Study Suggests Rude Behavior in the Workplace Is Contagious

Four coworkers sit at table during meeting. Two whisper to each otherIncivility—defined as unsociable or rude behavior—in an often politically charged workplace can spread like a virus from one employee to another, according to a new study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. Researchers say workplace unkindness can leave employees feeling psychologically fatigued, and that exhaustion can cause them to mistreat other workers. This cycle can lead to a workplace that some may consider emotionally abusive.

According to 2014 research from the Workplace Bullying Institute, 27% of American workers have been bullied at work, and the majority of bullies are in a management role. Though 93% of workers support enactment of a bill designed to stop workplace bullying, 72% of employers continue to diminish the severity of workplace bullying or completely deny its occurrence. Workplace incivility may cost employers as much as $14,000 per employee annually due to loss of productivity.

How Workplace Incivility Spreads Among Employees

Researchers asked 70 employees to fill out a survey tallying incidents of incivility and its effects for 10 business days. The results suggest workers exposed to uncivil behavior are more likely to behave unkindly themselves. Even among employees who wanted to be friendly and polite, workplace bullying sapped their energy and patience, leading them to behave in aggressive ways. Researchers also found incivility was more common in workplaces perceived as political (defined for the purposes of this study as the drive for workers to do what is best for themselves rather than what is best for the company).

The study’s authors suggest offering staff clear feedback about appropriate workplace behavior can reduce the perception that a workplace is politicized, thereby reducing workplace aggression. This feedback can be either formal or informal.

Effects of a Stressful Working Environment on Mental Health

Researchers have long known that workplace bullying can take a negative toll on mental health. According to Mental Health America, almost half of workplace bullying victims experience stress-related physical health problems. Bullying also reduces productivity and can lead to mental health symptoms such as depression and anxiety.

The effects of workplace bullying can extend well beyond the workplace. A 2016 Journal of Management study found that workplace incivility can spread to the home, with stressed workers taking out their aggression on their spouses.

References:

  1. How incivility spreads in the workplace. (2016, August 10). Retrieved from http://phys.org/news/2016-08-incivility-workplace.html
  2. How rude co-workers can mess up your marriage. (2016, July 22). Retrieved from http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/minds-business/how-rude-co-workers-can-mess-up-your-marriage.html
  3. Namie, G. (2014). 2014 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey [PDF]. Workplace Bullying Institute.
  4. Workplace culture & bullying. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/workplace-culture-bullying

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  • Daisy

    Daisy

    August 17th, 2016 at 10:50 AM

    Isn’t it too bad that kindness never seems to spread quite as easily?

  • Dara

    Dara

    August 17th, 2016 at 1:52 PM

    Oh I can definitely see this in my office. One person comes in in a bad mood and the yuckiness just starts to slowly spread throughout the office.

    I know that there are times when I bring personal stuff into work with me and as hard as you try not to let it effect your performance it always does. For all of this is stuff that we need to be able to leave at the door because it can cause a bad day and overall mood in the office environment for everyone.

  • Gregg M

    Gregg M

    August 18th, 2016 at 5:33 AM

    As a target for many years of workplace/academic bullying at Hunter College and watching others being abused and harassed, I question the findings of this student. As I have observed and witnessed and documented (via tapings, memos, complaints) over the years, the abuse and harassment on this campus and the accompanying mobbing that goes along with the hostility makes it very unlikely that a target would start targeting others. They might growl at their students or maybe growl at their friends (if they have any) or even be irritable but sooooo many have been cowered by their experiences that they don’t attack. I’ve also noticed that those who have managed to hang to their jobs and grab some measure of peace of mind, generally join the mobbing and attacking. It is expected that they do and many do with bravado.

  • Glory

    Glory

    August 18th, 2016 at 1:11 PM

    Being bullied definitely causes a lot of stress that can lead to poor health and create stress in other relationships. It obviously leads to lower productivity at work and less engagement.
    I became so concerned about the effects of bullying on targeted people that I wrote a book to help them figure out how to stop the bullying and end the associated stress.
    “Not All Bullies Yell and Throw Things: How to Survive a Subtle Workplace Bully” is available on Amazon at this link: bit.ly/1U7k8dW

  • Gregg M

    Gregg M

    August 18th, 2016 at 2:55 PM

    I hope your book makes $$$ but I won’t be buying it. There are recent studies suggesting that bullying, as defined by the Workplace Bullying Institute, causes serious depression and has been a factor in suicides, as well as, of course, ruining careers. At Hunter where I teach, I’ve witnessed part-time instructors whose contracts aren’t renewed. At Hunter, Colleagues frequently recruit students to participate in the bullying and harassment. Subtle Workplace Bullying is akin to Subtle Workplace Racism and/or Subtle Workplace Sexism, et.al. It may look subtle to those not experiencing it. My concern about bullying and witnessing it frequently led me to start a petition supporting the NYS Health Workplace Bill to make bullying illegal – goo.gl/uK0cM6 . It doesn’t cost a dime to sign and it can actually help make a difference. There are healthy work place bills pending in state legislatures across the country. Folks who want to make a difference should consider supporting the bills, healthyworkplacebill.org .

  • Britt

    Britt

    August 19th, 2016 at 1:55 PM

    It is almost as if one person starts it and then it becomes one long chain reaction.

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