Taming the beast: A look at the many forms and guises of workplace violence

When it comes to violence in the workplace, such as sexual harassment, bullying and threats, abuse of power and even murder, people are asking why it happens, and who can stop it. But violence is a ubiquitous shape shifter, lurking in formal and informal workplaces alike, and it is often hard to pinpoint its occurrence and its instigators. Today, workplace violence is receiving more exposure, and organizations like the ILO are taking a steadfast stance against it by developing standards, codes of practice and community awareness. Based on the ILO's newly released Violence at work ( Note 1), in its third edition, Alicia Priest explores who's at risk, what's at stake and what's being done to stop it.

We live in a cruel and violent world. Recent media focus on terrorist attacks has added a chilling aspect to the public image of violence. Few people realize, however, that violent incidents occur in a setting where they spend a huge chunk of their lives - the workplace. Violence happens in factories, hospitals, schools, restaurants, stores, offices, taxis and private homes - everywhere that people work. And in the vast majority of cases, it happens out of sight.

In the recently updated and highly informative ILO publication, Violence at work, authors Duncan Chappell and Vittorio Di Martino fling the doors wide open. They reveal a grim panorama of millions of workers all over the world suffering a variety of physical, mental and emotional harms. All too often those harms result in despair, illness, injury and death. The full range of aggressive workplace acts is staggering. They include murder, rape, robbery, beating, stalking, swearing, sexual harassment, name-calling and sabotage of tools and equipment. There are more. One form of violence not often viewed as such even though it can cause great distress is mobbing, the collective bullying of a worker by his or her workmates and/or supervisors.

The authors tell of Leif, a skilled repairman in a large Norwegian factory who was repeatedly ridiculed by his co-workers because of his Danish accent. When he demanded that the joking stop, the taunts only worsened and he became increasingly isolated and anxious. A workplace outcast, Leif eventually developed serious psychosomatic disorders, lost his job and became totally unemployable. In Sweden, authorities estimate that mobbing plays a role in about 10-15 per cent of all suicides each year.

Another near invisible yet devastating form of workplace violence occurs in domestic service worldwide. For example, women migrants in Saudi Arabia frequently jump from upper floors of their places of employment in an attempt to escape from abusive employers, Chappell and Di Martino explain. In fact, in 2002 a large Saudi hospital reported that two to three foreign female domestic workers were admitted per week with serious bone fractures after leaping from locked rooms and houses.

Why does it happen?

Violence at work is more than a litany of workplace wrongdoings. The book is an ambitious and courageous attempt to understand the multifaceted nature and global extent of workplace violence in order to spur its eradication. Ironically, as awareness of aggressive workplace acts swells - largely due to horrific events such as school shootings and post office murders - so does the incidence of violence at work itself.

Data collection, the authors confess, is often difficult, especially in the developing world where "widespread under-reporting of incidents of workplace violence seems to be the norm rather than the exception". The situation is further complicated by varying cultural definitions of what constitutes violence and the role it plays in a society. In Bulgaria, for instance, violence is seen as a normal part of everyday life and a way to "regulate family, social, interpersonal and institutional relations". South Africa's high level of workplace violence is symptomatic of wider, long-standing problems grounded in the country's harsh socio-economic realities. Despite these particulars, Chappell and Di Martino present ample evidence that violence at work is on the rise. This, they argue, is a "worrying trend", one that reflects widespread growth in community unrest and the collapse of societal values.

The authors assert that myriad external symptoms can contribute to both the existence and the increase of violence in the workplace. Risk factors such as an abusive childhood could lead to a person becoming a violent offender. Testosterone or other gender-specific factors may play a part, with men being at least ten times more likely than women to be charged with violent offences. Also, the physical composition of the work environment could help set the stage; a degraded setting can invite violence.

Who's at risk?

The authors also cast light on who is most likely to be victimized by violence. Although certain occupations are inherently riskier than others, victims generally share one fundamental characteristic - powerlessness. That places women, children and youth, lone workers, immigrant workers and the "precariously employed" in greater danger of abuse.

Furthermore, the authors identify several modern stressors such as layoffs, heavy workloads, faster pace of work, cuts in salaries and increasing reliance on short-term contracts and casual work that, they say, could lead to "a climate of violence driven by uncertainty, growing exasperation and vulnerability". And vulnerability, they conclude, "lies at the root of a great deal of violence at work".

Although the media tend to blame violent acts at work on "disgruntled employees who go berserk", the authors show that violence is far more pervasive and seldom so simple. Rather than being sporadic, senseless and unpredictable, workplace violence is highly complex and intricately woven into the specific social, organizational and economic fabric of workplace culture. "The causes and consequences of workplace violence", they write, "cannot be analysed independently of employment relationships".

Where to turn?

But therein lies the hope for change. In Violence at work, Chappell and Di Martino evaluate the benefits of different types of responses to workplace violence such as collective and industry-sector agreements, policy interventions, safer workplace designs and "best practices".

Three common themes in the many guidelines on preventing violence at work particularly stand out:

  • Work organization and the working environment hold significant keys to the causes and solutions of the problem.
  • The participation of workers and their representatives is crucial both in identifying the problem and in implementing solutions.
  • Interpersonal skills of managers and workers alike are key.
A wide range of government legislation and recommendations for action is beginning to take effect. For instance, the European Union Directive 2002/73/EC on equal treatment for men and women has affected the implementation of national legislation on sexual harassment in EU countries, while many developing countries and countries in transition have adopted specific legislation prohibiting sexual harassment and providing protection from it. These include Argentina, Bangladesh, Belize, Costa Rica, Croatia, Dominican Republic, Fiji, Guyana, Honduras, the Republic of Korea, Lesotho, Mauritius, Namibia, Panama, Paraguay, the Philippines, Romania, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the United Republic of Tanzania, Uruguay and Venezuela.

At the international level, action to combat workplace violence has included important initiatives ever since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1949. Among the most recent are a major survey in 2003 on violence against women by the Special Rapporteur to the UN Commission on Human Rights; the entry into force in 2003 of another UN instrument, the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families; a special study in 2003 of the interrelationship between violence at work and occupational stress carried out by the ILO, the International Council of Nurses, the World Health Organization and Public Services International.

The ILO has a long-standing and continuing commitment, expressed through a series of fundamental Conventions, to worker protection and dignity at work. The 2004 ILO code of practice Workplace violence in services sectors and measures to combat this phenomenon was based on an examination of the extent and severity of workplace violence in various service industry sectors including the postal sector, the performing arts and journalism, transport, education, financial services and hotels, catering and tourism.

Close up: Occupations at risk

Other occupational groups considered to be high risk are health care, medical and dental practitioners; bus, train and subway workers; taxi drivers; postal workers and flight attendants. Even public librarians are more likely than others to experience aggressive acts, as their open-door policy allows anyone to use the building, and this can sometimes invite trouble. "Some librarians have even been killed," Violence at work authors Duncan Chappell and Vittorio Di Martino write.

Why would workers in such dissimilar roles share similar chances of experiencing violence? The authors explain that workers' risk of violence depends not only on what they do but on the conditions under which they perform those tasks. For instance, as automation spreads, more people find themselves running a one-person shop. Working in retail is not inherently dangerous but working with cash transactions alone at night is. Other potentially dangerous situations include: working with the public; working with valuables such as cash or pharmaceuticals; working with people in distress; and working in military and paramilitary organizations.

In the military, the authors note, the greatest risks do not always come from an enemy. For instance, in several countries there is a long-standing tradition of torturing new recruits, and some women soldiers in industrialized and developing countries alike are raped or sexually assaulted by fellow soldiers.

Remedy at what cost?

Curiously, with increased recognition of psychological aggression such as harassment and bullying in the workplace, there has been a decrease in attention paid to physical assaults. This is a disturbing development to say the least, considering the book's extensive data showing the persistence of physical brutality in both the developing and industrialized worlds.

And access to remedies can often be difficult. Despite advances on the legislative and regulatory fronts, responses to workplace violence remain fragmented, and plaintiffs can be drawn into costly and stressful litigation.

By any estimate, workplace violence is enormously expensive. From an individual perspective, the cost of personal pain and suffering resulting from a serious violent incident is incalculable. But like a pebble thrown in a pond, the costs of violence spread out to affect a worker's family, other workers, employers, the community and society as a whole. Experts who try to tally this toll consider a range of negative effects such as declining morale, increased absenteeism, increased turnover, health care and rehabilitation costs, reduced efficiency and performance and ultimately declining productivity. In the United States, the total cost to American employees per year for workplace violence is estimated to be US$4.2 billion.

Eliminating workplace violence entirely is arguably unachievable. What is not in doubt, however, is people's ability to greatly diminish its occurrence, especially now when so much is known about its causes and conditions. But what would it take?

Thirty-five years ago, American sociologist Amitai Etzioni answered: "Only a just and cohesive society, responsive to new demands, satisfying old ones, providing a meaningful life for its members, would sharply reduce violence, and even such a society would not eliminate it."

Note 1 - Duncan Chappell and Vittorio di Martino. Violence at work. Third edition, Geneva, International Labour Office, 2006. ISBN 978-92-2-117948-1.