ill treatment at work
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Why is the ill treatment of workers so common?

24 Jan 2018

Research commissioned by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health has found that 43pc of employees have experienced ill treatment at work.

You would think that ill treatment in the workplace would have been largely stamped out by now. There are, seemingly, so many aspects to modern working life that make it difficult to conceive that it would happen at all, let alone frequently.

Companies are making increasing efforts to promote diversity and tackle discrimination. As well as this, social media grants individuals the power to give their issues a platform and command a wide audience.

Despite this, research commissioned by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) indicates that the problem is still all too common.

The Irish Workplace Behaviour Survey, which was led by the Health Promotion Research Centre at NUI Galway, has revealed that 43pc of workers have experienced some form of ill treatment at work.

What is ill treatment?

Researchers surveyed 1,500 people in their own homes, fearing that employees would feel pressurised into not being forthcoming if they were surveyed at their place of work.

‘Ill treatment’ is defined by three main subheadings: ‘unreasonable management’, ‘incivility or disrespect’ and ‘violence and injury’. Each subheading has a number of different behaviours listed therein – ‘unreasonable management’, for example, could be anything from continually checking up on work when it is not necessary, to giving employees an unmanageable workload or impossible deadlines.

Most of the behaviours classed under incivility and disrespect amount to what many would identify as workplace bullying.

Key findings

About two in five employees (43pc) overall have been subject to some form of ill treatment. Almost half (47pc), meanwhile, have witnessed it being done to others.

Almost one in five (17pc) have admitted to perpetrating ill treatment themselves.

The most commonly reported form of ill treatment experienced was unreasonable, at 37pc, followed by violence at 6pc. Somewhat surprisingly, people reported experiencing incivility at a lower rate than they did violence, with only 3pc of respondents having been subject to that kind of ill treatment.

In the case of both unreasonable management and incivility, more report having witnessed it than having experienced it (42pc and 38pc, respectively).

It’s difficult to determine what exactly accounts for the discrepancy in experience and witnessing mistreatment. It could be chalked up to people being able to more objectively analyse, and therefore recognise, mistreatment in interactions others have, rather than in interactions they themselves are party to.

This gulf between those who witnessed and those who experienced incivility in particular could also be interpreted to mean that, in certain workplaces, there are a few individuals experiencing sustained incivility, of which there are many witnesses.

Race and gender as determining factors

While overall levels of ill treatment were the same across all genders, women were more likely to experience ‘severe bullying’ (any two of the behaviours daily), and the perpetrator in these cases was often another woman.

The survey notes a correlation between ethnicity and ill treatment. Asian workers were found to be seven times more likely to experience violence at work than white workers. Workers of black, Asian or mixed ethnicity most frequently experienced and/or witnessed violence.

The report also notes that workers of black or mixed ethnicity experienced higher levels of unreasonable management than white or Asian workers. Furthermore, ill treatment of black and Asian workers is usually perpetuated by individuals of the same race.

It could be argued that tokenism within workplaces plays a huge role in creating the type of environment in which this kind of sustained mistreatment happens.

If attempts at diversity and inclusiveness are done half-heartedly or in an uninformed manner, they can end up inspiring the belief that only a limited amount of women or minorities will be allowed to progress in an organisation, which can lead to infighting.

‘The needs of the organisation come first’

The survey endeavoured to establish the relationship between aspects of the workplace and workers’ experience of ill treatment. It concluded that workers who stated that the needs of their organisation come first were 3.5 times more likely to experience unreasonable management.

Equally, those who feel that their principles are compromised at work were more than four times more likely to experience incivility.

Evidently, compromising principles or working for some larger organisational goal at the expense of one’s own wellbeing all contribute to people being dehumanised in the workplace.

The need for new guidelines

Researchers have queried why this behaviour prevails despite the numerous workplace policies in place to avoid this kind of treatment.

While they acknowledged the existence of said policies, many of the individuals surveyed did not seem optimistic that their issues would be sufficiently dealt with if they raised them with upper management.

“It is alarming to see the amount of people who felt there was nothing to be done, even if they reported an issue,” said Louise Hosking, vice-president of IOSH.

“Ill treatment at work is linked to physical and mental health issues, which in turn affects the decisions people make, and increases risks to themselves and those around them.

“It can have a huge impact on an individual and the team around them, causing stress and tension, which ultimately has an effect on the business as a whole.”

In response to this, the IOSH has published new guidelines, including case studies and a checklist, to help organisations address the issue.

Eva Short
By Eva Short

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic, specialising in the areas of tech, data privacy, business, cybersecurity, AI, automation and future of work, among others.

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