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


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

A speedy, calm, and practiced response to someone who is becoming agitated in the workplace will help prevent potentially violent situations from escalating, says Esther Fleurimond, WSPS Specialized Consultant, Healthy Workplaces.

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. There are four escalating stages to aggression: early warning signs, hostile, threatening, and assaultive. Recognizing the early warning signs, “gives us an opportunity to act immediately to de-escalate,” before they progress to other stages, says Esther. 

Abusive behaviour can be triggered by stressors, and cumulative feelings such as frustration, helplessness, fear, anger or overwhelm. 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.”

Pivotal to success is preparing your staff and workplace in advance. Esther outlines what you need to do to prepare, and how to respond at each stage of aggression. 

First, determine risks and train staff

Having a safety plan to protect employees from violence and harassment at work is not only critical, it’s required under the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act. Essential elements to include in terms of de-escalating potentially violent situations include:

  • management commitment. “Accepting abuse is not part of the job,” says Esther. “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.

  • where to get immediate assistance (e.g., a manager, security). “Provide more than one contact in case people can’t be reached,” suggests Esther. 

  • a safe room or area 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, says Esther. Remember to listen, see, recognize and acknowledge. 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 derision 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 than talk,” says Esther.

  • 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: How can we resolve this situation for you? “This helps move the person from one side of the brain (emotions and feelings) to the other side (rational and analytical ), notes Esther.

4 stages, 4 responses

Stage 1: early warning signs – 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 – raised voice, rapid breathing, red face, scoffing, rude/offensive language, name calling, argumentative tone of voice  

Appropriate response:

  • maintain safe distance 

  • alert another co-worker or manager, 

  • stay calm 

  • have a means of egress (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 – clenched fist, red face, clenched jaw, yelling, waving objects, finger pointing, threats of violence 

Appropriate response:

  • summon assistance 

  • distance yourself (at least 2 m) 

  • remain calm 

  • do not physically engage 

  • continue to communicate 

Stage 4: Assaultive – 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. 

How WSPS can help 


Violence & Harassment Prevention: Situational Awareness & De-escalation (3 hours, classroom)

Harassment & Violence Prevention for Managers & Committees/Representatives (2 hour, eCourse)

Other resources 

Small Biz Safety Podcast Episode 17: Violence and Harassment Prevention: De-escalation Tips 

5 de-escalation tips when responding to agitated customers (article)

WSPS Workplace Violence and Harassment Toolbox

Reporting Workplace Violence and Harassment Procedures

Mental Harm Prevention Roadmap