Support from a manager ‘significantly’ reduces emotional exhaustion 

Studies have shown that being a victim of aggression, harassment and bullying in the workplace has a significant effect on individual performance, but new research suggests that it can be just as detrimental to colleagues observing such behaviour.

Witnessing aggression or other bad behaviour at work can affect staff well-being, and heighten work-related depression, anxiety and emotional exhaustion, according to a study from the Institute of Work and Psychology at the Sheffield University Management School.

The research – The Impact of Witnessing Co-Worker Unacceptable Behaviour on Employee Psychological Well-Being: A Two-Wave Study – surveyed 127 employees who had witnessed workplace aggression;  which included anything from physical violence or the threat of physical violence to shouting and insulting remarks. It also included more indirect forms of bullying, such as withholding information and being given an unmanageable workload.

Employees were asked to complete a number of psychological tests straight after witnessing an incident of unacceptable behaviour at work and then take the tests again at a later date. The results showed that participants who had been given social support by co-workers and managers had a more positive outlook and felt more optimistic about the workplace. Six months later, this group of respondents were also less depressed compared to their counterparts who had not received support.

According to the survey, work-related anxiety was significantly eased by managerial support and personal optimism. Support from colleagues was shown to be a “significant moderator” of emotional exhaustion, and limited burnout from witnessing aggression at work.

Dr Christine Sprigg, lead author on the university study, said the findings added to the growing body of research linking the witnessing of aggression at work with psychological ill health.

Earlier this year, a survey of 1,500 workers across the UK from charity Family Lives found that 66 per cent of respondents had witnessed bullying at work, and 91 per cent felt their organisation did not deal with such situations adequately.

A CIPD study Getting under the skin of workplace conflict: Tracing the experiences of employees, found that conflict led to either an increase in stress or a dip in motivation for 40 per cent of employees.

A number of changes to public policy and legislation aim to decrease conflict in the workplace, and yet most of the support measures are focused on the victim of unacceptable behaviour.

Sprigg said colleagues of victims in the workplace should be given access to the same support systems when aggressive or bad behaviour takes place.

“Taken together our findings show that social support from managers and co-workers, and optimism are all important moderators of the effect of witnessing workplace aggression on employees’ psychological well-being,” she said.

“They [the findings] also provide an indication of those individual traits and workplace contextual factors which act as psychological buffers to ill health.

“This suggests that positive strategies on the part of managers could limit the impact of witnessing unacceptable behaviour,” she added.