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Organisational Culture:
The Common Factor in Bullying and Harassment and Stress

Public sector organisations are increasingly coming under the spotlight of accountability, being required to manage within tight budgetary constraints, whilst at the same time demonstrating to Government and public alike that they are delivering the services required of them. The police service is not immune from such pressures and the face of policing is changing as a result (see article 'The Changing Face of Policing: A Source of Misunderstanding and Dissatisfaction' ). One consequence of this rapid change and increased emphasis on performance is that more officers and staff appear to be suffering from stress. Indeed policing has been identified as the second most stressful job (based on Cooper assessment of 104 jobs during 1997).

According to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), stress is the adverse reaction that people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them (HSE, 2001). Although the immediate physical responses to stress (e.g. rapid heart rate, raised blood pressure, sweating, poor digestion etc.) are unpleasant enough, the cumulative effect of sustained stress can have serious consequences both for the individual in terms of physical, psychological and social problems, and for the organisation in terms of lost working hours, lack of performance, lowered morale and increased employee turnover.

All organisations owe a duty of care to their employees and are expected to carry out health and safety risk assessments in order to identify and manage areas that might threaten the well-being of their workforce. Stress is considered such an important health issue that the HSE have developed a specific indicator tool (Cousins, Mackay, Clarke, Kelly, Kelly & McCaig, 2004) so that organisations may assess their level of risk. This focuses on six organisational factors (i.e. demands, control, support, role, relationships and change) that may act as stressors, i.e. events or contextual factors that may induce stress. Whether they do so or not depends in part upon other factors, such as past experience, support, persistence etc., that can increase or decrease the likelihood.

In terms of the indicator tool, 'demands' refers to the pressures made upon the individual. Of course, many workplace demands are both reasonable and necessary, but negative pressure to work longer, faster or more intensively may result in undue stress. The factor of 'control' relates to the ability to be self determining, for instance in deciding when to take a break or how to complete tasks. 'Support', both in terms of management help and feedback, and from work colleagues is seen as important: its absence inducing stress whilst its presence reduces it. Similarly clarity of 'role' is seen as positive, whereas not knowing what is expected or being unclear as to goals increase the risk of stress. The issue of bullying and harassment is addressed within the factor of 'relationships', with HSE questionnaire items focussing on friction and unkind words between colleagues or managers. The final organisational stress factor is that of 'change', or perhaps more accurately lack of consultation and/or communication about proposed or imminent change that will affect employees.

I would like to draw attention to three areas associated with the HSE work that have perhaps been under explored. The first concerns the links between bullying/harassment and stress; the second addresses the associations between each of the six factors in the HSE Indicator Tool and bullying/harassment; and the third explores the issue of the seventh organisational factor, 'culture', which was so closely correlated with each of the other factors that it was omitted from the HSE's final version of the Indicator Tool.

Let's look at the links between bullying and harassment and stress first. Support for such associations exist in the form of findings from correlation studies looking at a) relationships between the scores on bullying / harassment measures and stress measures (e.g. Agervold & Mikkelsen, 2004; Einarsen, Raknes, Matthiesen & Hellesoy, 1996), and b) relationships between scores on bullying & harassment measures and physiological stress responses such as levels of cortisol in saliva (Hansen, Hogh, Persson, Karlson, Garde & Orbaek, 2006). There is also a bank of case work studies (e.g. Leymann & Gustafsson, 1996; Tehrani, 2004; Groeblinghoff & Becker, 1996) evidencing the links between bullying /harassment and stress, whilst analysis of absence reports by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development highlighted bullying as a significant reason for stress related workplace illness absence (CIPD, 2004).

Those caught up in bullying/harassment typically have more symptoms of psychological stress (restlessness, irritability, depression) and mental fatigue than their non-bullied counterparts, are more likely to be clinically anxious and depressed, to have low self-esteem and lower levels of job satisfaction. The use of the phrase 'those caught up in bullying/harassment' rather than 'targets' is intentional, as the effects of bullying have been shown to extend to observers and team members.

Having demonstrated associations between bullying and harassment and stress reactions it might now be appropriate to look at any links in terms of shared organisational factors. Let me list these as they apply to stress once more: demands, control, support, role, relationships and change. There is empirical support that each one of these factors of stress is also implicated in bullying and harassment. For instance in terms of 'demand', competition in the private sector, and external and governmental pressures to deliver within tighter budgets, means that most organisations today have very little spare capacity. Even in normal circumstances this may lead to excessive demands being placed on employees at times of staff shortage, but it also provides unscrupulous managers with both an excuse and a tool for bullying (Hutchinson, Vickers, Jackson & Wilkes, 2005). Similarly 'change' has been identified as a triggering circumstance for b&h (Salin 2003).

Police forces throughout the country are undergoing radical change such as modernisation, civilianisation, and mixed economy, all of which require a rethink of the traditional silo management structures upon which they have been laid. Managers at every level need to be vigilant to the effects that this additional stress may have on their teams. Research published by the Chartered Management Institute suggests that the extent of organisational change is a factor leading to examples of bullying behaviour. According to their 'Quality of Working Life' report (Worrall & Cooper, 2006) 89% of managers experienced some form of workplace change in the past twelve month resulting in behaviour associated with workplace bullies. Respondents admitted to becoming angry with colleagues (55%), irritable and intolerant (30%) and to avoiding contact with them (26%). Change has also been identified as a reason for bullies to threaten jobs, careers and professionalism of those in their charge (Hutchinson, Vickers, Jackson & Wilkes, 2005).

The links drawn between bullying and harassment and stress, and between the organisational factors associated with them prompted me to look again at the seventh factor in the HSE Indicator Tool, i.e. "culture". You may remember that this factor was so closely related to each of the others that the HSE omitted it from the final questionnaire. During the course of my own research and subsequent work I have become increasingly aware of the importance of organisational culture in guiding perceptions of accepted and acceptable behaviour within the working environment: behaviour that is deemed bullying in one setting might equally well be seen as part of the normal management style elsewhere. (See 'The Culture of the Police Service' ) Consideration of the issue of culture might provide some explanation for the unacceptable levels of bullying and harassment and stress in police officers and staff.

There is a whole raft of definitions of culture, but at its simplest culture can be thought of as "the way we do things around here". I have run workshops for police managers, both officers and staff, where we have looked at the culture past, present and future. Consideration is given to the many aspects of the organisation, including the structures, management styles, communications, inter-personal interactions and training. Through such exercises delegates identify and begin to understand how their expectations, perceptions and behaviour are influenced by the culture of the organisation. The physiology of our eyes may determine what we see, but it is culture that filters what we see into the 'reality' we perceive.

If the culture dictates that it is acceptable to assign offensive nicknames to newcomers, it is likely that the commonness of the situation will mean that group members will not see this as a problem. Similarly newcomers are likely to find it very difficult to object to such a process. It is probable that any individual standing up against behaviour that has become normalised and has remained unchallenged for some time will be seen as overly sensitive, troublemaking and, therefore, as setting themselves apart from the group. With this in mind it is easy to understand how a culture with an expectation that officers and staff will always make themselves available to meet the requirements of the organisation will also lend itself to the potential for unreasonable demand, stress and bullying. Although such an outcome is likely it is important to point out that it is not inevitable, as cultural influences also guide perceptions of acceptable managerial behaviour.

There is still a tendency to think of bullying and harassment, and even to a lesser extent, stress, as problems of the individual. Targets of bullying may be seen as weak and ineffectual especially in traditionally masculine occupations such as the police service where great store is set by "strength of character". Yet the figures for bullying and harassment in the police (12% respondents in previous 6 months - Hoel & Cooper, 2000; 15% of staff and 18% of police officers in last 12 months - Essex Police, 2004; 20% of people working for the Force - North Yorkshire Police, 2006) must give cause to question this viewpoint. How can up to 20% of the Force be 'wrong' for the job, and why do some Forces have a greater problem than others? This article has drawn attention to the role of the culture of the organisation in defining and setting the standards for behaviour. It is therefore to the culture of the organisation that we should be looking for change and the raising of professional standards.

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Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (2004) Managing conflict at work: a survey of the UK and Ireland. London: CIPD.
Cousins, R.; Mackay, C.J.; Clarke, S.D.; Kelly, C.; Kelly, P.J.; & McCaig, R.H. (2004). 'Management standards' and work related stress in the UK: Practical development. Work & Stress, 18, 2, 113-136.
Einarsen, S.; Raknes, B.I.; Matthiesen, S.B.; & Hellesoy, O.H. (1996). Bullying at work and its relationships with health complaints: Moderating effects of social support and personality. Nordisk Psykologi, 48, 2, 116-137.
Essex Police - EPA/74/04 Equality Group Meeting 2 April 2004. Downloaded 6 August 2007
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Hoel, H.; & Cooper, C. (2000). Destructive Conflict and Bullying at Work. Manchester: UMIST.
HSE (2001) Tackling Work-Related Stress: A Managers' Guide to Improving and Maintaining Employee Health and Well-Being (HSG218). Sudbury: HSE Books
Hutchinson, M.; Vickers, M.H.; Jackson, D.; & Wilkes, L. (2005). 'I'm gonna do what I wanna do': Organizational change as a legitimized vehicle for bullies. Health Care Management Review, 30, 4, 331-336.
Leymann, H.; & Gustafsson, A. (1996). Mobbing at work and the development of post-traumatic stress disorder. European Journal of Work & Organizational Psychology, 5, 2, 251-275.
North Yorkshire Police: Gabriel, H. (22 Aug 2006). More police officers forced out of the job. Downloaded 6th August 2007 from
Salin, D. (2003). Ways of explaining workplace bullying: A review of enabling, motivating and precipitating structures and processes in the work environment. Human Relations, 56, 10, 1213-1232
Tehrani, N. (2004). Bullying: a source of chronic post-traumatic stress? British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 32, 3, 357-366.
Worrall, L.; & Cooper, C. (2006). The Quality of Working Life: Manager's Health and Well-Being. London: Chartered Management Institute.

Dr. K.M.McIvor © 2009

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