Workplace violence can take a variety of different forms. Aside from the high-profile and often graphic episodes of violence that you might hear about in the news, there are other types of workplace hostility that are much more common. This can range from bullying, including physical harassment, to actual physical assaults that can result in injuries or even death. The consequences of experiencing or witnessing this kind of workplace violence can be significant. Not only can employees be intimidated by the fear of more violence occurring, but continuing episodes of violence can lead to poor workplace morale, loss of productivity, and even have an impact on worker health.
While most workplaces have policies in place to protect employees from potentially violent coworkers, this isn't always the case and, in the case of more subtle forms of harassment, may be difficult for some workers to prove. There is also the problem of distinguishing between workplace violence and workplace aggression. As a rule, workplace violence involves behaviours that either inflicted or attempted to inflict harm on another employee (including unwanted sexual contact or verbal threats of violence). Workplace aggression, on the other hand, usually involves psychological harm rather than physical harm (eg., verbal abuse, intimidation, deliberate property damage, or humiliation).
Available statistics on the prevalence of actual workplace violence usually places it around one to five percent, a statistic that seems to hold up for Canada, the United States, and internationally. When looking at workplace aggression the prevalence rate is often hard to determine because workplace aggression is often defined in different ways. As a result, most incidents go unreported. For most employee surveys on how often workplace aggression occurs, the prevalence rate usually hovers around seven to ten percent.
When looking at deliberate workplace harassment however (defined as any improper conduct directed at and/or offensive to another in the workplace and known to cause offense or harm), then things become very different however. For example, the 2014 Public Service Employee Survey which specifically looks at workplace harassment experienced by Canadian public service workers, indicated that 19 percent of employees surveyed reported some form of harassment over a two-year period. Of those, only two percent reported experiencing some form of physical violence with most other incidents involving verbal harassment, deliberate humiliation, unwelcome sexual comments or attention,
Whatever form workplace aggression or even violence takes, identifying why it happens is often difficult. Even when focusing on risk of violence in employees, what little research there is usually comes from the forensic literature and those factors that increase the risk of violence in general. They usually include such problems as substance abuse, antisocial personality traits, prior history of violence (usually including a history of criminal charges), and antisocial attitudes. But is it possible to identify potentially violent employees before the violence takes place?
To read more, check out my new Psychology Today blog post.