Business professors develop model of workplace bullying

Researchers developed a workplace bullying model through qualitative research to help identify critical issues and bring awareness to the seriousness of the issue.
Written by: Eric Lamar Burts
Media contact: Yvonne Taunton

Shot of a doctor looking stressed out in a demanding work environmentResearchers developed a workplace bullying model through qualitative research to help identify critical issues and bring awareness to the seriousness of the issue.Workplace bullying, a form of psychological abuse many workers encounter daily, can increase organization turnover, decrease productivity and create unsafe work environments. More than 50 percent of organizations have reported bullying in their workplace, previous research revealed. Nearly 20 percent of United States workers reported workplace bullying.

Two researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham Collat School of Business have designed a grounded theory model of workplace bullying to help identify critical issues. They hope organizations can use the model to implement policies for behavioral expectations and bring awareness for employees and employers to recognize the seriousness of workplace bullying.

Barbara Wech, Ph.D., an associate professor, and Jack Howard, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Management, Information Systems and Quantitative Methods, are co-authors of the study, “Workplace Bullying Model: a Qualitative Study on Bullying in Hospitals.”

“Previous research that was conducted before the study was done outside the United States,” Howard said. “A lot of the research examined what led to bullying or what the outcomes were. There were only four studies we could find that had used a qualitative research technique to inform the developed model. The data we gathered from interviews shaped our built model, consistent with how grounded theory research is conducted.”

The authors used a qualitative research method to provide for more detailed information concerning the topic under study: nurses. There can be cliques among nurses, just as in any workplace, Howard says. Nurses were qualified subjects because of prevalent bullying in hospitals and their role as the main conduit to hospital workers, patients and families. The study consisted of 47 staff registered nurses from a large teaching and research hospital located in the Southeast region of the United States.  

Interviews with the nurses helped answer six proposed research questions:

  • What are the individual influences that cause bullying in the workplace?
  • What influence does hierarchy or position have on workplace bullying?
  • What about the organizational environment leading to bullying?
  • What are the individual outcomes associated with workplace bullying?
  • What are the effects of workplace bullying on organizational outcomes?
  • What are the tactics individuals use in response to workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying creates an unsafe environment; from agitated family members to demeaning doctors, nurses often endure psychological abuse from all levels.

Emotions play a prominent role in workplace bullying. One nurse said physicians might use fear — a patient could die or have a bad outcome if the nurses do not do things properly — as a motivator to bully. Feelings of superiority and education differences can also lead to bullying.

Having a loved one in the hospital can be a stressful time, and many of the nurses say family members often bully them because of stress. The research also discovered bullied nurses had decreased attention spans when helping patients, which not only affects the nurse but can potentially be fatal for patients.    

People subjected to workplace bullying often feel withdrawn from work. This can lead to absenteeism, resignations and even leaving the profession. As nurses begin to resign or miss work, the hospital loses workers. The negative attention can damage the hospitals’ reputations and deter potential nurses from applying. 

The authors found employees from all areas shared personal experiences with bullying behaviors. The research showed four significant aspects of the work environment can lead to bullying behaviors: workload, staffing level, change and work process.  

“The heightened anxiety caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will likely lead to increased bullying,” Wech said. “People having to do jobs virtually they have never done before in that mode has generated additional stresses and anxieties for employees.”   

Excessive workloads — often resulting from decreased staffing levels — cause stress among workers. Organizational change can be intimidating for many. Workers who cannot adapt to new protocols might use bullying behaviors such as ignoring work processes to exert their objection.  

The study found nurses used different response tactics to bully based on hierarchical level. Nurses displayed passive-aggressive behaviors toward higher-level employees and reported the offender and took precautions to prepare for the encounter to avoid any mistakes. For peer bullies, nurses would try to resolve the issue before escalating or informing management.