In 1999, I published my first book, Work as a Spiritual Practice: A Practical Buddhist Approach to Inner Growth and Satisfaction on the Job, in which I shared what I learned entering the corporate workplace after 12 years as a Buddhist monastic. When the book came out, the economy was booming. Globalization was just starting to happen; NAFTA—which encouraged companies to move their operations to other countries—had just been passed. Jobs were plentiful, especially white-collar office jobs around which the lessons of the book were based. The notion of connecting spirituality and the workplace was fresh and new. People wanted to know how to negotiate the stresses, strains, and inequities of the workplace in a more wholesome, less toxic way.
How much has changed since then! Today’s workplace is quite different from the workplace of twenty years ago. The financial crash of 2008 threw whole swaths of employees out of work. Globalization is now the new normal. Covid has decimated the notion of an office workplace. White-collar work can be and is being done remotely from home. Work that requires a physical presence—retail clerks, restaurant servers, warehouse packagers, construction workers—often require people to risk their health, and even sometimes their lives, with the threat of Covid hanging over everyone who has to leave the safety of their home.
Employee anger in the workplace has always been a problem—harassment, discrimination, and pay inequity are only a few of the many chronic workplace issues. Twenty years ago I documented the many ways office workplace culture was suffused with stress, resentment, and anger, and taught mindfulness and other practices to help people deal with it. Back then the incidence of “going postal”—a worker becoming so angry that he took a gun to work and shot and killed his co-workers—was very rare. Now it is all too common. Those tragedies are just the tip of the iceberg. For every employee who becomes murderous, there are more who may sometimes fantasize about it, and even more who deal with afflictive anger in their workplace as a daily issue.
So in some ways, my 1999 book might be out of date. But in other ways, it is still relevant. Since anger is so intrinsic to the power dynamics of having a job—in any job, there are people above you who can misuse or abuse their power in a variety of ways—people still need some method and remedy for the helplessness and anger they feel simply by virtue of being employed. My book offered four methods of dealing with workplace anger: know you are angry, don’t “harbor” anger, seeking remedies, and as a last resort, quitting.
Know you are angry.
It may seem obvious to advise you to know you are angry, but it is not. Anger, as a powerful emotion, “floods the zone.” It overwhelms intellect and makes it hard to step back and think rationally; it is a visceral instinct that prepares the body for “fight or flight.” The word “mindfulness”—originally a Buddhist contemplative practice—is now used so much and in so many contexts that it is hard to remember what it really means. It simply means to be focused and conscious of what you are thinking and feeling and what is going on around you. The difference between being angry and being aware that you are angry may seem specious, but it is not. If you have ever faced off with someone consumed with rage, you know that they are lost inside their anger. Often you can’t even talk to them. The statement “now I am angry”—which can be found in the classical Buddhist texts about mindfulness—is not itself an angry state. It co-exists with anger; you may still be quite angry even as you say it to yourself. But there is now some space between you and your anger. To say “I am angry” has a cooling-down effect. Try it the next time you are angry and notice what changes.
Don’t harbor anger. People often think of Buddhists as peaceful people who don’t get angry, but this is not quite right. There is actually no precept against anger in Buddhism, and nearly all the accomplished Buddhist teachers I knew got angry from time to time. What Buddhism cautions against is “harboring” anger, which means not turning your anger into a grudge that you keep revisiting. This is an important distinction. Anger is a natural human response to being treated badly. You can’t control that. But you can control how often you revisit the event in your mind, letting your anger about it smolder and build. That you can control, and you should because that kind of mental activity can cause real long-term stress. Instead, see if there is a constructive way to respond to the bad treatment, or at the very least try to let go of your “harboring” of it. Sometimes that is the best you can do.
Seek a Remedy. One aspect of the workplace that has changed for the better in the last twenty years is the availability of more remedies—including legal action—for being mistreated at work. The positive aspect of anger is that it is a call to action. The “fight” side of anger can in many cases be channeled constructively toward whatever protections or remedies are available to you in your workplace. If you have an opportunity to constructively take action, do so. Then your anger can serve a positive purpose.
If the bad treatment of you persists and in spite of your best efforts you can’t see any way out of it (either because it’s coming from a superior who can’t be replaced or from an intrinsically toxic workplace) you might consider quitting. For many people that is very hard to do; people need their jobs. But the possibility is there. A story about the entire staff of a Burger King quitting en masse recently went viral (they put up a sign—“We all quit”—on the street marquee). Those fast food jobs were not well-paying jobs, and the workers needed the work, but sometimes workplace injustice is not worth it. Then there was a recent story in the New York Times about restaurant workers in New York City being shouted at and abused by customers because restaurants there are short-staffed due to Covid. Many of the waitstaff quit, which made the short-staffing problem worse.
These days the “workplace” for many people is the home office—an outcome of Covid that may represent a long-term shift. Zoom and Webex pose many challenges for good communication. On Zoom, all you have is a person’s face and their words. There is no body language, no gesturing—none of the signals that help us understand where a person is really at. If you are feeling angry about your boss, for example, you can’t easily go down the hall to talk to a co-worker or to the boss directly. You can’t confront your boss body to body where you might discover that your anger was due to a misunderstanding. Instead, you sit in your chair at home staring at a computer screen, steaming mad.
Men have an additional challenge in this regard. Robert Sapolsky, in The Trouble With Testosterone, points out that with higher testosterone levels, men’s experiences of anger are more likely to lead to aggression. Sitting at home, who are you going to fight with? There is no outlet for aggression there. If this kind of stress/aggression becomes chronic, it can have a real impact on your mental and physical health.
In the end, there are no easy answers. At the very least, know that you are angry, know that chronic anger is not good for your mental, physical, or emotional health, and do what you can to lessen it or find a remedy for it.
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