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Conclusions & key issues about the cost of violence in the workplace

Conclusions & key issues about the cost of violence in the workplace

Extract of an ILO paper

A. Main conclusions

# The report provides sufficient evidence to suggest that stress and various types of violence represent problems of a disturbing magnitude affecting working people across the world. As far as stress is concerned, nearly one third of the working populations in most developed countries report high or extreme levels of stress. Whilst less evidence is available for newly industrialised and developing countries, what evidence there is suggest that the problem is at least as prevalent in these countries as in the developed world.

# The report also suggests that the workplace is no safe haven from violence with a considerable number of people exposed to physical assault. This is especially the case for those working within the health care sector. However, across industrial sectors a large fraction of workers are exposed to psychological violence or bullying, whilst many, women in particular also have to cope with harassment of a sexual nature. In addition, with more women entering the workforce, spill over from domestic abuse is increasingly seen as a workplace problem, most notably in the developing world.

# Exposure to stress and various forms of workplace violence have often a dramatic impact on those exposed, whether directly as targets of violence or abuse or as bystanders. The impact of the experience is also likely to affect organisations as individuals suffering from stress are likely to need time off work or are less productive when at work. These individuals may ultimately leave the organisation or, in some cases, leave work altogether. Such effects are likely to carry a price to individuals, organisations and the wider society.

# The report has explored the likely costs incurred in connection with the experience of stress and violence. Whilst only vague estimates can be given with respect to overall costs to society, we have provided examples which demonstrate the dramatic impact of these problems in cost terms for the organisation. It is hoped this will encourage organisations and public policy makers to attend to the issue of stress and violence at work and provide necessary resources and impetus for their control and mitigation.There is also some evidence to suggest that workplace stress and violence are on the increase. The recent trends in socio-economic factors may, in part, account for this.

# To date workplace stress and violence have largely been recognised as problems of industrialised nations. However, the evidence provided suggests that these are global problems affecting people in developing as well as industrialised nations. This is not to say that the problems of stress and violence will be perceived in the same way across the world as cultural variations are likely to affect the perception of individual stressors as well as the way one copes with them. More research is needed, in particular in newly industrialised and developing countries, in order to establish with more certainty the prevalence of these problems as well as their effects.

# The report demonstrates that interventions have taken place to deal with the issues of stress and violence at work. The evaluation of these interventions are fraught with difficulties. Nevertheless, the existence of such programmes shows that they still show that organisations are making advances in preventing and alleviating stress and violence at work, though progress is often slow. Also, in some cases organisations have successfully demonstrated that interventions have led to major cost savings. This is important evidence which should stimulate organizations to implement intervention measures and monitor their effect.

# There is some evidence that public bodies may play a positive role with regard to stress and violence intervention initiatives by making public funds available for organisations which are willing to proactively address these issues. It is hoped that the success of such initiatives may stimulate policy makers in many countries to address these problems in a creative manner which may instigate organisational change.



# Of special interest for South Africa organisations is the issue of sexual and racial harassment. Sexual harassment may also be considered a workplace social stressor. As a specific social phenomenon, sexual harassment refers to sexual violence within an organisational setting and this sets it apart from other types of sexual violence such as violence. Here sexual harassment is defined as:‘unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, or conduct based on sex, affecting the dignity of women and men at work. This definition also acknowledges that, whilst sexual harassment at work is a problem which predominately affects women, a substantial number of men report being exposed to unwanted sexual attention at work. It is also common to divide acts of sexual violence into different categories.

One of the most widely used approaches is to divide such acts into five categories: gender harassment, seductive behaviour, sexual bribery, sexual coercion and physical assault including rape. Gender harassment refers to behaviours such as sexist comments and jokes. It is worth noting that recent developments in some countries, particularly the US and SA, have led to the legislation becoming increasingly complex incorporating behaviours which may be ‘construed as proportionally more offensive to one group’ which is likely to affect any organisational intervention. Some evidence exists suggesting that women from ethnic (minorities) are the most vulnerable to sexual harassment. However, whether their higher exposure to sexual harassment is due to their ethnicity or simply reflects the fact that women from ethnic minorities often occupy the most marginal and vulnerable positions in the labour market is still open to debate.

# Extent of sexual harassment: Despite the interest in both sexual and racial harassment in recent years, few rigorous empirical studies have been undertaken. Where such studies are reported they are very often based on self-selected samples.Generally speaking, there appears to be a scarcity of empirical studies of sexual harassment which also extends to the area of racial harassment.

>> In a US study of 447 female private sector employees and 300 female university employees 40.9% and 15% respectively labelled their experience within the last 24 months as sexual harassment. However, a much higher number reported exposure to individual sexually harassing behaviour, many on a repetitive basis (Schneider, et al., 1997).

>> There has been a sharp rise in the number of harassment cases reported to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in recent years. For sexual harassment alone the number rose from 6,883 in 1993 to 15,618 in 1998 (EEOC Notice number 915.002, 1999).

>> In a study of ‘ethnic harassment’ in the US (defined as verbal abuse and exclusionary conduct due to ethnicity), among four samples of Hispanic employees in diverse contexts, 40-70% reported having experienced such behaviour within the last 24 months (Schneider et al, 2000).

>> 2% of workers within the European Union reported that they were subjected to sexual harassment (European Foundation, 2000). Female workers, employees in the hotel and catering industry, as well as those in precarious work were most at risk.

>> Studies undertaken in the UK suggest that between 16% and 75% of women at work have experienced sexual harassment at work with even higher numbers for the student population (Kiely & Henbest, 2000).

>> A large-scale German survey undertaken by the Federal Institute of Occupational Health and Safety concluded that more than nine out of ten women had experienced sexual harassment at work during their working lives (ILO, 1998).

>> In a study of female employees in Bulgaria, 10% reported that they received questions of a sexual nature during their job-interviews. A total of 15% had also received unwelcome contact from either co-workers or supervisors. As a result of denying further advances 33% had suffered negative consequences. Employees below 33 years of age were most at risk. In the 18-25 age group nearly 50% had received comments of a sexual nature (Minnesota Advocates of Human Rights, 1999).

>> Women’s groups in the Republic of Korea report awareness of sexual harassment of women in the workplace (Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 1999).

>> In countries where religious and cultural belief suggests that women should not be working, any experience of physical as well as sexual harassment is unlikely to be taken seriously (Grainger, 1997).

>> In one of very few studies reporting on the scale of racial harassment, over 500 ‘ethnic’ minority staff recruited from 53 different National Health Service Trusts across the UK took part in a focus-group and questionnaire study. It emerged that a significant proportion of participants reported to have experienced or to have witnessed racial harassment within the last 12 months. A number of women taking part in the study thought there was a link between stress and racial harassment. The report highlights that racial harassment has become more subtle in recent years, for example,

fewer overtly racial jokes, but more incidents of covert harassment, for example, being excluded by other co-workers.


By Helge Hoel, Kate Sparks & Cary L. Cooper

University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology

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Gary Watkins

Gary Watkins

Managing Director


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