Stress and Violence in the Workplace

Because of rapid changes and increasingly intensive competitions in global economy, stress in the workplace has become inevitable for all professions across industrial sectors. Many studies have shown that work stress not only could cause employees’ physical burnout and emotional breakdown, but also might elevate violent behaviors in workplace. In this article, factors contributing to workplace stress and violence are analyzed. These factors pertain to political and economic conditions, organizational characteristics, management and leadership, work environment and job types, and employees’ personal conditions and personalities.

Work stress and violence harm employees’ well-being and disrupt organizational performance, thus organizations should proactively work for solutions to creating a safe and pleasant workplace. This article discusses several strategies and practices for organizations to mitigate stress and violence in the workplace. These solutions include management awareness, organizational improvement, and training programs for stress management and violence prevention. As indicated in this article, organizations have legal and social responsibilities to protect employees for their safety and well-being in the workplace.

Factors of Employee Stress

Employee stress in the workplace may be contributed by many factors which are usually categorized into intra-organizational and extra-organizational stressors. A study by Bhatti, Shar, Shaikh, and Nazar (2010) showed that over 65% of stress is caused by intra-organizational stressors while factors outside organization contribute less than 35% of overall stress. Budhraja (2008) proposed three classifications of workplace stressors: environmental, organizational and individual. The environmental factors are related to political and economic uncertainties and natural work conditions; organizational factors include job demand, work relationship, leadership conflicts, and organizational change; and the individual factors are of personal status of income, age, health conditions, personality characteristics, social relations, and family issues.

As discussed in Avey, Luthans, and Jensen (2009), global competition and economic downturn have impelled dramatic changes of organizational structures including reorg, outsource, merger, and downsize, which often cause emotional stress to employees due to concerns on job security and perceived uncertainty of career directions. Such organizational changes usually aim to operational efficiency that must impose high workload and strict deadlines to employees. Multiple studies have demonstrated that workload is a major factor for job stress because “employees are been utilized more than their capabilities” (Bhatti, Shar, Shaikh, & Nazar, 2010, p. 4). Budhraja (2008) elaborated that stress is greatly affected by work overload, heavy sales target, and excess of competition. Another significant stress factor is the intensity of work over extended hours. Frequent overtime can result in physical, mental and emotional wear and tear thus could build up stress quickly (Tabassum, 2013). Employee stress is also contributed by factors of work environment including natural climate, office conditions, and use of technologies; for example, “the increased demands and expansion of the traditional workplace by mobile technology subject employees to more stress” (Soylu & Campbell, 2012, p. 130).

Work stress not only negatively impacts employees’ well-being but also hurts organizational performance by the increase of uncontrollable costs which “include absenteeism, accidents, health care expenses, and decline in productivity” (Juliet-Gladies & Kennedy, 2011, p. 67). Tabassum (2013) stated that job stress can manifest into harmful emotions such as “anxiety, aggression, irritability, dependency, withdrawal or depression” (p. 68), many of which could stimulate violent behaviors in workplace.

Factors of Workplace Violence

Workplace violence is defined as an “act of aggression, physical assault, threatening or coercive behavior that causes physical or emotional harm in a work setting” (Rai, 2002, p. 15). Workplace violence occurs in many forms from verbal abuse to physical bullying among employees, between managers and subordinates, and between staff and customers. According to Haynes (2013), workplace violence incidents are commonly divided into “four main categories: criminal intent (Type I), customer/client (Type II), worker-on-worker (Type III), and personal relationship (Type IV)” (p. 2).

Rai (2012) stated that workplace violence is associated with specific workplace factors “such as dealing with the public, the exchange of money, and the delivery of services or goods” (p. 16); in addition, social factors such as education, poverty, and environmental justice also affect the risk of workplace violence. As indicated in Gómez-Mejía, Balkin, and Cardy (2012), a prominent factor contributing to workplace violence is the stress caused either at work or from personal life; for instance, employees feel pressured in their jobs and fear layoffs, they are stressed by workplace events such as negative performance appraisals, they are involved in personality conflicts with coworkers or managers, or they encounter personal problems such as a divorce or substance abuse, all of which would accumulate to escalate the stress level. If such stress is not well attended, it will likely trigger aggression and violence sooner or later.

According to Chew Abdullah and Bin Ali (2013), personality is a considerable factor for workplace violence due to problematic relationships caused by certain personalities; for example, employees with a personality of low self-esteem “often tend to develop dysfunctional views of working relationships” (p. 66), and such views could cause relationship conflicts that stimulate aggression behaviors. Relationship conflicts in the workplace might raise strong emotions. “Strong emotions, such as workplace jealousy and envy amongst employees, have been blamed for pathological outcomes such as workplace violence and harassment” (Vecchio as cited in Oke & Dawson, 2012, p. 317). Because stress, aggression, and violence make a hostile environment that could risk employees’ safety and harm their physical and psychological health, organizations need to take responsibility for eliminating violence in the workplace.

Mitigating Stress and Violence in the Workplace

Because of the widespread of stress and violence in workplace, organizational leaders hold legal and social responsibilities to reduce employee stress and deal with workplace violence proactively. Many studies have concluded that employees’ health could be affected by work stress which would cause human body to “lose its natural ability to maintain its state of biological equilibrium” (Ismail, Hasan, Yu-Fei, Ismail, & Abu Samah, 2013, p. 22). Therefore, it is unethical for employers to stress their workers for the purpose of reaching sales targets or boosting profitability. Organizations should adopt strategies and policies that support and protect employees’ psychological well-being, and managers of all levels should be trained to recognize signs of psychological breakdown and cope with employees for stress-related issues. To reduce stress and violence in workplace, the management team must be able to recognize and handle many individual and organizational stressors and factors which include “competitive pressure, loss of personal autonomy, surveillance, cumulative physical and mental reactions, fatigue factor, changing workforce demographics, anger at work, and stress at work” (Rai, 2002, p. 16).

The organizational management plays an important role in stress reduction. As stated in Treven, Treven, and Zizek (2011), “good management and good work organization are the best forms of stress prevention” (p. 46). The work stress can be better maintained through optimal managerial practice and organizational initiatives in performance planning, role analysis, work redesign, job enrichment, and continuous feedback (Budhraja, 2008). An effective approach for stress reduction is the implementation of stress management programs in the workplace to help create a fostering work environment. These programs support employees’ emotional well-being, motivate them to achieve top performance while maintaining healthy mental states, and offer timely feedback through mentoring and counseling sessions. Stress management programs also train workers “in building up stress management skills by teaching employees time management and relaxation techniques, or suggesting changes to one’s diet or exercise” (Budhraja, 2008, p. 14).

The federal and state labor laws mandate employers to provide a secure workplace to all workers. Business leaders are obligated to ensure that employees’ safety and rights are protected, and all organizations should take actions to prevent aggressions, harassments and any types of violence in workplace. Aamodt (2010) indicated that violence prevention should start from security measures and employee screening. Based on negligent hiring laws, organizations are accountable for their employees’ violent actions at work; especially, employers would be accused of negligence if they know or should have known employees’ history of violence or crime. (Gómez-Mejía, Balkin, & Cardy, 2012, p. 552). Therefore HR managers need to conduct through background and reference checks to avoid bringing in potential risks to the organization. In many workplaces, violence often proliferates due to the management’s oversight, thus mangers should never ignore or overlook small conflicts or disputes that could lead to significant confrontation and harassment. Organizations need to implement clear and strong zero-tolerance policy against bullying and harassment, and employees should be informed that violence in any form will not be tolerated (Chew Abdullah & Bin Ali, 2013). Many organizations have introduced violence prevention programs to train managers and employees on practical aggression management strategies and techniques in various situations; prevention is the best strategy for dealing with violence in workplace (Rai, 2002).


Factors of both outside and within organizations could contribute to stress in the workplace. Among organizational factors, the work overload and extended work hours most likely cause employee burnout. In addition, organizational change, work environment, and personal conditions would all affect work stress. While many social, organizational, and personal factors can contribute to workplace violence, work stress is a prominent stimulus for violent behaviors such as bullying, harassment, and physical aggression. Stress could raise angry, depressive emotions that lead to psychological breakdown and trigger violence. To fulfill their legal and social responsibilities for employees’ safety and well-being, organizations should enhance policies and management practice to control and reduce stress and violence in the workplace. Implementations of stress management and violence prevention programs provide effective solutions for organizational initiatives to coping with employee stress and managing risks and incidents of workplace violence. These programs also help employees to learn how to manage stress, handle violent situations, and change lifestyle to become healthier, happier, and more productive at work and in daily life.


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