Targeted aggression in the workplace can negatively impact the victim’s health and also cause the victim to continue the cycle of cruelty by behaving badly towards others, according to a new study on nurses led by researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA).
Bullying in the workplace is a significant issue, particularly in the health care sector. There, nurses can be targeted by their co-workers through bullying, and also by patients and their relatives through “third-party” aggression.
Although previous studies have looked at workplace aggression in relation to the health-related consequences for victims, little research has been done on how it may affect behavior at work.
The new findings show that the experience of anger and fear associated with being the target of workplace bullying can potentially lead some nurses to translate the emotions that are triggered into misconduct, even to the point of disregarding professional and ethical codes.
The study involved 855 nurses, who were asked about their experiences of aggression, negative emotions and health symptoms. The participants also reported how often they engaged in a range of counterproductive work behaviors, from insulting a colleague and stealing something belonging to an employer, to clinical misbehavior related to restraining patients and altering prescriptions without consulting doctors.
The findings have important implications for the development of programs aimed at increasing employees’ well-being, the quality of the interactions with patients and staff, and the quality of care.
“Our findings provide further evidence that being a target of aggression represents a frustrating situation in which victims experience anger that may prompt a ‘hot’ and impulsive aggressive response, with likely impact on the quality of care provided to patients,” said study leader Dr. Roberta Fida, a lecturer in organizational behavior at UEA’s Norwich Business School.
“Little research has been conducted in the health care sector on this type of behavior, despite the potential importance of the issue in this setting. There are consequences, not only for the direct victim, but also for the entire organizational system, in which it is possible to envision the trigger of vicious circles leading to broader and more diffuse forms of workplace aggression.”
Fida conducted the study with colleagues from Coventry University, and universities in Italy and the U.S.
The study is the first to examine the specific role of frequent mistreatments at work in triggering misconduct and the emotions of anger, fear and sadness separately. These emotions were studied because they are those most often experienced by victims of aggression, but are different in terms of mechanisms, consequences and strategies for managing them.
The researchers also studied the role of moral disengagement, namely a set of cognitive mechanisms that temporarily silence people’s moral standards, allowing them to freely participate in conduct they would normally consider wrong.
“This research provides the first evidence of fear being an important discrete emotion associated with misconduct through moral disengagement,” Fida said.
“Since individuals experiencing fear are more alert and attentive to picking up potential external threats, and tend to perceive the environment as highly dangerous and threatening, they are more likely to engage in any form of behavior, including aggression, which may potentially help them to defend themselves and comply with their need for protection.”
The findings reveal that sadness is not linked to misconduct but is exclusively associated with health symptoms. Fear and anger are also associated with health symptoms, with the authors concluding that the emotional experience associated with being the target of aggression — be it bullying or third-party aggression — is tied to a variety of health symptoms impacting nurses’ well-being and their behavior at work.
The researchers said work training should focus on emotions and in particular on the specificity of the emotional experience. For example, training can help employees become aware of the different emotional responses that can result from being the target of aggression at work that may potentially lead to different dysfunctional paths for themselves and others.
It is also important to design and implement interventions aimed at promoting an ethical culture and providing examples of strategies to deal with threatening and hostile interactions, they said.
The findings are published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
Source: University of East Anglia