Academic journal article Research and Practice in Human Resource Management

Nurses' Responses to Workplace Verbal Abuse: A Scenario Study of the Impact of Situational and Individual Factor

Academic journal article Research and Practice in Human Resource Management

Nurses' Responses to Workplace Verbal Abuse: A Scenario Study of the Impact of Situational and Individual Factor

Article excerpt


Verbal abuse in the workplace represents a costly problem for human resource management, with implications for staff productivity and retention. Nurses are a profession exposed to extremely high levels of verbal abuse, particularly from patients, but also from colleagues, making these abusive behaviours, and reactions to them, of vital significance to hospital personnel management professionals. The present study investigated the extent to which responses to verbal abuse scenarios varied as a function of the role and gender of the perpetrator, the situation in which the verbal abuse occurred, and the participant's level of assertiveness, with a view to establishing key contributors for management attention. Participants were 62 female registered nurses. Results showed evidence of variation in cognitive, affective and behavioural attitudes toward the verbal abuse described, particularly as a function of situation. In particular, verbal abuse was reported to be more frequent, considered less acceptable and elicited more affective arousal in non emergency than in emergency situations. These findings were consistent with predictions that were based on attribution theory. Responses to verbal abuse also varied in relation to the nurse's assertiveness, which is a finding suggesting that assertiveness training is a potential strategy for protecting employees against the effects of verbal abuse. This study has important implications for managers in hospitals, and indeed, other organisational settings in that dealing with verbal abuse requires cognisance of the need for the implementation of both organisational and individual levels of intervention, within a framework that acknowledges the complexity of responses to verbal abuse in the workplace.


Workplace violence is an issue of global concern (Gill, Fisher & Bowie 2002), with potential negative ramifications for organisations including reduced productivity and morale, and increased absenteeism and turnover rates. It has been suggested that nurses are subjected to up to three times as much violence in the workplace than any other profession (Paterson, McCornish & Bradley 1999, Perrone 1999). Verbal abuse is an insidious form of workplace violence that is a major contributor to dissatisfaction and high rates of attrition in nurses (Vogt, Cox, Velthouse & Thames 1983, Bush & Gilliland 1995, Smith 1997, Sofield & Salmond 2003). Although patients are a major source of workplace violence for nurses, it is noticeable nurses have also reported workplace violence from colleagues, with incidences of up to 36 per cent reported in private hospitals (Hegney, Plank & Parker 2003). This high rate of workplace violence towards nurses makes verbal abuse a significant concern for human resource management within hospital settings.

In order to understand the specifics of the nurses' experiences of workplace verbal abuse, conceptualisations need to incorporate analysis of the hospital context. It has been hypothesised that the hierarchical nature of the hospital environment may contribute to high rates of verbal abuse through its hierarchical organisation and exposure to suffering and grief (Simms 2000). In addition, it is possible that workplace violence towards nurses is exacerbated by the traditional gender inequalities across roles of differing status that exist within hospital settings, where the lower status role of nurses has been compounded with a gender that has also traditionally accorded lower status. However, there is limited understanding of how gender interacts with the status differences between doctors and nurses to influence the frequency of, and reactions to, verbal abuse. In turn, this lack of information constrains understanding of the way changing gender distributions within nursing and doctoring professions might affect the experienced verbal abuse of nurses.

Empirical research into workplace violence, which might aid the development of strategies to deal effectively with abuse, has had practical difficulties (Douglas & Martinko 2001). …

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