Dysregulation in the Workplace: An HR Nightmare

Working together, we developed a plan, based largely on Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) strategies we therapists use when working with self-destructive clients. DBT lends itself to the needs of HR departments because it is behaviorally based and translates well into policies and protocols.


As a therapist specializing in the treatment of patients with Borderline Personality Disorder, it is not uncommon to get phone calls from frustrated friends, perturbed partners, exhausted parents, and discouraged roommates of my clients. I even get those calls from my own friends and family who have found themselves in a confounding situation with a neighbor or co-worker who seems to be suffering from features of the disorder (i.e. big fluctuations in mood, angry outbursts, extreme evaluations of others, dangerous and impulsive behaviors, etc).

All of these callers are hoping I can provide them with some perspective and guidance on how best to handle their interactions with folks that seem to be trying to read their every thought, presume to catch them in lies, attempt to prove them wrong in a “simple” conversation, and “fly off the handle” when their feelings get hurt. They want to know if there is any way to sidestep the arguments, avoid the hidden traps set to “prove” their loyalties, or keep from upsetting someone who seems to be having a completely different interaction than the one they are currently engaged in.

A Call From an HR Friend

One such phone call recently came from Lucy, a friend who works in an HR department of a large corporation regarding a tough employee issue she was facing. The conversation started much like all the others – “Help! Do you have any advice for how to handle this person? I’m lost and I don’t know how much more I can take!”

Lucy went on to explain the situation, including the employee’s increasingly drastic mood swings and self-destructive behaviors in and outside of the office. She recounted the employee loudly complaining about getting multiple speeding tickets in one day, openly discussing sleeping with and excessively calling two separate co-workers, and working 60 hours one week and then only 10 the following week.

This person was a valued, long-time employee. She had always struggled with finding appropriate, socially-acceptable ways of coping with stressful events, but things were now coming to a head.  The final straw occurred one day when she, according to Lucy, “lost it” at work, bursting into tears, cursing under her breath, and throughout the day, venting and perseverating with co-workers over what to Lucy, seemed to be a small issue – being asked to take her break 30 minutes later than usual.

Her employee was in such a heightened state of emotion that she seemed unable to get control of herself. Lucy described it as “watching her spiral downward” right in front of all their colleagues. She was concerned that the behavior could lead to serious consequences for the employee, devastate relationships in the department, and damage the effectiveness of the organization. Most importantly, however, she was concerned that the employee would harm herself or do something even more drastic like ending her life.

Not many employers approach a workplace problem such as this with mental health issues in mind. Some employers in similar situations ignore the behavior and wait for the “normal employee” to return. Even more employers might reprimand or fire an employee who behaves in this way. Luckily, Lucy could spot a mental health issue and cared enough about the employee to address it with dignity and find ways to support both her and the department.

She consulted the ADA Job Accommodation Network, which provided some interesting examples and solutions other employers had tried, but since the employee had not disclosed any medical condition, no accommodations were necessary or recommended.

A Plan to Deal with Emotionally and Behaviorally Dysregulated Employees

Working together, Lucy and I developed a plan, based largely on Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) strategies we therapists use when working with self-destructive clients.  DBT lends itself to the needs of HR departments because it is behaviorally based and translates well into policies and protocols.

By combining Lucy’s HR skills and my understanding of emotionally sensitive people, we came up with the following protocol for her and supervisors in her company to use when dealing with an emotionally or behaviorally unstable employee:

Keep all communication with the employee simple and direct to decrease the likelihood of further emotional dysregulation. Do not dance around the topic. Getting to the point gives the employee with emotion regulation problems less content to decipher through an already anxious mind. Be willing to listen to the employee’s side of the story but cut it off if they begin to repeat, perseverate or get overly-emotional.

“Claire, I want to discuss what happened at work yesterday when Anthony asked you to take your break 30 minutes later than usual. Tell me what you recall happening yesterday and how you handled it.”

Diffuse the ticking time-bomb of emotion through validation. Listen actively and focus on what the employee is saying, being sure to validate the understandable thoughts, feelings and complaints. Find SOMETHING to validate. NEVER validate untrue or unacceptable statements or behaviors in an effort to get the employee to feel happier.

“I get that you were planning on taking that break at 2 instead of 2:30. To you, this feels like Anthony wasn’t respecting your time or your needs because you were not consulted before the change was made. It makes sense that you would be annoyed by this…”

Set boundaries and clearly explain expectations for what will and will not be tolerated at work. Clearly state the natural consequences of inappropriate behavior. Try to use “and” instead of “but” here. Using the word “but” negates all the great validating your just did.

“… and talking through this with Anthony, calmly requesting this change go into effect the next day instead of immediately, attempting to compromise with him, or asking another employee to switch break times with you all would have been more effective solutions than cursing, complaining to other co-workers, or using company time to talk about it over and over. Those behaviors were disruptive to everyone else’s work and put Anthony in a tough position.”

Assess whether the employee has the skills to calm themselves enough to do the things you are suggesting. You may suggest effective solutions, but if the person doesn’t have even the basic ability to clear away the emotion in order to think about compromising, she certainly won’t be able to find the words to do it.

Finally, does the employee have the skills to employ solutions even when calm? If you are asking an employee to compromise with a co-worker, how do you know if s/he can even do that? For many folks with mental illnesses, social skills are not often practiced and less often reinforced. It is very common for people with anxiety to avoid tough interpersonal encounters, people with depression to quietly and passively ignore opportunities for conflict resolution and people with anger issues to skip straight to aggressive action to solve disputes. Demonstrate the skill you are suggesting. Practice with a brief role-play. Encourage the employee to try it out and report back to you.

If the deficit in skills for emotion regulation or interpersonal conflict resolution seem outside your realm of expertise or are so severe they can’t seem to make headway on effective changes, refer to a therapist or counselor.

Ways to De-Escalate Emotion in the Workplace

Some ways of de-escalating emotion so that the employee can be skillful include: delay, distract, describe, depersonalize, and detach.

Delay the employee with a walk or a cup of tea, steer the employee to a more private location, or walk away for a few minutes.

Distract from the volatile situation by giving the employee a short-term task that requires some mindfulness and rational thought – this can be anything from filling in a data spreadsheet to playing 3 levels of Candy Crush

Encourage the employee to describe the situation using ONLY the facts – indisputable and observable information – not interpretations and speculation.

Depersonalize and detach by calling out judgments s/he may be making about other people or him/herself. Reframe the judgments and assumptions by asking for the employee to interpret things in other possible ways. For example, “I’m hearing you say that you think Anthony hates you. Are there any other reasons why Anthony may be asking you to change your break time that have nothing to do with his feelings for you?”

Using DBT Approaches to Address HR Problems

Lucy carried out the plan above with her employee with great success. They had a very fruitful talk about what behaviors will be more effective in improving the employee’s relationships to coworkers, yield favor with her direct supervisor and decrease her vulnerability to future perceived slights in the work place.

Just because the employee began to toe the line more often does not mean she hasn’t continued to step over it a time or two. However, Lucy says she feels better equipped to handle it and the precedent for having this conversation has been set, thus, making subsequent discussions less painful for everyone.

As always, names and details are changed to protect the confidentiality of all.

Christine Shore-Fitzgerald, MSW, LMSW is a therapist and sometimes blogger at St. Louis DBT, LLC. Learn more about St. Louis DBT.  To learn more about DBT, go to Behavioral Tech.

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