De-escalating high-stress situations at work: 4 stages to aggression, 4 responses

Abusive behaviour can be triggered by stressors, and cumulative feelings such as frustration, helplessness, fear, anger or being overwhelmed.
Blocks spelling wellness and stress

Working alone in stores open at all hours, can lead to higher incidence of theft, violence, and crime.

It is important all staff are knowledgeable of your business’ procedures on theft, and trained on how to interact with individuals who may be abusive or aggressive.  A speedy, calm, and practiced response to someone who is becoming agitated can help de-escalate potentially violence situations.

No matter who is displaying the abusive or aggressive behaviour – a customer, client, contractor, co-worker, or supervisor – knowing when and how to respond can protect workers from harm.

Abusive behaviour can be triggered by stressors, and cumulative feelings such as frustration, helplessness, fear, anger or being overwhelmed. Front-line workers are often the target. The best response is to remain calm, avoid a confrontational approach, and focus on what the person really wants – to be heard, seen, recognized, and acknowledged.

Determine risks and train staff.

Having a safety plan to protect employees from violence and harassment at work is not only critical but required under the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act. Here are essential elements to include:

  • Management commitment. Accepting abuse is not part of the job. Employees need to know you, as their employer, have their backs.
  • A risk assessment to identify high risk jobs, tasks, situations, and employees.
  • De-escalation training for front-line staff, supervisors, and managers. Provide opportunities for people to practice their skills, so when a real-life event occurs, they are ready.
  • Identified ways to get assistance (e.g. manager, security). Provide more than one contact in case people can’t be reached.
  • A safe room/space where staff can quickly remove themselves from dangerous situations. Make sure it is equipped with a lock and a phone.
  • Procedures for reporting incidents, and debriefing.

Take a solutions-oriented approach.

A positive, non-reactive approach to de-escalation will help keep everyone safe. In these situations, remember to listen, see, recognize, and acknowledge your surroundings and people present. Here are some guidelines:

  • Be proactive. If a co-worker or customer appears agitated, go up to them immediately and ask how you can help. 
  • Be respectful. Responding with ridicule or anger will only escalate a situation.
  • Be empathetic. For example, ‘I can see you are upset. How can I help?’
  • Let the person speak.  Listen more; talk less.
  • Acknowledge the problem. For example, ‘I’m sorry that this has happened. We want to provide you with good service.’

Ask for ideas to solve the problem. For example, ‘How can we resolve this situation for you?’ This helps move the person from thinking/acting on one side of their brain (emotions and feelings) to the other (rational and analytical).

Convenience Store Isle blurred

Follow the rule of four!

There are four escalating stages to aggression: early warning signs, hostile, threatening, and assaultive.

Recognizing the early warning signs gives workers an opportunity to de-escalate the situation and/or respond appropriately.

Stage 1: Early Warning Signs

Demonstrated behaviours – fidgeting, tapping on table, pacing, crossed arms, rude language.

Appropriate response: 

  • listen 
  • maintain a safe distance. 
  • stay calm. 
  • seek to understand the problem.
  • don’t be dismissive. 
  • ask for a solution.

Stage 2: Hostile

Demonstrated behaviours – raised voice, rapid breathing, red face, scoffing, rude/offensive language, name calling, argumentative tone of voice.  

Appropriate response:

  • maintain a safe distance. 
  • alert another co-worker or manager.
  • stay calm. 
  • have a means of escape a safe room or area) 
  • allow for silence.  
  • be patient. 
  • try to move individual to a safe location away from others, if possible.

Stage 3: Threatening Behaviours

Demonstrated behaviours – clenched fist, red face, clenched jaw, yelling, waving objects, finger pointing, threats of violence. 

Appropriate response:

  • summon assistance. 
  • distance yourself (at least 2 metres) 
  • remain calm. 
  • do not physically engage. 
  • continue to communicate 

Stage 4: Assaultive

Demonstrated behaviours – pushing, shoving, striking, etc.

Appropriate response:

  • If physical aggression is imminent, be prepared to defend yourself. Prior training on physical intervention techniques is recommended for staff who are responding to high-risk situations. 

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