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Managing Anger in the Workplace

Last updated on 3rd May 2023

Statistics from the British Association of Anger Management (BAAM) state that 80% of people believe Britain is becoming angrier and this anger is spilling out into our professional lives, with 45% of staff regularly losing their temper at work. This could be because of a demanding workload and increasing stress levels or it could be due to the fact that 53% of people have been the victims of bullying at work.

Both bullying and increased stress levels have a detrimental effect on anger and the usually unhealthy way it is expressed. Perhaps these figures are not surprising as Britain is the top road rage country within Europe, with 80.4% of drivers claiming to have been involved in road rage incidents; another 1 in 4 drivers admit to committing an act of road rage.

Anger can be caused by both external and internal events; someone could be angry at a specific person such as a colleague, manager or customer, or angry because of an event such as a traffic jam, a cancelled flight, bad service, etc. The anger could also be caused by worrying or brooding about personal problems or by memories of traumatic or infuriating events that can also trigger angry feelings.

The unconscious, instinctive way to express anger is to respond aggressively. Anger is a natural, evolutionary, adaptive response to threats (the fight part of fight or flight). It inspires powerful, often aggressive, feelings and behaviours that allow us to fight and to defend ourselves when we are attacked. A certain amount of anger is perhaps necessary for our survival.

However, we can’t physically lash out at every person or object that irritates or annoys us, as there are laws, social norms and common sense that place limits on how far our anger can take us. Most people use a variety of both conscious and unconscious methods to deal with their angry feelings and to manage their anger.

Annoyed woman feeling angry at work

What is Anger Management?

Anger is an emotional state that varies in intensity from mild irritation to intense fury and rage. The aim of anger management is to reduce both the emotional feelings and the physiological arousal that anger causes. Often you can’t remove, or avoid, the things or the people that anger you, nor can you change them, but you can learn to control your reactions to these people or situations that have enraged you.

Anger management is not about learning to suppress your anger; never getting angry is not a healthy goal as anger will surface regardless of how hard you try to kerb it. Anger management is about learning to express these angry emotions in a healthy way without losing control. Like most skills, mastering anger management takes work, but the more that you practise it, the easier and more natural it will become. Learning to control your anger and to be able to express it appropriately will help you build better relationships, achieve your goals, and lead a healthier, more satisfying life.

What Are the Signs You May Need Help Managing Anger?

Anger becomes dangerous when it causes harm to you or to others. Some of the following patterns of behaviour may point to the fact that you or someone you know may have issues with anger management:

  • Struggling to compromise or arrive at mutual agreements without becoming verbally or physically angry.
  • Wanting to control the outcome of situations without compromise.
  • Viewing different opinions to yours as a personal challenge.
  • Having an all-or-nothing response that results in you trying to control other people’s behaviour in order to avoid anger.
  • Automatically blaming others for negative situations.
  • Reacting quickly and violently to small problems, such as becoming outwardly angry when reacting to a minor issue such as a spilt drink or somebody bumping into you.
  • Speaking before thinking and reacting aggressively or defensively.
  • Holding grudges.
  • Sulking and turning the anger inwards to yourself.
  • Outward aggression including shouting, swearing, or being physically violent and threatening.
  • Having difficulty with expressing emotions in a calm and healthy way.
  • Breaking or throwing objects during a disagreement.
  • Punching objects such as walls to feel a sense of release.
  • Unable to accept feedback and assuming it is a critical reflection.
  • Accusing colleagues, friends or family of disrespecting you or of going behind your back when this isn’t the case.
  • Finding it difficult to calm the feeling of anger without feeling the urge to express it through displays of anger.
  • Becoming angry or violent during or after consuming alcohol.
  • Substance abuse or addiction.

Any combination of these behaviours may be affecting your relationships or safety of yourself and others, and can be indicators of anger management difficulties.

Negative thought patterns can also trigger anger such as:

  • Mind reading and jumping to conclusions – assuming you know what someone else is thinking or feeling.
  • Overgeneralising, for example, “You ALWAYS interrupt me”.
  • Having a rigid view of the way a situation should or must go and getting angry when reality doesn’t line up with this vision.

There are also physical warning signs that happen in your body that may show that your temper is starting to boil and that may need you to pay attention to in order to manage your anger before it gets out of control.

These might include:

  • Knots in your stomach.
  • Clenching your hands or jaw.
  • Tensing your shoulders.
  • Feeling clammy or flushed.
  • Breathing faster.
  • Headaches.
  • Pacing or needing to walk around.
  • “Seeing red”.
  • Having trouble concentrating.
  • Pounding heart.

The first step is realising that you have a problem. Once you know how to recognise the warning signs that your temper is rising and anticipate your triggers, you can act quickly to deal with your anger before it spins out of control. The second step is finding ways to manage your anger and expressing it in a healthy way. We will look at some strategies later in this article.

Frustrated office worker sat at her desk

Why May Anger in the Workplace Happen?

Feelings of anger arise due to how we interpret and react to certain situations. People can interpret situations differently, so a situation that makes you feel very angry may not make someone else feel angry at all. But just because we can interpret things differently, it doesn’t mean that you are interpreting things the wrong way if you get angry.

Whether your anger is about something that happened in the past or something that is going on right now, thinking about how and why we interpret and react to situations can help us learn how to cope with our emotions better and to manage the anger.

Many people do not know how to cope with ever-increasing demands on their time and emotions in the workplace, and while some may retreat into themselves, many explode in anger or frustration. Certain situations and circumstances can arise at work that lead to employees becoming angry or aggressive.

These might include but are not limited to:

Stress – This can be one of the main causes of anger in the workplace. Stress may be due to heavy workloads, poor working facilities, a dangerous working environment, or difficult colleagues and customers. Over time, when employees are pushed or push themselves to breaking point, stress can lead to burnout and the fatigue can cause employees to lose their composure, no matter how calm their temperament might typically be.

Poor management – This can include management behaviours such as micro-managing, being critical rather than providing constructive feedback, too high or ever-changing expectations, lack of clarity or information, being told to do something you think is wrong or incorrect, abuse of power, dissatisfaction with processes or policies, unfair treatment, being overlooked, taken for granted or lack of support. Poor management practices can lead to low employee morale and can spill over into feelings of anger and frustration.

Colleagues – Working practices such as silo working can put colleagues in different teams against each other and can lead to anger and frustrations when others’ priorities seem to take precedence. Personality clashes are also inevitable in the workplace, as are falling outs over such things as ways of working and competing deadlines. When colleagues do things like avoid doing work, take extended breaks and lunches, or regularly arrive at work late or leave work early it can make others angry.

Customers / service users – Disrespect is a common trigger for anger regardless of who is being disrespectful to whom.

External issues – There are times when employees are dealing with stressful events in their personal lives, and the resulting anger can carry over to the workplace. Things that would normally have no effect can trigger aggressive or angry reactions.

Why Should Anger be Managed?

Anger can have many devastating impacts in the workplace. Anger in the workplace can be expressed directly or indirectly, and some anger may not be expressed at all, just fester under the surface. Anger can cause hurt feelings, disruptive interactions and mental preoccupation and anxiety.

Other more subtle costs of anger can be more personal such as diminished career prospects and poor mental and/or physical health. Some of the damages caused by anger in the workplace can be loss of productivity, wasted time, a drop in motivation or commitment, stress, increased staff turnover and absenteeism.

Under health and safety legislation, an employer has a duty to control risks and hazards for their employees and this includes any possibility of physical and verbal aggression.

Legislation includes:

Employers should take reasonable steps to ensure their workforce doesn’t have to face physical assaults or verbal assaults or insults either by their colleagues or by external persons such as customers / service users. They should also ensure that their employees do not display physical or verbal anger or aggression towards colleagues or external persons.

There may also be issues under the Equality Act 2010 should incidents of anger and aggression amount to discriminatory behaviour and actions, such as bullying and harassment of someone who possesses one of the nine protected characteristics; that is:

  • Age.
  • Disability.
  • Gender reassignment.
  • Marriage and civil partnership.
  • Pregnancy and maternity.
  • Race.
  • Religion or belief.
  • Sex.
  • Sexual orientation.

How Can Anger in the Workplace Be Managed?

Not all conflict is necessarily negative, but even a minor disagreement between people in the workplace can fester and escalate if it is not addressed and resolved at the earliest opportunity. As is often the case, prevention can be key. Recognising potential anger issues and dealing with them promptly before they escalate into something more serious, should be the aim. It is important to step back and recognise that anger in the workplace can be a symptom of other issues, including possible workplace conflict, dissatisfaction with work, an underlying illness such as stress or depression, or feelings of not being heard or appreciated.

Many disputes between colleagues are often down to small misunderstandings, clumsy comments or inaccurate assumptions. If an employer is finding it difficult to facilitate a compromise between employees, then they could consider mediation to help to manage the situation. Mediation is about helping employees share points of view, explore issues and find a positive way forward for both colleagues involved and is about building mutual understanding so that relationships can be repaired, in order that employees can work together more positively in the future.

Employers should develop policies or codes of conduct which clearly set out the standards of behaviour expected from employees, and the types of behaviours that will not be tolerated, such as verbal or physical aggression to others. They should also detail the consequences of breaches of these standards, such as disciplinary action. In a case where anger completely escalates out of control into verbally or physically aggressive behaviour or violence, for example to colleagues, it would be appropriate to treat this as a disciplinary issue such as gross misconduct.

They should also ensure that all employees are fully aware of the internal procedures available for resolving issues and complaints, such as grievance and bullying and harassment policies and procedures.

Employers should train managers to look out for the warning signs of anger, such as negative outbursts, and methods for resolving conflict. Managers should feel confident to act promptly if there are any early warning signs of anger, such as having a private quiet word with the employee or an informal discussion to see whether there are any underlying issues and/or if anger management training or counselling may be appropriate.

Providing training in anger management to all employees as a proactive initiative rather than a reactive action following an incident could enable those with anger management issues to start to deal with them before any problems arise, and it will help other employees, including managers, to recognise the signs of anger and aggression and have strategies that they can use to defuse the situation. Assertiveness training can also help people with anger issues deal with challenging situations in a more confident, positive and effective way.

It is helpful for employers to provide an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) that can help employees with difficulties in and out of the workplace. EAPs can provide around-the-clock mental health support to employees, and provide a safe space to talk through issues that are angering employees, which can help to defuse the anger.

However, if the incident has the potential to lead to a significant risk of harm to others, including the employee who is out of control, employers should consider involving the police and/or contacting the employee’s emergency contact to seek to defuse the situation.

Team training on anger management at work

What Are the Benefits of Managing Anger in the Workplace?

Managing anger and exasperation effectively in order to cooperate effectively with people that they work with is a necessary skill that every employee is expected to possess. People with anger management issues tend to face problems in their working lives and, in some cases, they might even end up losing their jobs.

Anger management essentially shows employees how to manage their feelings and emotions, particularly anger, stress and rage, in an effective and healthy way. It can help employees to stay in control, say what they need to say and to listen to others in order to settle disputes in an empathetic and professional manner.

Good relationships mean a good working environment, and that makes all employees happier, healthier and more productive at work.

What Techniques Can be Used to Manage Anger in the Workplace?

If you know that you are struggling with anger, there are some things you can do to try to help you cope:

Think before speaking – Anger frequently rises in the heat of the moment. It is easy to say or do the first thing that comes to mind. Take a few moments to take a deep breath and think about the situation and what you should say or do. Encourage others in the situation to do the same.

Express your anger in a constructive way – Once you have taken a moment to calm down and can think clearly, try to express your feelings in an assertive but non-confrontational way. You can state the concerns and frustrations you have, clearly and directly without hurting the other people involved.

Identify potential solutions – A lot of what drives anger is focusing on the problem in a situation. Try instead to direct your efforts to resolve whatever it is that is causing your anger. It is helpful to remind yourself that anger won’t fix anything and it might actually make it worse. For example, if the train is cancelled, getting angry won’t change that, so how else can you get to work?

Start with ‘I’ statements – Anger drives people to find others to blame, which naturally leads to finger-pointing. A constructive way to address a situation that is causing you anger is to frame it as an ‘I’ statement. For example, “I am upset that you left work before finishing that report I needed” instead of “You are always leaving work unfinished”.

Don’t hold grudges – Being able to forgive can dramatically decrease feelings of anger and lead to finding a solution to a problem. Forgiveness is a powerful tool and can be used effectively to deal with anger issues.

Keep it light – Injecting a little humour into a tense situation can go a long way in lowering the intensity of the moment. It can even shed light on the situation, and you might realise that it is not that bad. However, be careful not to use sarcasm, as that can hurt other people’s feelings and make things worse.

Take time out – Sometimes the best solution is to take a step back and walk away for a few moments. This not only helps to ease the tension of a tough situation, but it also allows you to catch your breath, organise your thoughts, and gain your composure. This can also be useful if you are by yourself and the thoughts in your head are starting to make you angry. Close your eyes and take a deep breath and think of something pleasant that you like and enjoy. Physical activity has been shown to have positive effects on a person’s ability to control and manage anger by releasing powerful endorphins that relieve stress. If you feel anger building up inside you, going for a walk can help release those angry thoughts and feelings.

Life will be filled with frustration, pain, loss and the unpredictable actions of others, and no more so than in our working lives. You can’t change that, but you can change the way you let these events affect you. Managing your angry responses can keep them from making you even more unhappy in the long run. Accessing professional help for anger management isn’t always straightforward, as it can be challenging and sometimes you might experience setbacks or delays; however, there are organisations that can provide support and advice:

Final Thoughts

  • NHS Mood Zone information and support for your mental health.
  • NHS anger management courses. Many NHS Trusts run free local anger management services – you can ask your GP what is available near you.
  • MIND Infoline: 0300 123 3393
  • SupportLine provides a confidential telephone helpline offering emotional support to any individual on any issue. Helpline: 01708 765200
  • CALM the Campaign Against Living Miserably 0800 585858
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About the author

Eve Johnson

Eve Johnson

Eve has worked at CPD from the start, she organises the course and blog production, as well as supporting students with any problems they may have and helping them choose the correct courses. Eve is also studying for her Business Administration Level 3 qualification. Outside of work Eve likes to buy anything with flamingos on it, catching up with friends, spending time with her family and occasionally going to the gym!

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