Psychological Aggression in Pacific Northwest Library Settings: Impact on Employee Health and Well-Being

Highlights

In a study supported by the Washington Library Association (WLA), the Interest Group of Library Unions (IGLU), and the Washington Department of Labor & Industries (L&I), SHARP researchers found that when psychological aggression is high, library staff respondents report significantly worse health outcomes. This research provides evidence of the importance of preventing psychological aggression at work, and the significance of psychological aggression and its impact on poor employee health outcomes. Psychological aggression commonly occurs in many work settings and it is important to recognize that the WLA and IGLU take a preventive approach in educating their library members and support this research to examine the issue. This report is a follow up to our first short report titled “Organizational Resources and Psychological Aggression in Pacific Northwest Library Settings” (2012). The full report on the Washington Library Work, Stress, and Health Project (2012) can be found at http://www.lni.wa.gov/Safety/Research/Pubs/default.asp#Violence.

Introduction

Recent research reports and the public media have focused on workers lowered inclination to treat others with respect and civility. The research has studied overt and covert behaviors such as social isolation, work sabotage, withholding information needed to complete work, and verbal threats, and has used terms such as interpersonal conflict, incivility, workplace bullying, and psychological aggression (see Hershcovis, 2011). These behaviors are costly to organizations and employees and result in lowered productivity, stress and poor health, and loss of talent as targeted individuals often choose to leave the organization in search of work in a healthier environment.

Psychological aggression at work can cause considerable stress to the targets, and can negatively impact their colleagues, families and friends. While infrequent aggression can be stressful, prolonged psychological aggression (bullying) can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (Keashly & Neuman, 2004), loss of self-esteem, anxiety, depression, apathy, irritability, memory disorders, sleep disorders and problems with digestion (Einarsen, 1999). In some cases, individuals are unable to function normally at work and in everyday life.  Symptoms may persist for years after experiencing severe levels of harassment at work. The serious nature of the problem is further emphasized as the negative health effects appear to extend to other employees who observe uncivil and psychologically aggressive interactions (Vartia, 2001).

An Occupational Health Psychology Perspective on Stress and Psychological Aggression Prevention

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) proposed: “Occupational health psychology concerns the application of psychology to improving the quality of work-life, and to protecting and promoting the safety, health and well-being of workers” (Sauter & Hurrell, 1990, p.120). Occupational Health Psychology (OHP) emerged in response to three developments: “(a) the growth of and recognition of stress-related disorders as a costly occupational health problem; (b) the growing acceptance that psychosocial factors play a role in the etiology of emergent…problems such as upper extremity musculoskeletal disorders; and (c) recent and dramatic changes in the organization of work that foster both job stress and health and safety problems at work” (p. 117). They propose that through better understanding and control of organizational level risk factors, occupational health psychology may function towards primary prevention of occupational illness and injury. In this way, by analyzing the managerial and supervisory practices, processes, and policies of work organization and their influence on work, the knowledge gained can be used to advocate for and develop interventions for healthy work environments and safe workplaces.

OHP researchers bring together an understanding of the psychological processes that guide individual behavior with the capability of identifying the occupational and organizational factors that influence how people respond to situations at work. This study’s emphasis on the workplace psychosocial environment of workplace psychological aggression is an important and unique step towards furthering OHP research and potential solutions towards improving work-life quality. In keeping with the OHP perspective, we investigated the specific relationships of psychological aggression and witnessing such aggression at work and employee health outcomes.

Workplace Aggression

Psychological aggression

Health researchers have noted that the impact of disruptive and aggressive behavior is costly for organizations – it causes distress among other staff, undermines productivity, and leads to low morale and high staff turnover (Rosenstein & O’Daniel, 2005; 2008). Again, psychological aggression is not unique to library organizations or library staff. Recent research estimates of the prevalence of a hostile work environment for those in the occupational group of “education, training and libraries” were in-line with other occupations after adjusting for age, sex, and ethnicity, at 8.1%; comparatively, the overall estimated prevalence rate for workers was 7.8% (Alterman, Luckhaupt, Dahlhamer, Ward, & Calvert, in press).

Exposure to psychological aggression at work has been found to be negatively correlated to job performance, and this relationship is significantly explained by decreased job attitudes and health associated with exposure to psychological aggression (Schat & Frone, 2011). Some research links incivility and aggression to retention, another costly outcome for organizations. Cortina, Magley, Williams, and Langhout (2001) found that greater exposure to incivility was associated with lower job satisfaction, increased psychological distress, and stronger intentions to leave the organization. Coworker and supervisory conflict has been shown to be a statistically significant risk factor for an elevated need for recovery, prolonged fatigue, poor general health, and turnover (De Raeve, Jansen, van den Brandt, Vasse, & Kant, 2009).

Witnessing psychological aggression

Being a witness to workplace bullying and incivility has also been linked to self-reported health and work outcomes, including an elevated risk of developing depressive symptoms, greater stress and greater mental strain (Emdad, Alipour, Hagberg, & Jensen, in press; Vartia, 2001). Observing hostility and perceiving a lax organizational safety climate for harassment and hostility has also been found to be significantly related to lower general well-being and higher organizational withdrawal even when controlling for personal mistreatment (Miner-Rubino & Cortina, 2007). Employees not directly exposed to psychologically aggressive behaviors at work may still be affected negatively by observing the interpersonal conflicts and aggressive behaviors between other library staff. Researchers have also found that employees are more aggressive when witnessing – indicating that witnessing can significantly affect not only the workplace context, but also employee behavior within that context (Aquino & Douglas, 2003; Glomb & Liao, 2003).

Other research has shown that employees not vulnerable to, or directly affected by, psychologically aggressive behaviors at work may still be affected by observing the interpersonal conflicts and aggressive behaviors between other staff (Hauge, Skogstad, & Einarsen, 2007). Such findings highlight the need for interventions aimed at preventing psychological aggression at work and ameliorating the harmful effects of conflict on employees and the organization.

Workplace psychological aggression and health

There is strong evidence linking individual outcomes to experiencing workplace psychological aggression, including long-term effects of exposure on employee health and well-being (Nielsen & Einarsen, 2012). Coworker conflict and workplace aggression have been found to be predictive of poor general health (De Raeve et al., 2009), and employee injury and assault risk have also been tied to the informal social hierarchy of the organization and the presence of workplace incivility (Myers, Kreibel, Karasek, Punnett, & Wegman, 2007; Langlois, Shannon, Griffith, Haines, Cortina, & Geldart, 2007). In addition, when compared to non-bullied respondents, bullied respondents reported more symptoms of depression, anxiety, and changes in mental health (Hansen, Hogh, Persson, Karlson, Garde, & Orbaek, 2006). A strong association between psychological aggression and depression was also found to exist after adjustments for sex, age and income, in a dose-response manner (Kivimaki, Virtanen, Vartia, Elovainio, Vahtera, & Keltikangas-Jarvinen, 2003).

Bullying and psychological strain has also been found to negatively affect sleep quality, which is predictive of stress and fatigue outcomes (Winwood & Lushington, 2006; Lallukka, Rahkonen, & Lahelma, 2011). Sleep complaints have also been associated with physical and psychosocial working conditions and work-to-family conflict even after controlling for unhealthy behaviors, health status, depression and medication use (Lallukka, Rahkonen, Lahelma, & Arber, 2010). Including measures of self-reported health status, depressive symptoms and sleep disruption is important to measuring the psychosocial impacts of psychological aggression, and what may be leading indicators of further work and health impacts, such as burnout, physical disability, and sickness absence. Research on the negative effects of psychological aggression on the physical health of employees is important to reducing the burden and risk of aggression and incivility in the workplace.

Sample and methods

A convenience sample was obtained through web-based employee surveys open to all Washington Library Association (WLA) members and their colleagues in the Pacific Northwest area who are staff working in libraries. Emailed poster and newsletter advertisements announced the availability of the web-based survey and included the website where potential participants could log-on to complete the survey in their off-work time at home. Advertisements were also included in library union interest group and association newsletters.  Additionally, library employees were also able to contact SHARP toll free to either complete the survey by telephone or by mail (received a mailed paper survey packet).

Survey data were collected from 224 library staff working in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. We are unable to calculate a response rate as the survey was forwarded to an unknown number of library staff, beyond the scope of our original email to the WLA listserve. Survey participation was confidential and voluntary and surveys were completed during non-work time at home. All study activities were approved by the Washington State Institutional Review Board (WSIRB). Participants were mostly female (82.6%) and white (88.0%), with the majority in the 41-50 (25.5%) or 51-60 (41.1%) age ranges. Their average organizational tenure was 10.1 years (SD = 7.77) and the majority of respondents reported working at either a public (57.1%) or academic library (35.3%).

Analysis and results

To determine the effects of the workplace aggression variables, SHARP researchers conducted a series of multiple regression analyses predicting each model component from the set of control variables, psychological aggression and health outcome variables. Multiple regression analyses calculate the relationship between different sets of predictor variables and an outcome variable. This relationship is called a multiple correlation; the squared multiple correlation or multiple R squared (R²) indicates the total amount of variance explained in the outcome variable by the set of predictor variables. Multiple regression analyses generate a set of standardized regression weights (β) that indicate the relative contribution of each predictor to the outcome. Thus, researchers use multiple regression analyses to investigate which predictor variables explain the variance in an outcome. We controlled for individual differences in the analyses to account for the effects of variables that in prior research have been noted as potentially influencing relationships between workplace psychological aggression and individual health outcomes.

Table 1 below presents the frequency results of participant reports of psychological aggression by type of aggression. Table 2 below presents the results of the relationships between experiencing psychological aggression and self-reported library staff health outcomes. Significant relationships for the predictor variables are shown in bold in each table with asterisks indicating the level of significance.

Table 1. Frequencies of self-reported psychological aggression by type.
Psychological Aggression

N

Frequency / Yes

%

Psychological Aggression
(weekly, daily)
(any, past year)

224
224

98
201

43.75
89.73
Witnessing Psychological Aggression 223 116 51.79

We asked participants to respond to whether they had experienced specific psychologically aggressive acts from coworkers, were a witness to psychological aggression, and how often they experienced or witnessed aggressive acts from coworkers (see Table 1). A high percentage (~90%) of library staff respondents reported experiencing any amount of psychological aggression in the past year, and about 44% reported psychological aggression from coworkers and supervisors on a weekly or daily basis. Nearly 52% of survey respondents reported witnessing psychological aggression among coworkers in the past year.

Table 2. The effects of psychological aggression on library staff health outcomes.
  Health Outcomes
Psychological Aggression
Predictors
Step 2

General Health
N=202

Physical Symptoms
N=202

Sleep Disruption
N=202

Depressive Symptoms
N=202

Psychological Aggression (β) -.39*** .41*** .41*** .64***
Variance explained (R²) .27*** .29*** .18*** .46***
Psychological Aggression - Witness (β) -.26*** .23** .25** .28***
Variance explained (R²) .20*** .19** .09** .18***
Note: All 8 analyses include step 1 control variables of age, gender, income, relationship status, job tenure, time with supervisor, weekly hours worked, and library size. β= standardized regression weight. *p < .05, **p < .01, ***p < .001.

General health, physical symptoms, sleep disruption, and depressive symptoms

We found strong effects for reports of worse health outcomes in relation to the psychological aggression variables. General health, physical symptoms, sleep disruption and depressive symptoms were all associated with being directly exposed to psychological aggression, and witnessing psychological aggression. The variance explained (R²) in the psychological aggression analysis for depressive symptoms is especially notable at 46% - which is high for organizational research and is also highly significant. These findings suggest the important role of psychological aggression and even observing such aggression as powerful stressors negatively impacting the health outcomes of this library staff sample.

Conclusions

The unique contribution of the current study findings is that in library settings, psychological aggression and witnessing psychological aggression are linked to poor self-reported health outcomes. Moreover, we found particularly strong relationships between the psychological aggression variables and health outcomes, suggesting that psychological aggression is a strong and significant workplace stressor for library staff. These findings suggest that library organizations with an interest in the health and well-being of their staff that provide interventions investing in psychological aggression prevention may positively impact the mental and physical health of their staff.

Acknowledgements

We are grateful to all for supporting this work, particularly the members of the Washington Library Association and the Interest Group of Library Unions for assisting with the advertising and recruitment for the survey and the Washington Department of Labor & Industries library staff for assistance in refinement of the survey instruments. We hope that this research can be used to develop positive interventions for the prevention of psychological aggression, and promote investment in workplace psychosocial support resources in library settings for the health and well-being of library workers. Finally, and most importantly, we deeply appreciate the help of all of library staff who contributed to the research and the study participants who took a great deal of time out of their busy lives to tell us about their work.

Contact Nan Yragui at yran235@lni.wa.gov if you have questions about this study. For the full 2012 report on the Washington Library Work, Stress, and Health Project go to http://www.lni.wa.gov/Safety/Research/Pubs/default.asp#Violence

The contents of this presentation are solely the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of these agencies, associations, or departments.

Recommended References

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