Workplace Violence and Harassment: a European Picture

Testo tratto da: "Workplace Violence and Harassment: a European Picture"

Fonte: European Agency for Safety and Health at Work



Executive summary

The problems of violence and harassment at work have created special interest in the last few years, which has resulted in many scientific and popular publications. Social preoccupation has also increased and different political and labour institutions, on a national and international level, have pronounced, through different documents, their concern about this issue.

The aims of the report are to:

  • scrutinise differences in EU Member States in terms of the OO level of occurrence of different forms of violence and harassment at work (key statistics from international and national sources), as well as examples of the use of preventive measures;
  • review the methodology and data sources used in different countries to assess the risk, prevalence and consequences of both workplace violence and harassment;
  • examine cultural differences — definitions and norms — related to both violence and harassment at work.


The focus of the literature survey was on recent European literature. Books, study reports, working papers and (scientific) articles were all covered. In March 2008, a survey on violence and harassment at work was sent to the Focal Points of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) 1. The purpose of the survey was to get a general idea of the situation across the EU countries in relation to work-related violence and to explore the issues related to violence and harassment at work more deeply. Altogether 19 Focal Points from the EU-27 answered the survey 2.

Answers were also received from Albania, Norway, and Switzerland. Thus, the total number of replies was 22.


There is no single uniform definition of what is meant by workplace violence or harassment. Violence is a generic term that covers all kinds of abuse: behaviour that humiliates, degrades or damages a person’s well-being, value or dignity.

There is a variety of behaviours which may be covered under the heading of general violence at work, and the perception in different contexts and cultures as to what constitutes violence is diverse. Classifying different forms of violence is difficult and classifications used are often overlapping.

In this report, the phrases ‘work-related violence’ or ‘workplace violence’, are used to refer to all kinds of violent incidents at work, including third-party violence and harassment (bullying, mobbing) at work. The phrase ‘third-party violence’ is used torefer to threats, physical violence, and psychological violence (e.g. verbal violence) by third parties such as customers, clients, or patients receiving goods or services. The word ‘harassment’ will be used in this report to refer to the phenomenonalso called bullying or mobbing, describing repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed towards an employee, or group of employees by a colleague, supervisor or subordinate, aimed at victimising, humiliating, undermining or threatening them.


The results of the Focal Point survey showed that harassment is addressed officially (if, for example, an official definition exists for it and/or it is mentioned in legislation) more often than third-party violence. The way harassment and third-party violence are defined in legislation varies between the EU Member States, starting from more general law that covers all aspects of work, without mentioning third-party violence or harassment at work, to more specific definitions where, for example, bullying and harassment are also separated by the law.

The legislation or regulations do not usually define what is meant by violence or harassment or bullying. In some countries legislation concerning harassment or bullying refers, however, to repeated negative acts and to the negative health effects on the target.

The results of the Focal Point survey also showed that in new Member States, the level of acknowledgement of the issues was more often seen to be inappropriate compared to the relevance/significance of the problem.

The main reasons for low acknowledgement of these issues at the country level were:

  • lack of awareness;
  • no appropriate tools/method for assessing and managing the issue;
  • low prioritisation of the issue;
  • scientific evidence is limited or lacking; and
  • specific regulation on the subject is limited or lacking.

At a European level, raising awareness of this issue with programmes and campaigns was considered important. Provision of appropriate tools/methods for assessing and

managing third-party violence in the workplace was mentioned often.

Prevalence of work-related violence

According to the Fourth EWCS, 6 % of workers from the EU-27 report that they have been exposed to threats of physical violence either from fellow workers (2 %) or from others (4 %).

However, there seems to be a higher reported incidence of physical violence, as well as threats of physical violence, in the northern European Member States and a lower reported level of violence in the southern Member States.

A specific feature of third-party violence is that the risk is substantially higher in some occupational sectors such as healthcare and social work, education, commerce,

transport, public administration, defence, and hotels and restaurants. Women meet with violence most often in healthcare, education and shops, whereas men encounter it most in police and security work, and transport. In these sectors, many of the features of work and the work environment shown to be risks for violence by third parties are present.

The Fourth EWCS also showed that 5 % of the respondents had been subjected to bullying and/or harassment in the workplace over the past 12 months in 2005. Less than 2 % of those surveyed were exposed to sexual harassment or unwanted sexual attention. However, as in physical violence, there is a wide variation between countries on the level of bulling and/or harassment in workplaces. In some countries, the focus of harassment studies is on sexual harassment and there is no information available on bullying at work.

National statistics and surveys show somewhat different prevalence rates compared with the EWCS showing the difficulties in assessing and comparing statistics or study results about the prevalence or exposure to different forms of third-party violence and harassment between different countries and surveys.

Risk factors and antecedents of work-related violence

Risks factors for third-party violence emerge mainly from features of the work environment but also from a wider context as well as particular situations. Some individual characteristics, gender (male), age (young), work experience (little) seem also to be connected with higher risk for third-party violence.

Targets of bullying are as diverse as people in general and there is no common target profile in terms of personality. Anyone can become a victim; there are no features that are always a risk. Individual or personality factors are not usually the cause of bullying but can, in a certain organisation, circumstances, context, have a meaning.

As a summary of the causes of harassment, it has been suggested that, in most of the cases of bullying, at least three or four of the following can be found:

  • problems in work design ( OO e.g. role conflicts);
  • incompetent management and leadership;
  • a socially exposed position of the target;
  • negative or hostile social climate; and
  • a culture that permits or rewards harassment in an organisation.

Consequences of work-related violence

Work-related violence is a serious safety and health issue. The individual consequences of third-party violence are both physical (bruising or wounds, even death) and psychological (anxiety and fear, sleeping problems and post-traumatic stress disorder).Psychological consequences can be even more serious than physical wounds. The individual consequences of workplace harassment vary from minor stress reactions to long-term sick leave and displacement from working life, and may sometimes even be a cause of suicide.

Economic losses due to work-related violence are substantial. Organisational consequences vary, for example, from lower job satisfaction and productivity of the subjects of violence and other employees, to increased sickness absence and higher turnover, which can all increase costs.

It is important to keep in mind that all kinds of work-related violence also indirectly affect the families and friends of victims. All in all, the consequences of work-related violence are as wide as the whole framework of risks related to it.

Initiatives for prevention and management of work-related violence

The aims of policy-level actions are most often to increase awareness and recognition of key challenges at different levels, to have an impact on the attitudes both at organisational and individual level and to encourage, and sometimes also push, organisations to take action.

The current state of the official government policy and the prevention and intervention possibilities in workplace violence vary between countries. In addition to governmental policies, different partners in national, international and sector levels have pronounced their concern on violence in workplaces and have elaborated technical documents about preventing and coping with workplace violence. It has increased training and information material for different groups.

In many countries, codes of conduct and guidelines are drawn up in organisations to support the prevention and management of harassment at work and to deal with cases of harassment. In general, employers are responsible for a preventive policy and taking care of health and security in the organisation. Readiness to tackle workplace violence and harassment also differs between small and big companies. For example, big companies have confidential counsellors or other experts to help those who feel they have been harassed at work; a complaints procedure is more often available in these larger companies. Small and medium-sized companies do not necessarily have the means to afford outside experts and intervention.

The way forward

Even though there is much information available, there still is a need for increased, scientifically sound knowledge, and recognition of the risks and antecedents of violence and harassment at work, of the serious and damaging consequences of verbal and non-verbal violence, and the possible ways and methods to address them.

It is also necessary to clarify the terms, definitions and classifications used in relation to different types of work-related violence.

Full version of report: "Workplace Violence and Harassment: a European Picture"

© European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA), 2010

Reproduction is authorised provided the source is acknowledged.

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