Pain in the Workplace

Edition: March 2003 - Vol 11 Number 03
Article#: 1491
Author: Repertoire

Few of us think in terms of encountering “pain” in the workplace. But we do. People have personal problems or tragedies. Or they feel resentful toward a co-worker. They might feel slighted or picked on. Or they might be scared of new procedures being instituted in the company or a pending merger or acquisition.

These things happen all the time, and even though many of these feelings are taken home at night, many are not. Are you the one in your office with whom people share all these emotions? Perhaps you’re the boss and you’re the cause of some of them.

In a new book entitled Toxic Emotions at Work: How Compassionate Managers Handle Pain and Conflict (Harvard Business School Publishing, Boston, 2003), author Peter Frost says that people who lack the ability to deal effectively with the pain around them will suffer consequences, both mental and physical. Frost himself developed melanoma cancer in his lymph system and attributed it at least in part to his inability to deal effectively with other people’s pain, or what he calls “toxins.”

“Toxicity, I began to realize, was simply a normal byproduct of organizational life,” writes Frost. “The word toxicity may sound overly dramatic applied to aspects of everyday life, but in many ways it is uniquely appropriate. It suggests elements that can poison, whether a person or an entire system; toxins spread and seep, often undetected, in varying degrees. And toxins can be eliminated if you know the cure.”

According to Frost, “handling toxins for too long or in too intense an environment, without respite … can begin to penetrate the handlers’ defenses: They take in the toxins. Faced with someone else’s rage or cry for help, toxin handlers tend to confront the pain (the ‘fight’ part of the fight-or-flight stress response). Although helping others to cope can carry its own sense of accomplishment, the bursts of adrenaline that occur in this role will, over time, wear down the helper’s immune system. The result? Physical and mental ill health.”

What’s worse, he says: “Handlers of toxins can become so infected with others’ pain that they, in a real sense, become ‘toxic’ themselves and begin inflicting pain on others.”

“Good leadership,” says Frost, “more than ever requires the ability to anticipate pain and the skill to deal with it effectively and compassionately. At the very least, leaders need to understand how to clean up toxicity once it has been created. We can’t prevent emotional pain in the workplace, but leaders who recognize that that pain indeed exists – and have compassionate systems in place for dealing with it – can create healthy organizations.”