How abuse at work impacts employee engagement

types of abuse at workI recently attended the AHRMIO Conference in Belgium, where I spoke on a panel on psychological safety and curiosity.

As part of this, I was asked about how abuse at work impacts personal wellbeing, work performance and organisational success.

In this blog I present the insights shared on the panel, detailing what we know about workplace abuse and harassment, the connection between unsafe workplaces and employee engagement, and what can be done to address it.


Staff experience of abuse

Ever since 2018 when a number of high-profile cases of abuse surfaced, clients have asked us to include questions on abuse in their surveys.

This includes discrimination, bullying and harassment, sexual harassment, physical assault, sexual assault, and abuse of authority.

What we find is that between 8-20% of staff say they have experienced abuse in the last 12 months –with an average of around 12%. This affects both women and men, but frequently 50% more women experience abuse. To illustrate this, if overall 10% of your staff experienced abuse – it would likely be 8% for men and 12% for women.

more women experience abuse at work

Other findings:

  • Experience of abuse is higher for professionals and for those who identify as LGBTQ.
  • Only a minority of staff report the abuse they have experienced – typically 4 of out 10.
  • Disappointingly, many who report say that they have experienced retaliation, perhaps explaining why so many decide not to report.

only a minority report abuse at workabuse at work and retaliation


The impact of abuse at work

the impact of abuse at work


When comparing the survey results for those who have experienced abuse and those that haven’t, we found the following:

  • For the question ‘I recommend this organisation as a good place to work’ i.e. our measure of engagement, when staff have experienced abuse, positivity typically drops by 30%.
  • Using validated questionnaires, we found that good wellbeing falls from 65% to 45% for those who have experience abuse to compared to those who haven’t.
  • In addition, the average level of positivity across all survey questions dropped from around 70% positive for those who hadn’t experienced abuse to around 40% for those who had.


What we know is that workplace abuse is bad for staff wellbeing, and it is bad for engagement. The differences in responses of those who have and haven’t experienced abuse is significant. Reducing the amount of abuse should be a key priority for many organisations.


What do staff who experience abuse say?

Comments in staff surveys from those who have experienced abuse include the following:

quotes about abuse at work

What should organisations do about abuse at work?

  1. Recognise that abuse is very likely to be present in your organisation.
  2. Include questions on abuse in your engagement surveys, so that you can understand it and track progress over time.
  3. Focus your efforts on the following key questions:
    1. Do people understand your policies and processes?
    2. How good are your reporting mechanisms and are they trusted?
    3. How good is your investigations process and team? Do they get to the bottom of things reasonably swiftly?
    4. Do you have repeat perpetrators? And are they at a senior level? If so, it is essential that you address their behaviour. Failure to do so will undermine all your efforts.


Recognise that moving forward in this area requires cultural change and therefore it is essential that senior leaders champion this work.

The prize will be worth fighting for: creating a more humane culture with higher levels of employee engagement and wellbeing.


If you have any questions about understanding abuse and harassment in your organisation, we’d be happy to discuss this with you – get in touch


Roger Parry, Director

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