Diffuse the stress bomb

April 4, 2006

With increasing demands on our time (at work and home) and the need for energy to produce more with less time and resources, there's the increased potential of encountering or delivering aggressive behavior.

So what to do about it?

In a study titled "Coping with Aggressive Customers," Paul Blaum of Penn State University wrote, "What exacerbates the stress for employees is the feeling that they have nowhere to go; they simply have to take it — or else."

Think of the many instances where sharp words or lack of courtesy in our daily transactions with customers and coworkers have generated tensions that build stress. The result is an emotional lava dome building within us — just like the thin crust holding back the pressure below Mount St. Helens in Washington — and a volcanic blast could occur at any moment.

Blaum writes further, "Researchers confirmed that employees confronted by customer aggression react in three ways. The first is engaging in behavioral change by suppressing or faking expressions, which can lead to burnout and lower service performance. The second is to let their emotions surge out of control and lash back at customers. Obviously, this isn't a desirable outcome either."

Seen that happen during a shift rush?

Blaum's article continues, "A third employee reaction is to change individual perspective — to think about the customer or the situation to avoid taking it seriously, or refocus attention on some positive (or humorous) aspect of the encounter with the customer, the researchers say. This was found to be related to lower levels of stress in response to angry customers. Management should attempt to enhance the sense of job autonomy for service representatives so that such

confrontations with customers are less stressful, and provide employees with training in emotional regulation for responding to customers who are not always right."

I used to get annoyed with my peers who complained or voiced their emotions about service challenges with their customers or the stresses of going through a shift. Now, a bit older, wiser and more tolerant, I've learned it's better to provide positive venting options rather than allowing the stresses to gain momentum and possibly reach dangerous levels.

A few seconds of relatively private stress relief is far more valuable and effective for employees than confronting a customer or repressing the real emotional, psychological and physical responses they are experiencing.

Stress solutions

When things get tense, remove the stressed-out employee or switch his/her work station. For delivery, if the driver has had problems with the customer before, consider sending another driver.

If the employee continues to have issues, he or she needs to take a short break for a cooling-off period. Lead him or her to the walk-in cooler for some venting. Sometimes you just have to get it off your chest. After that, he or she can get right back into the game.

There's a member of every staff who always keeps a cool head. Try pairing that person with the stressed employee for some cool-down dialogue. Share some encouraging words like, "I understand completely. I'd feel that way too. Now shake it off and put on a smile. We'll laugh about this some day."

Stress in our industry is a real factor to contend with, so it's important to understand how to manage it. Setting standards of professional conduct that include acceptable techniques of defusing those emotionally charged moments will help minimize incidents. Managing workplace stress offers some protection to your employees, customers and business from hazardous emotional behavior.

Paul Paz is a "career waiter" turned hospitality consultant, trainer and speaker. He is the author of "Service At Its Best: Waiter Waitress Training — A Guide to Becoming a Successful Server."

Topics: Service

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