Tips on Dealing with a Coworker Meltdown

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines meltdown as, “a breakdown of self control (as from fatigue or overstimulation).” Whether caused by fatigue, overstimulation or some other factor, meltdowns happen in the workplace.  Here are scenarios to help you deal with them:

Scenario 1

A coworker was upset that I questioned his work product. He was shaking as he raised his voice to me and shook his finger in my face.

Response: His reaction was an overreaction; he was upset about more than just me correcting his work. I closed both doors to my office and asked him to sit down. He told me that he felt that I had lost faith in him and his work product. I had not lost faith in him, cared about preserving the relationship and wanted to work through this rough patch. After a frank discussion, we both felt better because we had cleared the air.

Conclusion: Sometimes it isn’t easy to have a difficult conversation, but, if you care about the relationship, you have to work at it.

Scenario 2

A coworker’s boyfriend broke up with her and she was crying at her desk inconsolably.

Response: Personal issues should not enter an office setting, but somehow they inevitably do.  Marriages, divorces, children, parents, spouses and finances are just some of the outside stressors that people carry with them into the workplace. I sent her home.

Conclusion: Sending someone home to regroup is the sympathetic and correct thing to do in this case. It was not a habitual behavior; in fact, it was out of the norm for this employee.

Scenario 3

 An employee appeared at a meeting, but was incapable of conducting business due to an impaired state, possibly as a result of substance abuse.

Response: Remove the person from the meeting immediately. In this case, I conferred with human resources, who agreed that the individual needed to be sent home in a cab. We arranged the pick up and payment for the cab. The next day, the employee was directed to attend an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) session as a condition of returning to work.

Conclusion: Some issues are too big for you or your coworker to resolve on your own. Reach out to HR for direction on how to handle a complicated situation and also protect yourself, your coworker and your employer.

Scenario 4

A coworker got into a heated dispute with me and I felt physically threatened.

Response: Unlike the case where the coworker is yelling and shaking a finger at you, this scenario involves a physical threat to your person. When this happened to me in my office, the coworker actually lunged at me across my desk. I leapt out of my chair and ran down the hall to another coworker’s office. Once we were able to be kept physically separated, I called our supervisor to report the incident.

Conclusion: It is never ok when a coworker makes you feel physically threatened. The most important thing to do is remove yourself from the situation as safely as possible. Then, you must speak to your supervisor or HR to report and document the incident immediately.

Scenario 5

 A coworker engaged in disruptive behavior that was upsetting other coworkers.

Response: During Hurricane Sandy, our offices were closed at approximately 10 a.m. All staff were sent home, except for the managers, who were directed to “batten down the hatches” and then evacuate. A coworker not only refused to leave when directed, but he proceeded to walk through the office claiming that, “the hurricane took my dog.” This individual did not have a pet; his behavior upset other staff, who were concerned for their own and the safety of his non-existent pet. When we finally returned to the office a day or so later, I wrote him up.

Conclusion: Disruptive behavior, under the best of circumstances, should not be tolerated in the workplace. For the sake of the entire staff, disruptive behavior must be addressed immediately and privately. In emergency situations, this behavior is especially dangerous.

If a coworker has a meltdown, you should take it very seriously. But not all meltdowns require the involvement of a supervisor or human resources. It is important to use your discretion, but, when in doubt, do not address the situation alone; contact your supervisor or Human Resources for a second opinion and to protect yourself, your coworkers and your employer from situations that can range from uncomfortable to dangerous.

Wilson Kimball is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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