Worker mistreatment is a global crisis: meta-analysis

May 31, 2021

Workplace mistreatment is affecting way more people than you think. (Pexels/Polina Zimmerman)

An unprecedented systematic meta-analysis of workplace mistreatment has shown that it is a highly prevalent global phenomenon affecting more than a third of employees across 62 countries and resulting in hundreds of billions to nearly 2 trillion dollars in lost productivity.

The findings, published May 12 in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, break ground by providing a comprehensive view of worker mistreatment, drawing on data from hundreds of studies spanning several decades, said lead author Lindsay Dhanani, an assistant professor at Ohio University, in an interview with The Academic Times.

"We really didn't have a good grounding of how many people were experiencing mistreatment, and, even more so, we didn't know how many people were witnessing mistreatment at work," she said. "If you ask the layperson to estimate how many people are affected by mistreatment, they'll give you variable answers, but they're almost always underestimating."

"In some ways, this is just calling attention to the problem," she added. 

Shining a light on the prevalence of workplace mistreatment is critical because of the widespread perception that it is exaggerated, Matthew LaPalme, an associate research scientist at Yale University and a co-author of the study, told The Academic Times.  

"There is this resistance to addressing these types of issues in organizations and workplaces, because there's this underlying belief that it's a low base-rate phenomenon — that it doesn't happen that often," LaPalme explained. "The reason this research is important is because it's way more prevalent than people believe it to be." 

Mistreatment is defined broadly in the study to encompass a range of negative workplace encounters, from bullying and discrimination to sexual harassment and physical violence, and is not limited to employers abusing or exploiting their employees. 

"Basically, we included any form of bad behavior that you can experience at work, so any interpersonal hostility or slight that people experience, ranging from incivility, which is really minor, to physical violence or bullying, where you're repeatedly exposed to high-severity behaviors," Dhanani said. 

The researchers analyzed 540 studies relating to workers experiencing mistreatment and 70 studies about workers witnessing it, involving totals of 976,801 and 144,510 participants, respectively. Studies were excluded if they experimentally manipulated mistreatment or if having experienced mistreatment was a requirement for participating in the study. The authors noted in the study that the latter would have skewed the results by incorporating studies with artificial 100% prevalence rates. 

They found that 34% of workers worldwide had personally experienced mistreatment, while 44% had seen it happen to a coworker. In a previous study that was published in 2018, Dhanani and LaPalme found that witnessing workplace mistreatment had a substantial impact on an employee's well-being. LaPalme likened it to a contagious disease within an organization, potentially causing more harm than personally experiencing mistreatment.

"I don't think a lot of people are aware of how damaging witnessing mistreatment can be," Dhanani added. "In our own work, we find that it's associated with a host of negative outcomes, including mental and physical health outcomes. … Our new findings show that almost half of employees are at risk of those consequences."  

In their latest study, the researchers estimate that sick leave and loss of productivity related to workplace mistreatment costs between $691.7 billion and $1.97 trillion annually in the countries included in the analysis. In the U.S. alone, the cost is between $126.7 and $361 billion. And those estimates are conservative, LaPalme said, as they do not account for litigation resulting from worker mistreatment or other associated costs. 

"I think there's a little bit of sticker shock when you see these numbers, because there really is a lot at stake, and, hopefully, that means there's extra motivation to reduce these behaviors," Dhanani said.  

The authors hope their work will result in greater worker protections through legislation and organization-level policy changes. Critically, they found that the prevalence of worker mistreatment was lower in countries with greater worker protections. 

"One of our important findings is that we do find a pretty substantial relationship between reducing worker protections and mistreatment," LaPalme said. "What we found was a global phenomenon, which means we need national government-level intervention. We need legislatures to take action and make change." 

Dhanani and LaPalme called for further study of mistreatment in the workplace, emphasizing that the phenomenon remains poorly understood despite its high prevalence throughout the world. Their own follow-up studies will focus on interventions that could reduce the number of employees experiencing slights and incivility as well as much more severe forms of abuse. 

"We've always wanted to know how many people this is affecting, what's the scope of the problem and how we can fix it," Dhanani said. "But we really just didn't have a good anchor. What we did definitely helps, but we still need more research."

The study, "How prevalent is workplace mistreatment? A meta-analytic investigation," published May 12 in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, was authored by Lindsay Y. Dhanani, Ohio University; Matthew L. LaPalme, Yale University; and Dana L. Joseph, University of Central Florida. 

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