Workplace Trauma

Workplaces that overlook or are indifferent to incivility, bullying and abuse on the job risk decreasing job satisfaction, increasing job stress and ultimately higher turnover.

Poor on-the-job treatment of others can escalate from general rudeness to discriminatory treatment to outright violence, all of which cause emotional and physical ill-health among staff.

University of Michigan psychologists Sandy Lim and Lilia Cortina found in a study of female court workers and attorneys that staff exposed to abusive workplaces experience reduced satisfaction with their work and with co-workers, supervisors, pay and benefits and promotional opportunities. At the same time, the authors noted in their study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, those working in disrespectful organizations indicated higher levels of job stress and found the job in general more tense. The authors observed higher levels of anxiety, restlessness, distraction and impatience. People exposed to interpersonal mistreatment experience less overall life satisfaction and increased health complaints (fatigue, headache, muscle soreness and illness).

It is important that staff recognize the signs and symptoms of a toxic workplace to protect themselves from cumulative emotional and physical health problems.

1. General Mistreatment

This includes general incivility such as disrespect, rudeness and condescension from co-workers or superiors. These behaviours can originate with clients and customers as well. Often, staff are subject to a lack of regard, putdowns, doubts about their judgment regarding matters for which they are responsible. They notice that abusive co-workers or superiors pay little attention to them or show no interest in their opinions. These behaviours are harmful to those who are targeted but the rude and discourteous actions do not appear to be intended to harm the recipient or the organization. Many times this kind of disregard and ill-mannered approach can seem due to the instigator’s ignorance, personality traits or an “etiquette” oversight.

Emotional abuse and bullying also falls into this category and is more serious than workplace incivility. Emotional abuse such as being yelled at, called names in private or in public or being the victim of a smear campaign can take its toll. At the same time, bullying, including being the focus of sustained abuse such as being ostracized, subject to intimidating interactions or finding one’s personal belongings vandalized is a serious health threat.

Organizations that tolerate any one of these types of interpersonal mistreatment–incivility, emotional abuse or bullying, contribute to psychological and physical health problems in staff. By turning a blind eye to these types of infractions, the organization paves the way for escalating levels of workplace violence.

2. Discriminatory Treatment

A further escalation of workplace violence takes the form of racism and sexism. Discriminatory treatment occurs when staff are targeted with derogatory and offensive verbal comments or physical gestures clearly meant to convey hostile attitudes towards a racial or ethnic group or members of a gender. Sexualized harassment includes unwanted sexual attention, sexually suggestive comments, attempts to establish a sexual relationship despite discouragement, and unwanted touching. It can also include subtle or explicit threats to make job conditions contingent on sexual behaviour.

Racial and gender harassment take their toll when permitted to exist in uncivil, emotionally abusive and bullying workplaces. Those who experience general mistreatment often find themselves experiencing discriminatory treatment as well. This compounding effect increases the amount of stress experienced by the recipients of workplace violence.

Lim and Cortina note that those who perpetrate both incivil acts and harassment tend to do so to reinforce or raise their dominant position in the work group. The act of debasing a racial, ethnic or gender group is conducted in a social context so that observers are reminded of the perpetrator’s relative dominance or social standing. The driving force behind hostile treatment of others at work often is the desire to establish oneself as powerful, in control and in charge of the social hierarchy at work. Abusive workmates or supervisors often rationalize their efforts to be the “top dog” at work as righting the perceived imbalance in a diverse workplace (“they” are taking our jobs); or somehow asserting the proper hierarchical order (“they” are incompetent and deserve disregard or bad treatment).

3. Physical Threat

At the extreme end of the workplace violence continuum is physical threat, injury or even death. When acts of rudeness, discrimination, harassment and abuse continue unchecked and are tolerated by organizations, the scene is set for further violence. Thankfully, workplace mistreatment does not always escalate to include physical harm, but the conditions are right for this potentiality to occur. It is common to find most of the fault with the perpetrator of the violence yet the organization is also culpable. Companies must stop workplace incivility, interpersonal mistreatment and harassment. This means nipping in the bud smaller transgressions such as swearing or ignoring people when they speak. That’s because these behaviours are part of a larger, potentially escalating pattern of workplace violence. For example, one plant manager banned swearing at meetings when developing a culture of mutual respect at his company. Attending to these small issues can help prevent more toxic behaviours from ever gaining a foothold in a respectful organization. When boundaries around what is appropriate organizational behaviour and what is not are clear, companies safeguard staff health and their bottom lines.

Maintaining vigilance in this regard is key, since there will be continual chipping away at the lines between civility and incivility on the job. The reason for this is that there can be a certain amount of ambiguity around knowing what is appropriate when dealing with situations that appear to be a matter of etiquette or seem to be the result of a personal blind spot. Nevertheless, reminding staff about the importance of respectful practices, pointing out what constitutes civil behaviour and what does not, will go a long way in ensuring that the workplace is an emotionally and physically safe place to be.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

Print Friendly