice Safe Stress!
Postscript: As for a specific consultant, I'm rested and ready. My motto -- "Have
Stress? Will Travel: A Smart Mouth for Hire!" What can I say: Once a narcissist,
always a narcissist. ;-)
Shrink Rap: We interrupt "The Mountain Is the Message" series for a
belated response to this summer's string of outrageous public killings. Today's Main
Article, "'Going Postal" and Beyond" was triggered by the Atlanta
shootings. Hey, but that's practically relegated to the back burner after the LA carnage.
From day trading to day care
"Killings R Us" may soon compete with "In
God We Trust" for the country's motto.
Now I'm not saying there isn't some sense in having The Ten Commandments posted on
school walls, but this country seems to be stretching God's resources and reach. With the
omnipresence of handguns and Hollywood I'm not sure I have faith in anyone, any body
(certainly not Congress) or any power to stop the ongoing eruptions and bleeding in the
Street and in the streets.
Enough of my sermonizing. The main essay is the first of a two-part series involving
the assessment of and intervention with violence-prone work environments.
On a lighter and fairly absurd note
another newsletter, another country. This time
an emailer from the Netherlands shared that a major online Dutch media network,
Intermediair, cited the Stress Doc Website - www.stressdoc.com - as a resource for dealing
with stress. (Last time it was a major Swedish newspaper. Why all the stress? What's going
on in Northern Europe, these days?) In response to my query about local coverage in the
Netherlands, R.S. replied: "Yes, it was. I'm also on the mailing list for
Intermediair mail. There was a subject about Stress and a link to your website was given.
You can visit Intermediair on http://www.intermediair.nl. You will find the link to your
website under the subject EMAILKRANT / Zij is gestresst....Looking forward to your
newsletters, greetings. Rita."
Finally, to keep you hungry for the closing segment of "The Mountain" series,
I'll include some thought-provoking and heart-felt Readers' Responses to Part I. Enjoy!
Btw, I've decided to create the appropriate ambiance for concluding "The Mountain Is
the Message: Ten Commandments for Embracing the Sensual and Exploring the Spiritual."
At the end of the week, I'm off to Whitefish, Montana and Glacier National Park. Hey, I
have to be a model for
Practicing Safe Stress!
In the shadows of the Atlanta day trading tragedy, the Stress Doc reflects on his
experience as a stress and violence prevention consultant for the US Postal Service and
other organizations. The Doc also highlights key pressure points -- policies, procedures
and personalities -- that contribute to a dangerously dysfunctional work environment.
"Going Postal" and Beyond: Part I Dynamics Triggering Workplace Violence
In the wake of the Atlanta day trading shootings, a mental health professional emailed
about dealing with the aftereffects. As I was mulling over the question, I had to place
cause before effect. Memories were stirred of stress and critical incident consulting work
with the US Postal Service and other federal agencies and corporations. And before jumping
to conclusions, some of the specific "Postal" incidents (e.g., the first two on
the list) involved postal employees being robbed and attacked by non-postal aggressors: 1)
a carrier on a delivery route held up at knife point, 2) a female warehouse worker raped
in an employee parking lot, 3) a supervisor receiving telephone death threats (perhaps
involving a jealous triangle with the boyfriend of an another employee), and 4) a postal
employee, a former Green Beret, making threats in his psychiatrist's office to kill two
fellow workers for being "slackers."
Another critical incident intervention was with bereaved private sector staff after an
employee who, under the influence of alcohol and depressed over the breakup of an unhappy
relationship, wound up driving her car into a tree, killing herself instantaneously.
And then there was a "blue collar" government division in a white collar
world, castoff by their agency as part of a lean-and-mean restructuring. The group was
relegated to the basement of a huge federal agency, drifting, marking time, not sure where
and when (or if) they would permanently wash up. Not surprisingly, during this period of
uncertain survival all were on edge. Racial tensions flared: some white employees pulled
up KKK websites; some black employees on cassettes played speeches of Louis Farrakhan.
Grievance procedures were escalating. A manager in the Diversity Office finally realized
that the government was hemorrhaging money in this administrative Armageddon. Was human
Three Key Hazardous Workplace Issues
Some questions must be reckoned with: a) are there incidence-prone work environments?,
b) is there a violence-prone personality profile? and c) are their steps managers and all
employees can take to reduce the numbers of violent incidents.
As a means for engaging with the first issue and aspects of the other two, let me
grapple with the most frequently asked question when people discover my critical incident
specialist background: Why is there so much violence in the postal service? (I was a
postal stress and violence prevention consultant from the early to the mid-90s.) Actually,
I don't know if statistically there is more violence in the US Postal Service than in
other large companies or federal agencies. Most folks don't realize that the Postal
Service, apart from the Defense Department as a whole, is the largest employer in the
United States (if not the world). As of a couple of years ago, there were about 800,000
postal employees. In light of the numbers, periodic incidents of violence are not that
surprising. Also, because almost all US residents use and depend on the USPS, I suspect
there's a greater sense of personal identfication (if not perceived vulnerability) with
Still, with these conditions and caveats in mind, what are critical factors that
contribute to a hazardous, occasionally lethal, work environment for postal employees? And
while focusing on a predisposition for "going postal," none should be smug. A
number of these dynamics exist in a myriad of work settings.
Top Ten Postal Pressure Points
1. Fishbowl Pressure. To insure the protection and privacy of the mail, many postal
employees are frequently being watched through above the workfloor viewing stations,
two-way mirrors, etc. Not surprisingly, this kind of surveillance can induce its own brand
of suspiciousness. Initially, in my rounds as a stress consultant, people were reluctant
to talk with me. They assumed I was a postal inspector or a narcotics agent.
2. Mail Mania. You have to be in "the belly of the beast," that is, on the
workfloor of a huge Postal Processing and Distribution Plant, to appreciate the fact that
the mail and handling the mail NEVER STOPS! It's a 24-7 operation and the time- and
task-driven nature of the business inevitably creates stress. Not surprisingly, for some
folks, such as yours truly, the midnight shift is a never-ending nightmare. Believe me,
holding testy 3am management-supervisor meetings, dealing with racial tension or helping
to defuse a volatile manager, supervisor or employee took a toll. I developed high blood
pressure. Perhaps one night a week from 9pm-6am precluded ever adapting. But I think some
people are just biorhythmically out of kilter working when the sun don't shine. And I
believe the data overall indicates greater numbers of medical problems and even somewhat
shorter life spans from years toiling on the "graveyard shift." Is there a
3. Overtime. A related pressure in light of cost cutting and price stabilization goals,
is running a lean-and-mean postal ship. A consequence is less hiring of new, especially,
full-time employees and more overtime for existing workers. Overtime is definitely
double-edged. The pay is very good. Alas, sometimes too much of a good thing may create
real problems. While it's usually voluntary, too many become dependent on constant
overtime just to keep up with their monthly payments and charges. So overtime becomes a
I witnessed way stressed employees because of insufficient sleep and prolonged work
hours. And I won't even bring up Christmas Rush when you have to have a dire emergency to
be excused from overtime.
4. High Pay and Nontransferable Skills. Ironically, one of the factors that may
contribute to a volatile job/career situation is that many postal employees receive high
wages for basically blue collar skills. For this they have strong union representation to
thank. However, such a scenario can create stress in a couple of ways: 1) for some, their
skills are very postalized and do not readily transfer to other industries and 2) many
blue collar folks would not easily replicate their earning power outside the postal
service if they did find an equivalent position.
So people experiencing some boredom or job dissatisfaction may be averse to making a
career change. They don't fireproof their life with variety. It's a formula for burning
out or burning up! And combined with the aforementioned indebtedness, one can imagine such
an individual psychologically "losing it" if their uncommon bread-winning postal
position, for whatever reason, was in jeopardy.
5. Protective Unions and Management Networks. Postal unions are often in a double-edged
position. In addition to advocating for wages and benefits, they rightfully need to
challenge abusive, incompetent, or unprofessional management that threatens employees'
fair wages, rights or their ability to perform safely and effectively. The dark side of
this advocacy role is covering for union members who have serious work performance and/or
behavioral problems. (The "as long as you show up your safe" standard.)
Unfortunately, I've also seen management play into this dysfunctional scenario. One
example, mentioned earlier, is the station manager who overlooked or minimized the
incessant, if not intimidating, razzing of two colleagues by the hard working ex-Green
Beret employer along with a cohort. I suspect the postal manager allowed this disturbed
postal worker to act out some of his (the manager's) anger toward "the
slackers." The manager justified his not referring "the slackers" to the
Employee Assistance Program (EAP) because of a previous unsatisfactory EAP experience.
This EAP encounter had occurred years earlier and was not even in the same state.
In addition to an unprofessional or an inadequate manager, akin to union protection
excess, there is the destructive "good old boy" (and sometimes girl) management
network. This system continues to promote, rotate (to another plant or station), deny the
level of incompetence or emotional problem of and/or give another chance to individuals
who should not be in management slots.
6. Employee-Manager Personality Profile. Again, one keeps coming back to the
double-edged nature of the Postal Service. It has a reputation of providing employment
opportunities for minorities and for folks on the psychosocial margins. The USPS has also
always welcomed ex-military personnel, giving them extra points on the job
application/exam process. Sometimes this influx makes for a volatile mix. My speculation -
literary if not literal - is that you have a convergence of folks: from the Marine Corps
to the inner city hard core (and plenty of country boys as well). One group often reveres
authority, the other groups mistrust it. And numbers within all segments come from
cultures where weapons use and violence are not foreign to their social world.
This combustible ground is not confined to supervisor-employee relations. I'll never
forget the time a plant manager, a fairly charismatic leader who was building more open,
trusting relations with the union and employees called me (the stress consultant) into his
office. This man, a former submarine commander, not able to sit, on the verge of tears,
verbally replayed an absolutely outrageous, screamingly abusive telephone attack he had
been subjected to by a high up executive at L'Enfant Plaza, Postal Headquarters. This
Plant Manager's numbers weren't "good enough." This was verbal and emotional
battering of the most despicable kind. A culture that still tolerates or is infected by
such toxicity at the upper levels is a danger to all concerned. Toxins flow downward and
invariably poison the organizational ambiance. The Postal Service, to its credit,
continues trying to eradicate such destructive postal "stress carriers." Alas,
it's a long, hard fight.
7. Destabilizing Effects of Downsizing. In addition to a "do more with less"
environment, the postal restructuring in the '90s created stress in two fundamental ways.
In the short-term, job/career transition centers that were supposed to provide positive
motivation for employees, supervisors and managers without a position often had the
opposite effect. These folks needed less corporate cheerleading/positive motivation and
more venting, grieving and healing. As one up-and-coming employee derailed from her
management fast track cried: "I once had a career path. Then this boulder fell from
the sky and crushed it." You think this process can generate feelings of betrayal,
rage?! And as with every reorganization process for which I've consulted
-- not just the USPS - the inevitable uncertainly, the rumor mill, the intentional or not
misinformation only fuels fear and resentment.
Another consequence of the restructuring (the workforce was reduced by 50,000, but it
was not called a downsizing; this voodoo semantics also grates on people) was the removal
of numbers, if not layers, of supervisors and managers. The plus of such a step is a more
direct chain of command and more efficient, hopefully, two-way information flow and
collaborative problem-solving. Also, some that needed to cease and desist as managers did
so. The downside, of course, is the critical loss of senior people with invaluable hands
on experience and a sense of corporate history. The latter, for example, may help an
organization avoid always having to reinvent the wheel. Too often, inexperienced or
dysfunctional supervisors would replace effective veteran supervisors before the team had
a chance to digest the change. Clearly, this is a formula for tension and conflict right
out of the starting gate for a work group. And this destabilizing supervisory
merry-go-round appeared to be a chronic issue, not just a glitch in response to major
8. Reliance On Temps. Another structural change in the spirit of cost-cutting was the
dependence on temporary workers. Invariably, in a strong union shop, there will be tension
generated between regulars and part-timers or temps. First, there's the sense of being
treated like a second class citizen. Next, regulars objected when they felt temps were
taking away their overtime hours. At the same time, regulars also believed temps were
excused from taking on some onerous tasks. Clearly, this primes a sibling-stepchild
rivalry scenario. Is big authority playing one group against the other to divert each from
focusing on a common antagonist, that is, upper management?
Finally, the uncertainty for temps was chronic: would they ever become regulars? The
time process was often strung out; people felt they were twisting in the wind.
9. Partially Disabled/Chronically Injured Employees. For a significant number of
employees, repetitive motion injuries - such as back problems from chronic lifting to
carpal tunnel from constant data processing - was as predictable as black lung disease for
coal miners. Relatively few employees seemed to gain disability discharge. Many of these
working wounded were assigned to book shelf-like work stations where they would repair
damaged letters or hand file mail not suitable for mass sorting or posting. Often these
folks with straining pain thresholds complained about the productivity expectations,
limited rest breaks, etc., that management imposed. The formula seemed to be no pain, no
In turn, management often felt there were plenty of slackers amongst these employees.
(And truth be told, some were.) To prevent wandering and inappropriate socializing these
folks were also confined to a leper colony-like bounded area. Again, at times, I sensed
some managers almost encouraged regular employees to scapegoat these "protected"
workers who weren't really earning their salary. The disabled were also a chronic mirror
for what could happen to "you" -- the currently non-debilitated employee. I
encountered several workers who played down and worked with serious pain rather than risk
the stigma of even temporary banishment to the colony for the "damaged goods."
This was a festering sore on the workfloor.
10. Us vs. Them. The obvious divisions at the Processing & Distribution Plant were
architectural, hierarchical and racial in nature. In the Tower were air-conditioned modern
offices for managers and high tech workers along with more white than black employees.
(Fortunately, the demographics were diversifying.) The workfloor was sweaty, dusty, noisy;
a darkly cavernous, beware of being run over by a whizzing cart or truck world. The three
huge, much larger than a football field, workfloors, were overwhelmingly staffed by
minorities. The plant was not called "The Postal Plantation" for nothing.
In a racially diverse climate that involves people working in close quarters and that
tolerates a high degree of razzing to break up workplace monotony, it takes an aware and
skillful management to prevent these discordant elements from becoming frighteningly
fractious. In one station, scratched car windows and hoods was wisely seen as a harbinger
of even more hostile postal tidings. Professional conflict intervention short-circuited
accelerating racial tension.
While focusing on hazardous workplace conditions and dynamics in the Postal Service,
clearly, these danger signs are not limited to the USPS. As the recent events in Atlanta
make clear, violence in the workplace is as American as apple pie or, at least, as
prevalent as mismanagement, emotionally troubled employees, dysfunctional working
conditions and readily available handguns.
The Dirty Dozen
Let's conclude with a capsule of key components of "A Dangerously Dysfunctional
1. From TLC to TNC. Work environment driven by "time, numbers and crises" not
by "tender loving care." Beware a philosophy that extols customers as kings
while treating employees as peasants; it's a formula for revolt, inertia or sabotage.
2. Rapid and Unpredictable Change. Can be either a downsizing or expansionary mode.
Unstable leadership and work force; adjusting to new personnel; loss of wisdom. Rules and
procedures don't appear to be operational; "the book" has lost some critical
pages. Chronic uncertainty from lack of timely information or from communication not
perceived as genuine or accurate.
3. Destructive Communication Style. Excessively aggressive, condescending, explosive or
passive aggressive styles of communication; excessive workfloor razzing or scapegoating.
Managers talking over employees; nobody truly listening. Either defensive counterattacking
or robotic groupthinking.
4. Authoritarian Leadership. Rigid, militaristic mind set; "superiors" vs.
"subordinates" or "inferiors." Typical slogans: "You don't get
paid to think" or "My way or the highway." Leaders blow up if challenged
and break up any participatory decision-making or team building efforts.
5. Defensive Attitude. Dismissive attitude and atmosphere regarding feedback; little
interest in evaluation of people and policies. Only numbers count. Not safe to give
feedback; people quick to feel disrespected or rejected. Yelling or intimidation or,
conversely, avoidance, preferred ways of dealing with conflict.
6. Double Standard. Different policies and procedures, bias in application, for
management and employees, blue collar or white collar, racial or sexual discrimination --
"Workfloor vs. Tower" dichotomy. Double standard also manifests as management
gets substantial training or support for dealing with change processes and employees get
minimal orientation and ongoing support.
7. Unresolved Grievances. No mechanisms or only adversarial ones -- "us vs.
them" -- to settle grievances. Or, dysfunctional individuals protected or ignored
because of contractual provisions, red tape, old boy network or union cover, etc.
8. Emotionally Troubled Personnel. Management not actively assisting, in a timely
manner, troubled employee to get needed help; preferably voluntarily or through a
supervisory mandate for EAP counseling. Not professionally engaging the troubled employee
(or supervisor, etc.) can create a tumor for the work team -- scapegoating, loss of
respect for leader, apathy and lowered morale, etc.
9. Repetitive, Boring Work. Not just assembly line syndrome. Also, "The Bjorn
Bored Syndrome": When Mastery times Monotony provides an index of Misery! Your niche
of success becomes the ditch of excess and stagnation. Lack of opportunity for job
rotation or not enough new blood coming into the system. (Also, see hazardous setting
10. Faulty Equipment/Deficient Training. Equipment or procedures (or lack of same) that
don't allow people to work effectively or efficiently
and then workers are criticized
for not being productive. Also, rapidly inundating people with new equipment and
operational standards while not providing sufficient time and resources for successful
11. Hazardous Setting. Disruptive ambient work conditions -- temperature, air quality,
repetitive motion issues, overcrowded space, problematic noise levels, excessive overtime,
nocturnal schedule and interrupted sleep, etc. Personnel shortage results in lack of
backup resulting in potentially dangerous work expectations and conditions.
12. Culture of Violence. Culture or past history of individual and/or violence and
abuse. Violent or explosive role models. Alcohol and drug abuse; employees with lingering
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Hopefully, this essay provides a slightly larger than life portrait of a hazardous work
environment. While "blue" in tint, the "white collar" world also needs
to pay heed. No matter the color, these dysfunctional workplaces both overtly drain and
frustrate employees and generate a smoldering background. A seemingly trivial event can
set off a chronically stressed, troubled individual. Of course, some folks are ready to go
even in the best of environments. The numbers of "the working wounded" from all
walks of life is truly troubling. The companion piece will examine in greater detail a
composite profile of an explosive personality. It will also target intervention strategies
for reducing, if not preventing, violence prone conditions and "postal"
eruptions. Until then, of course
Practice Safe Stress!
(c) Mark Gorkin 1999 Shrink Rap Productions