Inter-personal and Organisational Aggression in Human Services Following a Community Disaster

Inter-personal and Organisational Aggression in Human Services Following a Community Disaster Abstract Constructionist grounded theory research was undertaken with forty-three participants from human service organisations after several major earthquakes in New Zealand in 2010 and 2011. This revealed that many participants had experienced increased workplace aggression. Three distinct forms of aggression emerged from the analysis of the data. The first form consisted of emotional outbursts by distressed colleagues; participants generally considered these outbursts to be expectable and understandable reactions to trauma. The second form of aggression more readily fit traditional conceptualisations of workplace bullying; participants expressed dismay about the behaviour of fellow workers or managers who appeared to opportunistically and aggressively advance their personal professional status in the disaster aftermath. The third form of aggression aligned with recent conceptualisations of organisational or ‘depersonalised’ bullying; some organisations appeared to take advantage of the disaster aftermath to oppressively accelerate the pace of neo-liberal reforms of human services. Whilst traditional definitions of workplace bullying have tended to focus on person to person aggression, this focus obscures the importance of broader organisational, socio-economic and political power dynamics that sustain workplace oppression. Interventions based on inter-personal analyses are limited in their effectiveness; increased awareness of bullying in context is necessary to developing more effective multilevel interventions. Disasters, grounded theory, neo-liberalism, organisation, qualitative methods, workplace bullying Introduction This article reports on findings from qualitative research undertaken with forty-three participants from human service/social service organisations to explore challenges and opportunities arising in the aftermath of two major earthquakes that severely damaged the city of Christchurch, New Zealand. The first earthquake occurred on 4 September 2010 and the second on 22 February 2011. Both earthquakes destroyed buildings, including homes and businesses. No lives were lost as a direct result of the earthquake in 2010 but, in February 2011, 185 lives were lost and thousands of people were injured. Many human service workers and organisations were involved in the emergency response and in longer-term social and community recovery efforts. The research interviews identified that inequalities suffered by clients of human service organisations had predated the earthquakes and were exacerbated, rather than created, in the disaster aftermath. Participants explained that their service users were badly affected by the earthquakes because they lacked access to economic and social resources. For example, when rental costs rose because of housing shortages, accommodation became unaffordable, resulting in homelessness, ill health and disrupted schooling for children. Human service organisations also faced many challenges. Many were unable to access offices, computers and other equipment for an extended period of time. There were paid and volunteer staff shortages, uncertainties over contracts and funding, and unrelenting administrative reporting requirements from some national offices and government departments. Managers and government officials who were located outside the disaster-affected area often did not appear to understand the distressing ongoing impacts of the disasters’ aftermath on organisations. Participants reported that, within a short few weeks, external bodies ramped up output and reporting targets to return to business-as-usual expectations (van Heugten, 2014). Many participants identified that a ‘rolled back’ welfare state and a new public management governmental approach to New Zealand human services (including social work) had produced the context in which the personal struggles of service users, and the struggles faced by workers and their employing organisations, could be explained. The analysis of data highlighted that post-disaster decisions were politically driven decisions about how resources would be distributed (van Heugten, 2014). Although there had not been any active intention to explore workplace aggression at the start of the research project, many participants in the research identified increased levels of workplace aggression during the interviews. There were a small number of accounts of verbal aggression from service users against workers, but most accounts were of verbally aggressive outbursts from colleagues, bullying from colleagues and managers towards front line workers, and depersonalised aggression occurring at an organisational level. Workplace aggression in the human services is recognised to be a serious problem. Its occurrence in the additionally stressful circumstances of a disaster is under-researched but likely to have especially devastating consequences for individual workers, organisations and service users. The aim of this article is therefore to bring attention to this complex phenomenon. Literature review: perspectives on bullying Workplace bullying is a relatively recent field of research and theorising, with writing on the subject first emerging in northern Europe in the 1980s (Leymann and Gustafsson, 1984, cited in Leymann, 1996). Widely accepted definitions of bullying continue to adhere reasonably closely to Leymann’s original conceptualisation, and identify bullying as involving ‘harassing, offending, socially excluding someone or negatively affecting someone’s work tasks’. Particular characteristics that distinguish bullying from other types of workplace aggression include its repetitive and lasting nature; standard definitions require bullying to have occurred at least weekly and over at least a six-month time period (Einarsen et al., 2003, p. 15). During the first several decades, international literature primarily focused on the inter-personal dynamics of bullying, rather than on organisational structures or broader socio-economic contexts for its occurrence (Mackenzie Davey and Liefooghe, 2003). Causes were located in individual characteristics of ‘targets’ and ‘bullies’ (Zapf and Einarsen, 2003). Quantitative surveys and meta-reviews of such surveys endeavoured to establish the prevalence of bullying, placing this at between approximately 10–20 per cent of a workforce per annum. Large differences in prevalence rates have been attributed to differences in how bullying is defined and measured (methodological differences), and to international differences in the organisation of work, and cultural and socio-economic conditions (Nielsen et al., 2010; Ortega et al., 2009; Zapf et al., 2011). Another widely researched topic concerns the negative impacts of bullying on the physical and emotional health and well-being of targets and bystanders/witnesses (Vartia, 2001) as well as perpetrators (Jenkins et al., 2011). Workplace bulling is now well recognised as a widespread problem internationally. It appears to be especially common in hospitality services, and in health, education and human service/social service organisations (Zapf et al., 2011). A number of countries have established legislation to more robustly deal with cases of workplace bullying and harassment, and, at a practical level, this is prompting closer attention to organisational policies and procedures (Ransley, 2017). Legislative approaches, however, tend to consider bullying on a case-by-case basis, echoing and reinforcing a discourse about bullying as an inter-personal issue. This discourse leads to individualistic approaches to interventions, ignoring broader organisational and social contexts that allow bullying to occur. Hutchinson et al. (2010) noted a lack of complex analyses of power in workplace bullying. They developed a model wherein ‘workplace bullying is a function of four organizational factors: (1) organizational tolerance and reward; (2) networks of informal organizational alliances; (3) misuse of legitimate authority, processes, and procedures; and (4) normalization of bullying in the workplace’ (Hutchinson et al., 2010, p. 31). Their conceptualisation of circuits of power moves away from the idea that bullies are solitary actors to the idea that bullying is enabled by alliances of power. Once looked for, these networks of organisational alliances may present as cliques or small workgroup cohorts. Tolerated and even rewarded in the organisation, these groups might typically consider themselves above rules and their actions are often unchallenged. Workers who challenge or contradict the dominant perspectives promulgated by power elites are disciplined, including by being isolated and denigrated. Leiter (2013) similarly noted that enduring workplace incivility and aggression at a workgroup level points to organisational problems rather than individual psychopathology. He noted that work settings allow incivility and poor treatment to continue. Most recently, researchers have begun to more closely consider the impact of socio-economic contexts on workplace cultures. They have noted that workplace organisational cultures that prioritise economic outputs may be inadvertently supportive of bullying approaches to personnel management. Some authors have linked bullying cultures with neo-liberalism and new public management practices that prioritise outputs over people (Hutchinson and Jackson, 2015). D’Cruz (2015) developed a concept of depersonalised bullying which she defined as follows: Depersonalized bullying refers to the routine subjugation of employees by contextual, structural and processual elements of organizational design, which are implemented by supervisors and managers who involuntarily resort to abusive and hostile behaviours in an impersonal way to achieve organizational effectiveness’ (D’Cruz, 2015, p. 2). She further noted that ‘depersonalized bullying comes to the fore in the pursuit of organizational effectiveness’ (D’Cruz, 2015, p. 21). In neo-liberal workplaces, the organisation’s goal to achieve productivity and efficiency shapes the way leadership is enacted, how work and practices are contracted for, what workplace technologies are installed and to what ends these technologies are used. Managers may resort to oppressive practices to achieve ends without necessarily identifying with perpetrators of such practices. Whilst, in D’Cruz’s research, managers were largely unwilling perpetrators of oppression, she recognised the possibility that personalised, conscious as well as less deliberated forces are at work in the bullying complex. As can be seen from this brief overview of the literature, researchers and authors writing from critical social perspectives are increasingly raising questions about overly individualistic perspectives on bullying. Salin (2003), along with Liefooghe and Mackenzie Davey (2010), have drawn attention to the impact of restrictive definitions that conform to a dominant discourse about workplace bulling as an inter-personal problem. Such definitions can lead us to overlook complex relationships between inter-personal bullying, ‘aggressive’ management and oppressive workplace systems, and socio-economic or political contexts. Post-positivist reconsiderations of workplace bullying challenge such definitional constraints and draw attention to how intra-organisational power dynamics take shape in the context of broader socio-economic and political systems. For this reason, while the term ‘aggression’ is used in this article to broadly encompass the concerns of participants, the concept of bullying is stretched to incorporate managerial and organisational forms of oppression (Liefooghe and Mackenzie Davey, 2010). Methods From late 2011 until 2013, the author engaged in a constructionist grounded theory project to explore challenges and opportunities experienced by people working in human service organisations in the disaster aftermath (van Heugten, 2014). A convenience sampling technique was used. Potential participants were invited through an e-mail sent out by the Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers (ANZASW) to all of their membership in the province of Canterbury. The membership of ANZASW includes not only registered social workers, but other workers who identify as human service or social service workers. Recipients also passed on the invitation to non-members. This approach drew forty-three participants who consented to participate in unstructured interviews in late 2011. The participants included twenty-eight front line workers and fifteen managers. About half of the participants had a social work qualification, and others were qualified in psychology, human resource management and education. Six participants were men, and thirty-seven were women, with men overrepresented in management roles. This is consistent with the gender distribution in human services in New Zealand. The age distribution also reflected the ageing human services workforce, with only three participants under thirty-five, and the majority (thirty-one) aged over forty-five (ANZASW, 2013; McPherson, 2009). Most participants were employed in the public and not-for-profit sectors, and a small number worked in the private sector—in human service roles in for-profit businesses or in private practice counselling. Fields of practice included health, mental health, criminal justice, child protection, welfare services, education and employment services. The research was approved by the University of Canterbury’s Human Ethics Committee. Ethical considerations included awareness that participation in this project carried the potential to be traumatising. In recognition of that, the researcher provided an information sheet listing support services, including free counselling services funded by the New Zealand government for people affected by the earthquakes. The likelihood of overwhelming distress was mitigated by the voluntary nature of the interviews; the control afforded participants over the content of their discussions; and the fact that, by virtue of their training, the participants and the researcher were knowledgeable about traumatic impacts and how to modulate uncomfortable emotions. Participants were also assured that their identities, including organisational affiliations, would be anonymised in any publications. To ensure robust protection of identities, no pseudonyms are used and minimal demographic information is provided to introduce the quotations used in this article. Interviews were conducted and analysed using constructionist grounded theory methodology (Clarke, 2005). This methodology employs some of the same methods as a classical grounded theory approach, including ensuring that topics are explored until new interviews add no further information about emergent themes and until theoretical explanations about processes appear to be ‘saturated’, meaning they are supported by the data and no new evidence emerges to contradict these explanations (Glaser and Strauss, 1967). By contrast to more traditional grounded theory research, a constructionist grounded theory project usually includes early reviews of the extant literature, whilst retaining scepticism about the eventual importance of that literature (Clarke, 2005; Dunne, 2011). Constructionist grounded theory researchers explore relationships of power and politics, and consider how discourses socially construct perceptions about topics. There is less emphasis on creating new explanatory theories; relating findings to existing theories in new ways or adapting existing theory to ensure these better fit with findings are equally valued outcomes (Clarke, 2005). Qualitative data analysis software QSR International’s NVivo Version 10 (2012) was used to facilitate initial open coding of data and to keep records of relationships between open codes. More traditional notes and memo writing began to be relied on as themes began to take shape. During 2012 and 2013, all participants were invited to check transcripts of their interviews and provide corrections or additional comments. They were also provided a summary of initial findings. Whilst only a small number of participants sought to make minor factual corrections to transcripts, most responded with e-mail or telephone updates on their experiences. In addition to interviews with front line workers and managers of organisations, in 2013 and 2014, interviews were undertaken with a small number of disaster specialists, academics and community organisation representatives in New Zealand and Australia, all of whom were also guaranteed anonymity to enable frank discussions to take place. Results The interviews and their analysis pointed to three distinct forms of workplace aggression; the first involved an increase in emotional outbursts and incivility that participants largely attributed to workplace stress; the second was characterised by aggressive workplace behaviours that appeared to be undertaken with an aim to achieving the personal professional goals of individuals; and the third consisted of aggressive behaviours or processes, enacted to achieve organisational imperatives or goals. Workplace aggression attributed to stress overload As noted above, the unstructured interviews did not set out to intentionally explore the topic of workplace incivility or bullying and initially no questions were asked to elicit accounts of any such experiences. But, despite this, more than a dozen participants spontaneously introduced the topic of escalating worker to worker aggression, commenting on ‘Colleagues, losing it, getting stressed … verbal, loud … angry, aggressive … crying, but lots of anger. Quite loud’. Whether emotional outbursts came from colleagues or managers, participants usually thought that increased yelling and swearing and similar behaviours signified distress on the part of the protagonist. Participants tended to be forgiving of such outbursts and they recognised that they too could become reactive under stress. One participant said: ‘The interesting thing is that although I thought I coped well, … I just blew up with my colleague here, just blew up.’ Another commented: ‘A few times I’ve just about lost it myself, and I’ve had to walk out of a room.’ They attributed increased stress levels to a range of causes, prominently including a lack of basic resources to carry out work. This lack of resources included a lack of office space, since many buildings, especially in the central business district, had been damaged and declared unsafe. Initially, some work was undertaken out of cafes, garages and homes. In the intermediate to longer term (several years), organisations relocated, but the new accommodation could be cramped or open-plan, with shared desks allocated on a first-come basis. Previously co-located teams might be separated and, conversely, previously unrelated groups of workers might be co-located. There was not always much attention given to the impact this could have on team functioning. As one participant said: ‘You can’t just expect that a team of people will work well together. And that’s the other thing; we’ve had none of that after the earthquake, nothing about how you are functioning as a team, not a thing.’ In the initial months following the February 2011 earthquake in particular, many front line social workers and other human service workers lacked computers. There was insufficient access to basic telecommunication devices, including telephones. Client files and other important work documents might be inaccessible because they were on servers or filing cabinets inside damaged buildings; some of these documents would never be able to be retrieved. In addition, workers’ home situations varied greatly. Some had incurred almost no losses whilst others had been left without homes and were grieving for family members or friends who had died. Participants explained that such differences led to misunderstandings but these could be resolved in discussion. Participants who were managers found it difficult to strike a balance between responding to the practical and emotional needs of staff members who might, for example, need time off work and the requirement to maintain services to clients. Managers also endeavoured to reward staff who had made extraordinary efforts to continue working. But managers and front line participants noted that attempts to selectively support or reward workers frequently led to staff experiencing effort–reward imbalances and that this caused disgruntlement. For example, several front line participants thought that people who complained a lot received more assistance and noted that: ‘It seems to have ended up being quite inequitable, and so some people seem to have had quite a lot [of support] whereas other people haven’t had much at all.’ Workplace relationship problems were clearly significantly disruptive; a participant reported that her supervisor had told her: ‘I’m spending supervision time dealing with workplace issues, rather than client issues, because people are so bogged down in the complexities of the workplace at the moment.’ Whilst participants tended not to blame colleagues for aggressively expressed distress, they did raise questions and extend blame to some managers, employing organisations and funders for their failure to adequately resource and support human service workers. Workplace aggression attributed to attempts to claim power Whereas inappropriate reactive responses were thought to be, at least to an extent, excusable in light of the distressing circumstances of the earthquake aftermath, other behaviours were less readily forgiven. These behaviours were more typically perceived to be deliberate, and to be driven by personal professional motives of colleagues, supervisors and managers or by ulterior organisational goals. They were criticised and sometimes specifically labelled as ‘bullying’. Sometimes the professional or organisational goals were believed to have predated the earthquakes but the current context was thought to have provided opportunities that facilitated the escalation of aggressive goal directed actions. Bullying allegations involved changes being made to work roles and tasks without consultation, changes being made to conditions of work and to work contracts, and exclusion from decision making, including about major organisational restructuring, usually by managers. By the seventeenth interview, problematic power relationships in the aftermath of the earthquakes had begun to be a common theme in the interviews. The seventeenth participant drew focused attention to a pattern of behaviour whereby small groups, typically made up of middle managers and some senior front line staff, appeared to take advantage of opportunities to use the instability and uncertainty of the disaster aftermath for their personal professional gains, to lay claim to positions of greater power and elevate their status. The participant identified ‘a strong group ... who became quite entrenched’ and noted that other practitioners ‘have felt harassed and bullied by this group ... in terms of trying to enlist them too’. The participant went on to say: I’ve thought, this is a really interesting phenomenon, is it [just this organisation]? And then I hear presentations from [an employee support organisation] saying that they’re experiencing things in lots of other workplaces, where similar kinds of sort of, um, behaviours are emerging, and I think, is this a phenomenon of a disaster where people use that opportunity for their moment? Several other participants similarly noticed post-disaster changes in the distribution of power in subgroups within teams, or identified managers who appeared to pursue opportunities for advancement by taking up post-disaster command-and-control positions. Although the workers who experienced the manoeuvrings of individuals or groups might feel personally harassed or excluded, the underlying imperatives were thought to be tactical, rather than directed at merely undermining a particular person. The way in which emergency management responses to major disasters are typically organised, not just in New Zealand, but internationally, may facilitate opportunistic efforts by individuals or cliques who are seeking to achieve a rebalancing of power. When a national or local emergency is declared, an emergency plan is activated that draws together government and non-government essential service organisations in a strictly line managed ‘command-and-control’ structure. This emergency structure overrides business-as-usual delegations and requirements for consultation, including in large health and welfare sector organisations. As a front line worker from a public sector organisation noted: ‘They will have all had some command position. All managers were given certain powers.’ Although the emergency command-and-control environment does not preclude sensitive approaches and consultation with professionals, this context does make it more likely that autocratic decisions will be issued. Protests from professional practitioners are more easily cast aside than at other times, as explained by a participant who attempted to advocate for a client and was overruled: ‘He was saying, “We are in the middle of an emergency”, like, “You’ve got no voice”. So felt pretty undermined as a social worker doing what my role is.’ Depersonalised aggression in the service of organisational goals Following the national state of emergency which, after the February 2011 earthquake, lasted until 30 April 2011, the response and recovery phase was marked by prolonged uncertainty over building occupancy, insurance payments, funding for service delivery (especially for non-governmental not-for-profit organisations) and by staffing shortages (including because some workers left the city and vacancies became harder to fill). Many participants identified stress caused by business-as-usual expectations around service delivery (‘output targets’) and reporting and accounting requirements. Occasionally, harsh expectations were set by senior managers in locally controlled organisations, but most often complaints about premature business-as-usual expectations arose in human service organisations that were funded via government contracts, or had head offices outside the disaster-affected area. Expectations were often experienced as insensitive. A few of the many comments included: I’ve been quite surprised at some of the funding agencies. They didn’t give us any kind of leeway on normal contracting requirements. Yes we have a national office … a lot of pressure … to ensure that we are meeting our targets still. And it’s all about numbers. If you don’t live here, and next layer, if you weren’t here for February the 22nd, if you didn’t experience it you don’t get it. And no matter how hard, how much you try to explain, they don’t get it. Many participants thought that uncertainty about funding and other resources enabled organisational control over workers, and governmental control over organisations, to become unscrupulously expanded. Front line workers suspected, and some managers confirmed, that the disaster facilitated more aggressive approaches to achieving organisational changes and changes in the human services sector. A front line participant from a nationwide public service organisation complained about a lack of consultation about wide-ranging changes, including a move to deliver services online rather than face to face: ‘Management come up with these ideas but don’t consult us and then they say, “We’re doing this”.’ A manager agreed that the disaster context had provided organisations, including his organisation, with opportunities to ‘let’s, as you say, “drive this [change] through”.’ Several participants thought that changes that were now imposed on local organisations by national head offices or by government funding agencies had been previously mooted to be adopted nationwide. When previously proposed, these changes had drawn much protest. In the disaster aftermath, the reason given for lack of consultation was a need for urgency due to the dire consequences of the earthquakes. An example of an unpopular change that was introduced in several public and some not-for-profit organisations was a move to hot-desking and open-plan working spaces, instead of the allocation of rooms to individual or small groups of workers. The local excuse for this was readily available; there was limited office space, at least for a time. Once changes were effected in Christchurch, this could erode the strength and unity of opposition from workers at a wider, national level of organisations. At least eleven participants had experienced major new or significantly escalated large-scale restructuring of their organisation in the year immediately following the earthquakes, including changes in roles and numbers of staff allocated to roles, service delivery modalities, line management and reporting structures, location and layout of offices. Restructuring appeared to be particularly rife in public services, and was an additional source of stress for participants whose daily lives were already disrupted by thousands of felt earthquake aftershocks. Participants understood the need for some changes but questioned the aggressively managerialist and neo-liberal anti-welfare direction of changes, and their imposition at a time when participants thought human service workers and organisations needed as much stability and resource support as possible. Distress resulting from workplace aggression More than half of the participants experienced increased levels of anxiety. A small number (about half a dozen) were on antidepressant or sleeping medication. Most participants spoke of being tired and physically run down, often with lingering colds and coughs. Many continued to work while unwell because of the high work demands and lack of staff. The stress of thousands of earthquake aftershocks, which affected many Christchurch citizens’ sleep and anxiety levels, was difficult to separate out from the stress of workplace aggression. Participants understood their stress to emerge in a complex context where the balance of home and family with working lives was difficult to comfortably maintain. Front line workers also recognised the efforts of managers, especially local managers, to secure funding, provide support and ease demands. Several organisations increased staff access to supportive supervision, although some human service organisations decreased access as a cost-saving measure. Diminished input to decision making, especially decisions affecting clients, criticism over failing to meet targets, fractured team spirits, multiple changes of management, and uncertainty about organisational funding and future planning had, however, created intolerable strain. Participants felt insulted by exhortations to show ‘resilience’ in the face of stress. Several managers expressed scepticism about the emphasis on personal resilience building, when demands were exorbitant and workers were inadequately resourced. In their initial interviews and in later follow-up communications, several participants explained that they had attempted to raise workplace concerns with colleagues and managers. Raising issues about emotional outbursts with colleagues could clear the air. But, internally (within the organisation), raising concerns about aggressive managerial or organisational behaviours, such as the imposition of changes without consultation, did not appear to lead to satisfactory outcomes, even if such concerns were raised by a group. By the time of follow-up in 2012 and 2013, several participants noted dissent had become more muted or silenced. A front line worker who had recently resigned said: ‘It was a changing culture anyway, that corporate … culture, but even three years ago [prior to the disaster] you could still quite openly debate things and talk about things. But you absolutely cannot now.’ Participants commonly sought help for workplace stress caused by aggressive organisational management from external supervisors. Less than one-third had sought counselling assistance. Some participants sought advice from unions and lawyers. Generally, the participants were unable to effect a change in workplace conditions. By the time of follow-up, during late 2012 to mid-2013, approximately half of the participants had left their place of work. Others expressed a desire to leave and noted their own and other workers’ increased absenteeism. Participants explained that they were still motivated to undertake human service work but they had become disillusioned and disappointed in their employing organisations. At follow-up, most of the participants who had left workplaces were reemployed in another human service, although a small number were too ill to work. They attributed their illness to unprecedented workplace stress. But, although one participant cited a colleague who had openly said ‘he’d had enough, he said it was a really unhealthy organisation to work for and he wasn’t gonna work there anymore’, most participants said they had been less than explicit in their exit interviews; the majority had not declared a hostile work environment as their reason for leaving their employment. They feared reputational repercussions for criticising managers or employing organisations—a realistic concern, perhaps especially in a small country such as New Zealand. Instead, participants had explained they wished to take a break, spend more time with their family, move out of the city, or engage in a different type of social work or human service work. The focus of this article is on workplace aggression and bullying. This inevitably brings attention to negative behaviours. It should be noted that there were many positive comments about teams that had grown closer through adversity, and there was much praise for caring managers. Supportive managers were far more often, but not always, reported to be locally based. They had emphasised the need to ensure staff members and their families felt secure before work could be done. Participant managers explained that healthy workplace cultures with inclusive consultative decision-making processes led to organisations that ‘we can all be proud of’ and to workers feeling ‘safe’. Several managers explained that they had discovered the importance of attending to staff needs following the 2010 earthquake. A small number admitted they had not fully committed to ensuring staff well-being in 2010 but they were grateful for the lessons they had learned about the criticality of supporting workers as a result. This prepared them for the bigger disaster that occurred in February 2011. Workers with supportive managers typically counted themselves ‘lucky’, because their manager had been ‘kind’ and provided time to take care of their families and homes: ‘I was really lucky, because we had X as a manager, and she was kind. There was no pressure. … It wasn’t like, “Get back to work, we are short staffed”.’ Local senior managers felt the strain of supporting staff and meeting service requirements but they had relative control. By contrast, local middle managers with senior executives in other parts of the country explained it was very difficult to relate ongoing difficulties faced by local staff to people who had not personally experienced the earthquakes. Some carried a very heavy burden, translating relentless demands from above and needs from staff below them in the hierarchy. In a few cases, this severely impacted their health. Some, but not all, front line participants were aware of the extreme stress that being ‘kind’ could place on managers. Discussion Because the qualitative research project did not set out to test hypotheses, themes could be explored as they emerged. Furthermore, established definitions of bullying did not prevent the exploration of various forms of workplace aggression that did not neatly fit its preconceived personalised constraints. This enabled links to be made between the emerging themes and theories on inter-personal and organisational power relations, socio-economic and political contexts, and ‘disaster politics’. The findings showed that participants believed that increased emotionally aggressive outbursts among colleagues were commonly caused by stress overload. This, to an extent, enabled them to deal with increased workplace incivility and aggression. Three well established theoretical models of workplace stress are relevant to the increased levels of workplace stress that were discussed by the participants. These include Karasek and Theorell’s (1990) demand–resource–support model, which proposes that demanding work can be satisfying but only if workers have adequate resources and are supported. Also highly relevant is Siegrist’s (1996) effort–reward imbalance model. Participants observed that workers were inequitably rewarded and recognised for their extraordinary post-earthquake efforts to continue to provide services and this caused some acrimony among colleagues, although dissatisfaction was ultimately more often directed at organisations for how support and rewards were distributed. Lastly, French et al.’s (1982) person–environment fit model recognises that distress is caused by a lack of fit between workers and the work role, tasks and environment. Fit was reduced for many participants, especially due to loss of offices, requiring people to work in cramped or unsuitably noisy open-plan spaces. Participants who were professionally educated were familiar with such explanatory theoretical models and these helped them to cognitively process what they experienced and observed. After the earthquakes, participants were able to contextualise what might ordinarily have been considered unacceptable aggressive outbursts from colleagues as natural reactions. This meant parties to such ‘upsets’ did not need to be labelled as ‘bullies’ or ‘targets’ or be classed as having any enduring negative personality traits. Bystanders could also be fairly readily supportive without needing to fear becoming targeted in turn. Participants did, however, raise concerns about more deliberate behaviours from colleagues and especially from managers, including their interference with roles and tasks; excluding practices, such as not inviting staff members to meetings they had reasonably expected to attend; and withholding of information and resources. They thought that some individuals, acting alone or more commonly in groups, exploited the destabilisation and uncertainty caused by the earthquakes in order to enhance their personal workplace status and power via such tactics. These behaviours more readily fit traditional concepts of bullying or mobbing (bullying by a group). A theoretical model of particular relevance is Hutchinson et al.’s (2010) circuits of power model. Notably, several participants suggested that formally mandated post-disaster emergency command- and control-related roles could be misused to acquire higher organisational status. Managers bidding for more powerful positions were believed to recruit other members of staff, including other managers and front line workers, to their cause. Participants who thought they had been identified as standing in the way of a clique’s goals believed the group had endeavoured to erode their status within the organisation. The disaster context obscured or excused such practices. Many participants, including middle managers, identified a more political aspect to workplace aggression. They reported that restructuring that had been resisted prior to the disasters had been implemented with little consultation in the aftermath. Participants were sceptical of organisational senior managers’ claims that it was impossible to undertake consultation because the disastrous consequences of the earthquakes required more urgent actions. The analysis of the research data suggested that the disaster aftermath allowed the already steady pace of neo-liberal ‘rolling back’ of human services to be accelerated, in part through an emphasis on urgency and ‘crisis’ management. Some participants alleged that uncertainty over resources and resource deprivation was unnecessarily extended (for months and years) in order to facilitate this acceleration. Discourses that praised ‘resilient’ workers were thought to be used to excuse, legitimise and entrench unrealistic managerialist expectations around service delivery targets, workloads and hours. Other authors who have drawn attention to ‘disaster politics’ that accelerate neo-liberalisation in the aftermath of community disasters include Klein (2007), Olson (2000) and Pelling and Dill (2010). This third, organisational form of aggression matched D’Cruz’s (2015) conceptualisation of depersonalised bullying. D’Cruz’s wrote about how managers who act aggressively in response to neo-liberal organisational imperatives may not necessarily do so out of self-interest beyond basic self-preservation. In the current study, participants who were managers had endeavoured to resist pressures from senior executives or funders to achieve organisational aims through the use of harsh management tactics. They referred to their social work or other professional or personal codes of practice, and sought help from supervisors and counsellors. But they suffered significant stress as a consequence of attempting to uphold supportive management practices, and some said they had become ill as a direct consequence. Implications In the present research, undertaken with forty-three participants from human service organisations in a community devastated by major earthquakes, workers appeared to have become more vulnerable to various forms of aggressive workplace practices. Three forms of workplace aggression were identified, along with relevant explanatory theories. Findings showed that, although emotional outbursts by colleagues became more common, supportive workplace interventions may modulate long-term harmful consequences to teams. Less widely identified, and probably more likely to cause long-term harm in workgroups, are opportunistic bids by individuals or groups to take advantage of destabilisation to take over power. Such aggressive behaviours may go unchallenged or pass as strong leadership. Organisational or depersonalised bullying, already more common in neo-liberal workplaces, may also become more widely practised. Protest against such aggression may be more muted or take longer to organise in the wake of community trauma. The constructionist approach to the research enabled concepts to be considered in relationship rather than in conceptual silos. This revealed that participants’ experiences of various forms of aggression were interrelated. For example, emotional outbursts occurred when workers were highly stressed. Education about expectable reactions to trauma and stress and about resilience building (which was commonly provided to workers after the earthquakes) might somewhat mitigate collegial disharmony. However, when organisational managers failed to put effort into reducing unreasonable workloads and providing adequate resourcing, or indeed appeared to use the disaster context to demand more of workers and to impose changes without consultation, such education met with scepticism. Although participants were able to express these insights in the research interviews, they felt silenced and unable to turn the tide of neo-liberal restructuring in their organisations. Many left their employment. Limitations The focus of the original research was on identifying general rather than specific challenges following a community disaster; follow-up research is therefore planned to more thoroughly explore the dynamic interrelationships between forms of bullying and consider potential remedies at micro, meso and macro levels. Furthermore, the disaster concerned a series of natural, rather than human-caused, events and the findings cannot be assumed to apply across a range of disaster scenarios. Conclusion The research reported in this article identified workplace aggression occurring in human services following a natural disaster. This aggression was located not only in inter-personal relations, but also in organisational processes and neo-liberal socio-economic and political conditions. Unfortunately, disasters appear to be becoming more common internationally (van Heugten, 2014) and opening up discussion about the multi-layered nature of the bullying complex in the disaster context is therefore an important step towards ensuring human service organisations and workers can function and contribute effectively. Whilst limited generalisations can be made, it seems clear that prevention and intervention, whether delivered via education, policies, laws or other means, should not be solely, or even primarily, directed at improving person to person relationships but will need to holistically address organisational concerns as well as any specific conditions imposed by post-disaster emergency and recovery management. References ANZASW (Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers) ( 2013 ) Annual Report 2012/2013 , Wellington , ANZASW . Clarke A. E. ( 2005 ) Situational Analysis: Grounded Theory after the Postmodern Turn , London , Sage . D’Cruz P. ( 2015 ) Depersonalized Bullying at Work: From Evidence to Conceptualization , New Delhi , Springer . Dunne C. ( 2011 ) ‘ The place of the literature review in grounded theory research’, International Journal of Social Research Methodology , 14 ( 2 ), pp. 111 – 24 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS Einarsen S. , Hoel H. , Zapf D. , Cooper G. L. ( 2003 ) ‘The concept of bullying at work: The European tradition’, in Einarsen S. , Hoel H. , Zapf D. , Cooper G. L. (eds), Bullying and Emotional Abuse in the Workplace , London , Taylor & Francis , pp. 3 – 30 . French J. R. P. , Caplan R. D. , Van Harrison R. ( 1982 ) The Mechanisms of Job Stress and Strain , New York , Wiley . Glaser B. G. , Strauss A. L. ( 1967 ) The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research , New York , Aldine . Hutchinson M. , Jackson D. ( 2015 ) ‘ The construction and legitimation of workplace bullying in the public sector: Insight into power dynamics and organisational failures in health and social care’, Nursing Inquiry , 22 ( 1 ), pp. 13 – 26 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS PubMed Hutchinson M. , Vickers M. H. , Jackson D. , Wilkes L. ( 2010 ) ‘ Bullying as circuits of power: An Australian nursing perspective’, Administrative Theory and Praxis , 32 ( 1 ), pp. 25 – 47 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS Jenkins M. , Winefield H. , Sarris A. ( 2011 ) ‘ Consequences of being accused of workplace bullying: An exploratory study’, International Journal of Workplace Health Management , 4 ( 1 ), pp. 33 – 47 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS Karasek R. A. , Theorell T. ( 1990 ) Healthy Work: Stress, Productivity, and the Reconstruction of Working Life , New York , Basic Books . Klein N. ( 2007 ) The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism , New York , Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt . Leiter M. ( 2013 ) Analysing and theorizing the dynamics of the workplace incivility crisis . New York , Springer . Leymann H. ( 1996 ) ‘ The content and development of mobbing at work’, European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology , 5 ( 2 ), pp. 165 – 84 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS Liefooghe A. , Mackenzie Davey K. ( 2010 ) ‘ The language and organization of bullying at work’, Administrative Theory and Praxis , 32 ( 1 ), pp. 71 – 95 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS Mackenzie Davey K. , Liefooghe A. P. D. ( 2003 ) ‘Voice and power: A critical investigation of accounts of bullying in organizations’, in Schorr A. , Campbell W. , Schenk M. (eds), Communication Research and Media Science in Europe: Perspectives for Research and Academic Training in Europe’s Changing Media Reality , Berlin , Mouton de Gruyter , pp. 441 – 57 . McPherson M. ( 2009 ) Workplace Age and Gender: Trends and Implications , Auckland , Equal Employment Opportunities Trust . Nielsen M. B. , Matthiesen S. B. , Einarsen S. ( 2010 ) ‘ The impact of methodological moderators on prevalence rates of workplace bullying. A meta-analysis’, Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology , 83 ( 4 ), pp. 955 – 79 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS Olson R. S. ( 2000 ) ‘Toward a politics of disaster: Losses, values, agendas, and blame’ , International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters , 18 ( 2 ), pp. 265 – 87 . Ortega A. , Høgh A. , Pejtersen J. H. , Olsen O. ( 2009 ) ‘ Prevalence of workplace bullying and risk groups: A representative population study’, International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health , 82 ( 3 ), pp. 417 – 26 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS PubMed Pelling M. , Dill K. ( 2010 ) ‘ Disaster politics: Tipping points for change in the adaptation of sociopolitical regimes’, Progress in Human Geography , 34 ( 1 ), pp. 21 – 37 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS Ransley J. ( 2017 ) ‘Situating the legal framework’, in Schindeler E. , Ransley J. , Reynald D. M. (eds), Psychological Violence in the Workplace: New Perspectives and Shifting Frameworks , London , Routledge , pp. 60 – 77 . Salin D. ( 2003 ) Workplace Bullying among Business Professionals: Prevalence, Organisational Antecedents and Gender Differences, Helsinki, Swedish School of Economics and Business Administration. Siegrist J. ( 1996 ) ‘ Adverse health effects of high-effort/low-reward conditions’, Journal of Occupational Health Psychology , 1 ( 1 ), pp. 27 – 41 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS PubMed van Heugten K. ( 2014 ) Human Service Organizations in the Disaster Context , New York , Palgrave Macmillan . Vartia M. ( 2001 ), ‘ Consequences of workplace bullying with respect to the well-being of its targets and the observers of bullying’, Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health , 27 ( 1 ), pp. 63 – 9 . Google Scholar Crossref Search ADS Zapf D. , Einarsen S. ( 2003 ) ‘Individual antecedents of bullying’, in Einarsen S. , Hoel H. , Zapf D. , Cooper G. L. (eds), Bullying and Emotional Abuse in the Workplace , London , Taylor and Francis , pp. 165 – 84 . Zapf D. , Escartín J. , Einarsen S. , Hoel H. , Vartia M. ( 2011 ) ‘Empirical findings on the prevalence rate and risk groups of bullying in the workplace’, in Einarsen S. , Hoel H. , Zapf D. , Cooper G. L. (eds), Workplace Bullying: Development in Theory, Research and Practice , London , Taylor and Francis , pp. 75 – 106 . © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The British Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png The British Journal of Social Work Oxford University Press

Inter-personal and Organisational Aggression in Human Services Following a Community Disaster

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Oxford University Press
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© The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The British Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved.
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0045-3102
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1468-263X
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Abstract

Abstract Constructionist grounded theory research was undertaken with forty-three participants from human service organisations after several major earthquakes in New Zealand in 2010 and 2011. This revealed that many participants had experienced increased workplace aggression. Three distinct forms of aggression emerged from the analysis of the data. The first form consisted of emotional outbursts by distressed colleagues; participants generally considered these outbursts to be expectable and understandable reactions to trauma. The second form of aggression more readily fit traditional conceptualisations of workplace bullying; participants expressed dismay about the behaviour of fellow workers or managers who appeared to opportunistically and aggressively advance their personal professional status in the disaster aftermath. The third form of aggression aligned with recent conceptualisations of organisational or ‘depersonalised’ bullying; some organisations appeared to take advantage of the disaster aftermath to oppressively accelerate the pace of neo-liberal reforms of human services. Whilst traditional definitions of workplace bullying have tended to focus on person to person aggression, this focus obscures the importance of broader organisational, socio-economic and political power dynamics that sustain workplace oppression. Interventions based on inter-personal analyses are limited in their effectiveness; increased awareness of bullying in context is necessary to developing more effective multilevel interventions. Disasters, grounded theory, neo-liberalism, organisation, qualitative methods, workplace bullying Introduction This article reports on findings from qualitative research undertaken with forty-three participants from human service/social service organisations to explore challenges and opportunities arising in the aftermath of two major earthquakes that severely damaged the city of Christchurch, New Zealand. The first earthquake occurred on 4 September 2010 and the second on 22 February 2011. Both earthquakes destroyed buildings, including homes and businesses. No lives were lost as a direct result of the earthquake in 2010 but, in February 2011, 185 lives were lost and thousands of people were injured. Many human service workers and organisations were involved in the emergency response and in longer-term social and community recovery efforts. The research interviews identified that inequalities suffered by clients of human service organisations had predated the earthquakes and were exacerbated, rather than created, in the disaster aftermath. Participants explained that their service users were badly affected by the earthquakes because they lacked access to economic and social resources. For example, when rental costs rose because of housing shortages, accommodation became unaffordable, resulting in homelessness, ill health and disrupted schooling for children. Human service organisations also faced many challenges. Many were unable to access offices, computers and other equipment for an extended period of time. There were paid and volunteer staff shortages, uncertainties over contracts and funding, and unrelenting administrative reporting requirements from some national offices and government departments. Managers and government officials who were located outside the disaster-affected area often did not appear to understand the distressing ongoing impacts of the disasters’ aftermath on organisations. Participants reported that, within a short few weeks, external bodies ramped up output and reporting targets to return to business-as-usual expectations (van Heugten, 2014). Many participants identified that a ‘rolled back’ welfare state and a new public management governmental approach to New Zealand human services (including social work) had produced the context in which the personal struggles of service users, and the struggles faced by workers and their employing organisations, could be explained. The analysis of data highlighted that post-disaster decisions were politically driven decisions about how resources would be distributed (van Heugten, 2014). Although there had not been any active intention to explore workplace aggression at the start of the research project, many participants in the research identified increased levels of workplace aggression during the interviews. There were a small number of accounts of verbal aggression from service users against workers, but most accounts were of verbally aggressive outbursts from colleagues, bullying from colleagues and managers towards front line workers, and depersonalised aggression occurring at an organisational level. Workplace aggression in the human services is recognised to be a serious problem. Its occurrence in the additionally stressful circumstances of a disaster is under-researched but likely to have especially devastating consequences for individual workers, organisations and service users. The aim of this article is therefore to bring attention to this complex phenomenon. Literature review: perspectives on bullying Workplace bullying is a relatively recent field of research and theorising, with writing on the subject first emerging in northern Europe in the 1980s (Leymann and Gustafsson, 1984, cited in Leymann, 1996). Widely accepted definitions of bullying continue to adhere reasonably closely to Leymann’s original conceptualisation, and identify bullying as involving ‘harassing, offending, socially excluding someone or negatively affecting someone’s work tasks’. Particular characteristics that distinguish bullying from other types of workplace aggression include its repetitive and lasting nature; standard definitions require bullying to have occurred at least weekly and over at least a six-month time period (Einarsen et al., 2003, p. 15). During the first several decades, international literature primarily focused on the inter-personal dynamics of bullying, rather than on organisational structures or broader socio-economic contexts for its occurrence (Mackenzie Davey and Liefooghe, 2003). Causes were located in individual characteristics of ‘targets’ and ‘bullies’ (Zapf and Einarsen, 2003). Quantitative surveys and meta-reviews of such surveys endeavoured to establish the prevalence of bullying, placing this at between approximately 10–20 per cent of a workforce per annum. Large differences in prevalence rates have been attributed to differences in how bullying is defined and measured (methodological differences), and to international differences in the organisation of work, and cultural and socio-economic conditions (Nielsen et al., 2010; Ortega et al., 2009; Zapf et al., 2011). Another widely researched topic concerns the negative impacts of bullying on the physical and emotional health and well-being of targets and bystanders/witnesses (Vartia, 2001) as well as perpetrators (Jenkins et al., 2011). Workplace bulling is now well recognised as a widespread problem internationally. It appears to be especially common in hospitality services, and in health, education and human service/social service organisations (Zapf et al., 2011). A number of countries have established legislation to more robustly deal with cases of workplace bullying and harassment, and, at a practical level, this is prompting closer attention to organisational policies and procedures (Ransley, 2017). Legislative approaches, however, tend to consider bullying on a case-by-case basis, echoing and reinforcing a discourse about bullying as an inter-personal issue. This discourse leads to individualistic approaches to interventions, ignoring broader organisational and social contexts that allow bullying to occur. Hutchinson et al. (2010) noted a lack of complex analyses of power in workplace bullying. They developed a model wherein ‘workplace bullying is a function of four organizational factors: (1) organizational tolerance and reward; (2) networks of informal organizational alliances; (3) misuse of legitimate authority, processes, and procedures; and (4) normalization of bullying in the workplace’ (Hutchinson et al., 2010, p. 31). Their conceptualisation of circuits of power moves away from the idea that bullies are solitary actors to the idea that bullying is enabled by alliances of power. Once looked for, these networks of organisational alliances may present as cliques or small workgroup cohorts. Tolerated and even rewarded in the organisation, these groups might typically consider themselves above rules and their actions are often unchallenged. Workers who challenge or contradict the dominant perspectives promulgated by power elites are disciplined, including by being isolated and denigrated. Leiter (2013) similarly noted that enduring workplace incivility and aggression at a workgroup level points to organisational problems rather than individual psychopathology. He noted that work settings allow incivility and poor treatment to continue. Most recently, researchers have begun to more closely consider the impact of socio-economic contexts on workplace cultures. They have noted that workplace organisational cultures that prioritise economic outputs may be inadvertently supportive of bullying approaches to personnel management. Some authors have linked bullying cultures with neo-liberalism and new public management practices that prioritise outputs over people (Hutchinson and Jackson, 2015). D’Cruz (2015) developed a concept of depersonalised bullying which she defined as follows: Depersonalized bullying refers to the routine subjugation of employees by contextual, structural and processual elements of organizational design, which are implemented by supervisors and managers who involuntarily resort to abusive and hostile behaviours in an impersonal way to achieve organizational effectiveness’ (D’Cruz, 2015, p. 2). She further noted that ‘depersonalized bullying comes to the fore in the pursuit of organizational effectiveness’ (D’Cruz, 2015, p. 21). In neo-liberal workplaces, the organisation’s goal to achieve productivity and efficiency shapes the way leadership is enacted, how work and practices are contracted for, what workplace technologies are installed and to what ends these technologies are used. Managers may resort to oppressive practices to achieve ends without necessarily identifying with perpetrators of such practices. Whilst, in D’Cruz’s research, managers were largely unwilling perpetrators of oppression, she recognised the possibility that personalised, conscious as well as less deliberated forces are at work in the bullying complex. As can be seen from this brief overview of the literature, researchers and authors writing from critical social perspectives are increasingly raising questions about overly individualistic perspectives on bullying. Salin (2003), along with Liefooghe and Mackenzie Davey (2010), have drawn attention to the impact of restrictive definitions that conform to a dominant discourse about workplace bulling as an inter-personal problem. Such definitions can lead us to overlook complex relationships between inter-personal bullying, ‘aggressive’ management and oppressive workplace systems, and socio-economic or political contexts. Post-positivist reconsiderations of workplace bullying challenge such definitional constraints and draw attention to how intra-organisational power dynamics take shape in the context of broader socio-economic and political systems. For this reason, while the term ‘aggression’ is used in this article to broadly encompass the concerns of participants, the concept of bullying is stretched to incorporate managerial and organisational forms of oppression (Liefooghe and Mackenzie Davey, 2010). Methods From late 2011 until 2013, the author engaged in a constructionist grounded theory project to explore challenges and opportunities experienced by people working in human service organisations in the disaster aftermath (van Heugten, 2014). A convenience sampling technique was used. Potential participants were invited through an e-mail sent out by the Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers (ANZASW) to all of their membership in the province of Canterbury. The membership of ANZASW includes not only registered social workers, but other workers who identify as human service or social service workers. Recipients also passed on the invitation to non-members. This approach drew forty-three participants who consented to participate in unstructured interviews in late 2011. The participants included twenty-eight front line workers and fifteen managers. About half of the participants had a social work qualification, and others were qualified in psychology, human resource management and education. Six participants were men, and thirty-seven were women, with men overrepresented in management roles. This is consistent with the gender distribution in human services in New Zealand. The age distribution also reflected the ageing human services workforce, with only three participants under thirty-five, and the majority (thirty-one) aged over forty-five (ANZASW, 2013; McPherson, 2009). Most participants were employed in the public and not-for-profit sectors, and a small number worked in the private sector—in human service roles in for-profit businesses or in private practice counselling. Fields of practice included health, mental health, criminal justice, child protection, welfare services, education and employment services. The research was approved by the University of Canterbury’s Human Ethics Committee. Ethical considerations included awareness that participation in this project carried the potential to be traumatising. In recognition of that, the researcher provided an information sheet listing support services, including free counselling services funded by the New Zealand government for people affected by the earthquakes. The likelihood of overwhelming distress was mitigated by the voluntary nature of the interviews; the control afforded participants over the content of their discussions; and the fact that, by virtue of their training, the participants and the researcher were knowledgeable about traumatic impacts and how to modulate uncomfortable emotions. Participants were also assured that their identities, including organisational affiliations, would be anonymised in any publications. To ensure robust protection of identities, no pseudonyms are used and minimal demographic information is provided to introduce the quotations used in this article. Interviews were conducted and analysed using constructionist grounded theory methodology (Clarke, 2005). This methodology employs some of the same methods as a classical grounded theory approach, including ensuring that topics are explored until new interviews add no further information about emergent themes and until theoretical explanations about processes appear to be ‘saturated’, meaning they are supported by the data and no new evidence emerges to contradict these explanations (Glaser and Strauss, 1967). By contrast to more traditional grounded theory research, a constructionist grounded theory project usually includes early reviews of the extant literature, whilst retaining scepticism about the eventual importance of that literature (Clarke, 2005; Dunne, 2011). Constructionist grounded theory researchers explore relationships of power and politics, and consider how discourses socially construct perceptions about topics. There is less emphasis on creating new explanatory theories; relating findings to existing theories in new ways or adapting existing theory to ensure these better fit with findings are equally valued outcomes (Clarke, 2005). Qualitative data analysis software QSR International’s NVivo Version 10 (2012) was used to facilitate initial open coding of data and to keep records of relationships between open codes. More traditional notes and memo writing began to be relied on as themes began to take shape. During 2012 and 2013, all participants were invited to check transcripts of their interviews and provide corrections or additional comments. They were also provided a summary of initial findings. Whilst only a small number of participants sought to make minor factual corrections to transcripts, most responded with e-mail or telephone updates on their experiences. In addition to interviews with front line workers and managers of organisations, in 2013 and 2014, interviews were undertaken with a small number of disaster specialists, academics and community organisation representatives in New Zealand and Australia, all of whom were also guaranteed anonymity to enable frank discussions to take place. Results The interviews and their analysis pointed to three distinct forms of workplace aggression; the first involved an increase in emotional outbursts and incivility that participants largely attributed to workplace stress; the second was characterised by aggressive workplace behaviours that appeared to be undertaken with an aim to achieving the personal professional goals of individuals; and the third consisted of aggressive behaviours or processes, enacted to achieve organisational imperatives or goals. Workplace aggression attributed to stress overload As noted above, the unstructured interviews did not set out to intentionally explore the topic of workplace incivility or bullying and initially no questions were asked to elicit accounts of any such experiences. But, despite this, more than a dozen participants spontaneously introduced the topic of escalating worker to worker aggression, commenting on ‘Colleagues, losing it, getting stressed … verbal, loud … angry, aggressive … crying, but lots of anger. Quite loud’. Whether emotional outbursts came from colleagues or managers, participants usually thought that increased yelling and swearing and similar behaviours signified distress on the part of the protagonist. Participants tended to be forgiving of such outbursts and they recognised that they too could become reactive under stress. One participant said: ‘The interesting thing is that although I thought I coped well, … I just blew up with my colleague here, just blew up.’ Another commented: ‘A few times I’ve just about lost it myself, and I’ve had to walk out of a room.’ They attributed increased stress levels to a range of causes, prominently including a lack of basic resources to carry out work. This lack of resources included a lack of office space, since many buildings, especially in the central business district, had been damaged and declared unsafe. Initially, some work was undertaken out of cafes, garages and homes. In the intermediate to longer term (several years), organisations relocated, but the new accommodation could be cramped or open-plan, with shared desks allocated on a first-come basis. Previously co-located teams might be separated and, conversely, previously unrelated groups of workers might be co-located. There was not always much attention given to the impact this could have on team functioning. As one participant said: ‘You can’t just expect that a team of people will work well together. And that’s the other thing; we’ve had none of that after the earthquake, nothing about how you are functioning as a team, not a thing.’ In the initial months following the February 2011 earthquake in particular, many front line social workers and other human service workers lacked computers. There was insufficient access to basic telecommunication devices, including telephones. Client files and other important work documents might be inaccessible because they were on servers or filing cabinets inside damaged buildings; some of these documents would never be able to be retrieved. In addition, workers’ home situations varied greatly. Some had incurred almost no losses whilst others had been left without homes and were grieving for family members or friends who had died. Participants explained that such differences led to misunderstandings but these could be resolved in discussion. Participants who were managers found it difficult to strike a balance between responding to the practical and emotional needs of staff members who might, for example, need time off work and the requirement to maintain services to clients. Managers also endeavoured to reward staff who had made extraordinary efforts to continue working. But managers and front line participants noted that attempts to selectively support or reward workers frequently led to staff experiencing effort–reward imbalances and that this caused disgruntlement. For example, several front line participants thought that people who complained a lot received more assistance and noted that: ‘It seems to have ended up being quite inequitable, and so some people seem to have had quite a lot [of support] whereas other people haven’t had much at all.’ Workplace relationship problems were clearly significantly disruptive; a participant reported that her supervisor had told her: ‘I’m spending supervision time dealing with workplace issues, rather than client issues, because people are so bogged down in the complexities of the workplace at the moment.’ Whilst participants tended not to blame colleagues for aggressively expressed distress, they did raise questions and extend blame to some managers, employing organisations and funders for their failure to adequately resource and support human service workers. Workplace aggression attributed to attempts to claim power Whereas inappropriate reactive responses were thought to be, at least to an extent, excusable in light of the distressing circumstances of the earthquake aftermath, other behaviours were less readily forgiven. These behaviours were more typically perceived to be deliberate, and to be driven by personal professional motives of colleagues, supervisors and managers or by ulterior organisational goals. They were criticised and sometimes specifically labelled as ‘bullying’. Sometimes the professional or organisational goals were believed to have predated the earthquakes but the current context was thought to have provided opportunities that facilitated the escalation of aggressive goal directed actions. Bullying allegations involved changes being made to work roles and tasks without consultation, changes being made to conditions of work and to work contracts, and exclusion from decision making, including about major organisational restructuring, usually by managers. By the seventeenth interview, problematic power relationships in the aftermath of the earthquakes had begun to be a common theme in the interviews. The seventeenth participant drew focused attention to a pattern of behaviour whereby small groups, typically made up of middle managers and some senior front line staff, appeared to take advantage of opportunities to use the instability and uncertainty of the disaster aftermath for their personal professional gains, to lay claim to positions of greater power and elevate their status. The participant identified ‘a strong group ... who became quite entrenched’ and noted that other practitioners ‘have felt harassed and bullied by this group ... in terms of trying to enlist them too’. The participant went on to say: I’ve thought, this is a really interesting phenomenon, is it [just this organisation]? And then I hear presentations from [an employee support organisation] saying that they’re experiencing things in lots of other workplaces, where similar kinds of sort of, um, behaviours are emerging, and I think, is this a phenomenon of a disaster where people use that opportunity for their moment? Several other participants similarly noticed post-disaster changes in the distribution of power in subgroups within teams, or identified managers who appeared to pursue opportunities for advancement by taking up post-disaster command-and-control positions. Although the workers who experienced the manoeuvrings of individuals or groups might feel personally harassed or excluded, the underlying imperatives were thought to be tactical, rather than directed at merely undermining a particular person. The way in which emergency management responses to major disasters are typically organised, not just in New Zealand, but internationally, may facilitate opportunistic efforts by individuals or cliques who are seeking to achieve a rebalancing of power. When a national or local emergency is declared, an emergency plan is activated that draws together government and non-government essential service organisations in a strictly line managed ‘command-and-control’ structure. This emergency structure overrides business-as-usual delegations and requirements for consultation, including in large health and welfare sector organisations. As a front line worker from a public sector organisation noted: ‘They will have all had some command position. All managers were given certain powers.’ Although the emergency command-and-control environment does not preclude sensitive approaches and consultation with professionals, this context does make it more likely that autocratic decisions will be issued. Protests from professional practitioners are more easily cast aside than at other times, as explained by a participant who attempted to advocate for a client and was overruled: ‘He was saying, “We are in the middle of an emergency”, like, “You’ve got no voice”. So felt pretty undermined as a social worker doing what my role is.’ Depersonalised aggression in the service of organisational goals Following the national state of emergency which, after the February 2011 earthquake, lasted until 30 April 2011, the response and recovery phase was marked by prolonged uncertainty over building occupancy, insurance payments, funding for service delivery (especially for non-governmental not-for-profit organisations) and by staffing shortages (including because some workers left the city and vacancies became harder to fill). Many participants identified stress caused by business-as-usual expectations around service delivery (‘output targets’) and reporting and accounting requirements. Occasionally, harsh expectations were set by senior managers in locally controlled organisations, but most often complaints about premature business-as-usual expectations arose in human service organisations that were funded via government contracts, or had head offices outside the disaster-affected area. Expectations were often experienced as insensitive. A few of the many comments included: I’ve been quite surprised at some of the funding agencies. They didn’t give us any kind of leeway on normal contracting requirements. Yes we have a national office … a lot of pressure … to ensure that we are meeting our targets still. And it’s all about numbers. If you don’t live here, and next layer, if you weren’t here for February the 22nd, if you didn’t experience it you don’t get it. And no matter how hard, how much you try to explain, they don’t get it. Many participants thought that uncertainty about funding and other resources enabled organisational control over workers, and governmental control over organisations, to become unscrupulously expanded. Front line workers suspected, and some managers confirmed, that the disaster facilitated more aggressive approaches to achieving organisational changes and changes in the human services sector. A front line participant from a nationwide public service organisation complained about a lack of consultation about wide-ranging changes, including a move to deliver services online rather than face to face: ‘Management come up with these ideas but don’t consult us and then they say, “We’re doing this”.’ A manager agreed that the disaster context had provided organisations, including his organisation, with opportunities to ‘let’s, as you say, “drive this [change] through”.’ Several participants thought that changes that were now imposed on local organisations by national head offices or by government funding agencies had been previously mooted to be adopted nationwide. When previously proposed, these changes had drawn much protest. In the disaster aftermath, the reason given for lack of consultation was a need for urgency due to the dire consequences of the earthquakes. An example of an unpopular change that was introduced in several public and some not-for-profit organisations was a move to hot-desking and open-plan working spaces, instead of the allocation of rooms to individual or small groups of workers. The local excuse for this was readily available; there was limited office space, at least for a time. Once changes were effected in Christchurch, this could erode the strength and unity of opposition from workers at a wider, national level of organisations. At least eleven participants had experienced major new or significantly escalated large-scale restructuring of their organisation in the year immediately following the earthquakes, including changes in roles and numbers of staff allocated to roles, service delivery modalities, line management and reporting structures, location and layout of offices. Restructuring appeared to be particularly rife in public services, and was an additional source of stress for participants whose daily lives were already disrupted by thousands of felt earthquake aftershocks. Participants understood the need for some changes but questioned the aggressively managerialist and neo-liberal anti-welfare direction of changes, and their imposition at a time when participants thought human service workers and organisations needed as much stability and resource support as possible. Distress resulting from workplace aggression More than half of the participants experienced increased levels of anxiety. A small number (about half a dozen) were on antidepressant or sleeping medication. Most participants spoke of being tired and physically run down, often with lingering colds and coughs. Many continued to work while unwell because of the high work demands and lack of staff. The stress of thousands of earthquake aftershocks, which affected many Christchurch citizens’ sleep and anxiety levels, was difficult to separate out from the stress of workplace aggression. Participants understood their stress to emerge in a complex context where the balance of home and family with working lives was difficult to comfortably maintain. Front line workers also recognised the efforts of managers, especially local managers, to secure funding, provide support and ease demands. Several organisations increased staff access to supportive supervision, although some human service organisations decreased access as a cost-saving measure. Diminished input to decision making, especially decisions affecting clients, criticism over failing to meet targets, fractured team spirits, multiple changes of management, and uncertainty about organisational funding and future planning had, however, created intolerable strain. Participants felt insulted by exhortations to show ‘resilience’ in the face of stress. Several managers expressed scepticism about the emphasis on personal resilience building, when demands were exorbitant and workers were inadequately resourced. In their initial interviews and in later follow-up communications, several participants explained that they had attempted to raise workplace concerns with colleagues and managers. Raising issues about emotional outbursts with colleagues could clear the air. But, internally (within the organisation), raising concerns about aggressive managerial or organisational behaviours, such as the imposition of changes without consultation, did not appear to lead to satisfactory outcomes, even if such concerns were raised by a group. By the time of follow-up in 2012 and 2013, several participants noted dissent had become more muted or silenced. A front line worker who had recently resigned said: ‘It was a changing culture anyway, that corporate … culture, but even three years ago [prior to the disaster] you could still quite openly debate things and talk about things. But you absolutely cannot now.’ Participants commonly sought help for workplace stress caused by aggressive organisational management from external supervisors. Less than one-third had sought counselling assistance. Some participants sought advice from unions and lawyers. Generally, the participants were unable to effect a change in workplace conditions. By the time of follow-up, during late 2012 to mid-2013, approximately half of the participants had left their place of work. Others expressed a desire to leave and noted their own and other workers’ increased absenteeism. Participants explained that they were still motivated to undertake human service work but they had become disillusioned and disappointed in their employing organisations. At follow-up, most of the participants who had left workplaces were reemployed in another human service, although a small number were too ill to work. They attributed their illness to unprecedented workplace stress. But, although one participant cited a colleague who had openly said ‘he’d had enough, he said it was a really unhealthy organisation to work for and he wasn’t gonna work there anymore’, most participants said they had been less than explicit in their exit interviews; the majority had not declared a hostile work environment as their reason for leaving their employment. They feared reputational repercussions for criticising managers or employing organisations—a realistic concern, perhaps especially in a small country such as New Zealand. Instead, participants had explained they wished to take a break, spend more time with their family, move out of the city, or engage in a different type of social work or human service work. The focus of this article is on workplace aggression and bullying. This inevitably brings attention to negative behaviours. It should be noted that there were many positive comments about teams that had grown closer through adversity, and there was much praise for caring managers. Supportive managers were far more often, but not always, reported to be locally based. They had emphasised the need to ensure staff members and their families felt secure before work could be done. Participant managers explained that healthy workplace cultures with inclusive consultative decision-making processes led to organisations that ‘we can all be proud of’ and to workers feeling ‘safe’. Several managers explained that they had discovered the importance of attending to staff needs following the 2010 earthquake. A small number admitted they had not fully committed to ensuring staff well-being in 2010 but they were grateful for the lessons they had learned about the criticality of supporting workers as a result. This prepared them for the bigger disaster that occurred in February 2011. Workers with supportive managers typically counted themselves ‘lucky’, because their manager had been ‘kind’ and provided time to take care of their families and homes: ‘I was really lucky, because we had X as a manager, and she was kind. There was no pressure. … It wasn’t like, “Get back to work, we are short staffed”.’ Local senior managers felt the strain of supporting staff and meeting service requirements but they had relative control. By contrast, local middle managers with senior executives in other parts of the country explained it was very difficult to relate ongoing difficulties faced by local staff to people who had not personally experienced the earthquakes. Some carried a very heavy burden, translating relentless demands from above and needs from staff below them in the hierarchy. In a few cases, this severely impacted their health. Some, but not all, front line participants were aware of the extreme stress that being ‘kind’ could place on managers. Discussion Because the qualitative research project did not set out to test hypotheses, themes could be explored as they emerged. Furthermore, established definitions of bullying did not prevent the exploration of various forms of workplace aggression that did not neatly fit its preconceived personalised constraints. This enabled links to be made between the emerging themes and theories on inter-personal and organisational power relations, socio-economic and political contexts, and ‘disaster politics’. The findings showed that participants believed that increased emotionally aggressive outbursts among colleagues were commonly caused by stress overload. This, to an extent, enabled them to deal with increased workplace incivility and aggression. Three well established theoretical models of workplace stress are relevant to the increased levels of workplace stress that were discussed by the participants. These include Karasek and Theorell’s (1990) demand–resource–support model, which proposes that demanding work can be satisfying but only if workers have adequate resources and are supported. Also highly relevant is Siegrist’s (1996) effort–reward imbalance model. Participants observed that workers were inequitably rewarded and recognised for their extraordinary post-earthquake efforts to continue to provide services and this caused some acrimony among colleagues, although dissatisfaction was ultimately more often directed at organisations for how support and rewards were distributed. Lastly, French et al.’s (1982) person–environment fit model recognises that distress is caused by a lack of fit between workers and the work role, tasks and environment. Fit was reduced for many participants, especially due to loss of offices, requiring people to work in cramped or unsuitably noisy open-plan spaces. Participants who were professionally educated were familiar with such explanatory theoretical models and these helped them to cognitively process what they experienced and observed. After the earthquakes, participants were able to contextualise what might ordinarily have been considered unacceptable aggressive outbursts from colleagues as natural reactions. This meant parties to such ‘upsets’ did not need to be labelled as ‘bullies’ or ‘targets’ or be classed as having any enduring negative personality traits. Bystanders could also be fairly readily supportive without needing to fear becoming targeted in turn. Participants did, however, raise concerns about more deliberate behaviours from colleagues and especially from managers, including their interference with roles and tasks; excluding practices, such as not inviting staff members to meetings they had reasonably expected to attend; and withholding of information and resources. They thought that some individuals, acting alone or more commonly in groups, exploited the destabilisation and uncertainty caused by the earthquakes in order to enhance their personal workplace status and power via such tactics. These behaviours more readily fit traditional concepts of bullying or mobbing (bullying by a group). A theoretical model of particular relevance is Hutchinson et al.’s (2010) circuits of power model. Notably, several participants suggested that formally mandated post-disaster emergency command- and control-related roles could be misused to acquire higher organisational status. Managers bidding for more powerful positions were believed to recruit other members of staff, including other managers and front line workers, to their cause. Participants who thought they had been identified as standing in the way of a clique’s goals believed the group had endeavoured to erode their status within the organisation. The disaster context obscured or excused such practices. Many participants, including middle managers, identified a more political aspect to workplace aggression. They reported that restructuring that had been resisted prior to the disasters had been implemented with little consultation in the aftermath. Participants were sceptical of organisational senior managers’ claims that it was impossible to undertake consultation because the disastrous consequences of the earthquakes required more urgent actions. The analysis of the research data suggested that the disaster aftermath allowed the already steady pace of neo-liberal ‘rolling back’ of human services to be accelerated, in part through an emphasis on urgency and ‘crisis’ management. Some participants alleged that uncertainty over resources and resource deprivation was unnecessarily extended (for months and years) in order to facilitate this acceleration. Discourses that praised ‘resilient’ workers were thought to be used to excuse, legitimise and entrench unrealistic managerialist expectations around service delivery targets, workloads and hours. Other authors who have drawn attention to ‘disaster politics’ that accelerate neo-liberalisation in the aftermath of community disasters include Klein (2007), Olson (2000) and Pelling and Dill (2010). This third, organisational form of aggression matched D’Cruz’s (2015) conceptualisation of depersonalised bullying. D’Cruz’s wrote about how managers who act aggressively in response to neo-liberal organisational imperatives may not necessarily do so out of self-interest beyond basic self-preservation. In the current study, participants who were managers had endeavoured to resist pressures from senior executives or funders to achieve organisational aims through the use of harsh management tactics. They referred to their social work or other professional or personal codes of practice, and sought help from supervisors and counsellors. But they suffered significant stress as a consequence of attempting to uphold supportive management practices, and some said they had become ill as a direct consequence. Implications In the present research, undertaken with forty-three participants from human service organisations in a community devastated by major earthquakes, workers appeared to have become more vulnerable to various forms of aggressive workplace practices. Three forms of workplace aggression were identified, along with relevant explanatory theories. Findings showed that, although emotional outbursts by colleagues became more common, supportive workplace interventions may modulate long-term harmful consequences to teams. Less widely identified, and probably more likely to cause long-term harm in workgroups, are opportunistic bids by individuals or groups to take advantage of destabilisation to take over power. Such aggressive behaviours may go unchallenged or pass as strong leadership. Organisational or depersonalised bullying, already more common in neo-liberal workplaces, may also become more widely practised. Protest against such aggression may be more muted or take longer to organise in the wake of community trauma. The constructionist approach to the research enabled concepts to be considered in relationship rather than in conceptual silos. This revealed that participants’ experiences of various forms of aggression were interrelated. For example, emotional outbursts occurred when workers were highly stressed. Education about expectable reactions to trauma and stress and about resilience building (which was commonly provided to workers after the earthquakes) might somewhat mitigate collegial disharmony. However, when organisational managers failed to put effort into reducing unreasonable workloads and providing adequate resourcing, or indeed appeared to use the disaster context to demand more of workers and to impose changes without consultation, such education met with scepticism. Although participants were able to express these insights in the research interviews, they felt silenced and unable to turn the tide of neo-liberal restructuring in their organisations. Many left their employment. Limitations The focus of the original research was on identifying general rather than specific challenges following a community disaster; follow-up research is therefore planned to more thoroughly explore the dynamic interrelationships between forms of bullying and consider potential remedies at micro, meso and macro levels. Furthermore, the disaster concerned a series of natural, rather than human-caused, events and the findings cannot be assumed to apply across a range of disaster scenarios. Conclusion The research reported in this article identified workplace aggression occurring in human services following a natural disaster. This aggression was located not only in inter-personal relations, but also in organisational processes and neo-liberal socio-economic and political conditions. Unfortunately, disasters appear to be becoming more common internationally (van Heugten, 2014) and opening up discussion about the multi-layered nature of the bullying complex in the disaster context is therefore an important step towards ensuring human service organisations and workers can function and contribute effectively. Whilst limited generalisations can be made, it seems clear that prevention and intervention, whether delivered via education, policies, laws or other means, should not be solely, or even primarily, directed at improving person to person relationships but will need to holistically address organisational concerns as well as any specific conditions imposed by post-disaster emergency and recovery management. References ANZASW (Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers) ( 2013 ) Annual Report 2012/2013 , Wellington , ANZASW . Clarke A. E. ( 2005 ) Situational Analysis: Grounded Theory after the Postmodern Turn , London , Sage . D’Cruz P. 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Journal

The British Journal of Social WorkOxford University Press

Published: Sep 1, 2018

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