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Bergen Bullying Research Group

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The impact of social stress on epigenetics, health complaints and behaviour outcomes

PhD Candidate: Dhaksshaginy Rajalingam

Supervisors: Prof. Johannes Gjerstad (STAMI/ UiB) and Prof. Ståle Valvatne Einarsen (UiB)

Project funding: The Norwegian Research Council (Toppforsk) and University of Bergen

Project period:  June 2017- June 2020

Workplace stressors may have strong impact upon health, employment issues, productivity and social security systems. The overarching aim of the project is to understand the relationships among bullying at the workplace, affective (depression/anxiety) and cognitive (negative rumination) mental distress, epigenetic changes as well as subjective health complaints.

The purpose of this particular PhD project is to provide new knowledge that explain how social stress, through mediators like mental distress and epigenetic changes, can lead to subjective health complaints and negative behavioral outcomes.

Based on preliminary data, we hypothesis that work stressors may affect circulating microRNAs (miRs) and possible covalent modifications of the DNA, causing persistent changes in the immune system and the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. To address this, a combination of data from animal experiments, cell culture work and a national survey of Norwegian workers, are used.

In the ongoing research, we examine how the environmental factors affect health from several angles. We expect that the present project will provide substantial new knowledge regarding social stress, epigenetics and health complaints. In the ongoing studies, we address the following relationships:

  • Bullying, distress and sleep problems
  • Social stress, miRs/epigenetics changes and pain
  • Stress-induced behavioral effects and HPA-axis changes
  • Effects of social defeat on monocytes and other immune cells

The ongoing analyses have already shown interesting results. Our findings so far show that genetic susceptibility and miRs/epigenetic changes, may affect the consequences of exposure to negative social acts which explains individual variations. Employers, organizations, and health professionals need to acknowledge that individual biological differences should be taken into consideration when developing interventions against negative social acts at the workplace.

The moderating effect of laissez-faire leadership on the stressor-bullying relationship

PhD Candidate: Kari Wik Ågotnes

Supervisors: Prof. Anders Skogstad (UiB) and Prof. Ståle Valvatne Einarsen (UiB)

Project funding: The Norwegian Research Council (grant number 250127 – Workplace bullying: From mechanisms and moderators to problem treatment) and University of Bergen

Project period:  January 2017- January 2021

The aim of this PhD project is to improve our understanding of the phenomenon of workplace bullying through testing the possible moderating effect of laissez-faire leadership on the established relationships between specific stressors in the workplace and employees’ exposure to negative acts and bullying at work.

Workplace bullying has been described as an escalating process in the course of which the person confronted ends up in an inferior position and becomes the target of systematic negative social acts. Workplace bullying is related to a wide range of negative outcomes and has been classified as a more crippling and devastating problem for employees than all other work-related stress put together. Yet, there is a striking lack of systematic studies on how this pertinent problem may be managed, be it on an individual, an organizational, or a societal level. Drawing on the work environment hypothesis, studies have shown that bullying seems to thrive in demanding workplaces where employees experience organizational constraints and contradictory expectations and demands. Furthermore, leadership practices may be expected to have a significant impact on the presence of stress at work, both directly, as destructive forms of leadership such as abusive supervision may act as a strong stressor in its own right, as well as indirectly on the opportunity that employees have to cope with those stressors present.

Scholars have long argued that the lack of leadership is a main contributing factor of bullying and that the relationship between passive leadership and workplace bullying may be explained in terms of low perceived costs for the perpetrator of being caught and condemned. Laissez-faire leadership has been described as a lack of leadership when the follower is in need support from his/her leader. Such avoidance and absence of leadership violate the followers’ legitimate expectations, and as such, may have destructive outcomes for followers. Laissez-faire leadership may also be conceived as a passive form of aggression, and in its extreme forms as a special type of ostracism.

It has been documented that destructive forms of leadership, be they active or passive, may be direct predictors of employees’ experiences of bullying. However, destructive forms of leadership such as laissez-faire leadership may also moderate the relationship between work stressors and bullying. That is, laissez-faire leadership will strengthen the relationship between work stressors and experiences of negative acts and bullying, as the leader avoids taking action to prevent further escalation of a situation where stressful conditions exist. Furthermore, the lack of support from a leader when being in a stressful situation may in itself be perceived as bullying.

Three scientific papers will be written in the present PhD-project, using self-report questionnaire data. Two of the papers will be using data from representative studies of the Norwegian working force, whereas one study will be using data from a diary-study conducted by Norwegian naval cadets. The overreaching research question in all three papers is whether and to what extent laissez-faire leadership over time can act as a moderator in the relationship between various workplace stressors and experienced negative acts as a measure of workplace bullying. 

Treating the aftermath of exposure to workplace bullying and preventing exclusion from working life: The effect of individual resilience, return to work self-efficacy and work-focused metacognitive treatment

PhD Candidate: Sarah Helene Aarestad

Supervisors: Prof. Anette Harris (UiB), Prof. Ståle Valvatne Einarsen (UiB) and Prof. Odin Hjemdal (NTNU)

Project funding: The Norwegian Research Council (grant number 250127 – Workplace bullying: From mechanisms and moderators to problem treatment) and University of Bergen

Project period: July 2018 – June 2021

Workplace bullying is one of the most severe and potentially harmful stressors an employee can be exposed to. It has been established as a major predictor of health problems, both physical and psychological, and can lead to impaired health.

Common mental disorders, such as anxiety and depression, have become leading causes for sickness absence and there is therefore a need for treatments that can both reduce symptoms and help work participation among these patients. It is therefore of value to know for whom bullying seems to have the most negative effects and what distinguishes them from other individuals with similar needs.

The PhD project is affiliated with the project "Workplace bullying: From mechanisms and moderators to problem treatment" and is part of a subproject on psychological treatment of mental health problems in workers who have experienced bullying and harassment in the workplace. The project is a collaborative project between the University of Bergen and the clinic "Raskere tilbake" at Diakonhjemmet Hospital in Oslo.

The main objectives with the project are threefold. The first objective is to investigate what characteristics patients that are exposed to bullying behaviour have and what distinguishes them from other patients with common mental disorders on sick leave. Secondly, the project would like to have a closer look into if individual dispositional factors, such as resilience, can function as a buffer when someone is exposed to bullying behaviour. The third objective will be to examine the treatment effect of work-focused meta-cognitive therapy for patients exposed to bullying behaviour, and comparing the effects of the treatment with patients that have not been exposed to bullying behaviour.  

Data for this project will be collected through questionnaires completed by patients referred to the clinic “Raskere tilbake”. The data will be used to examine the extent of bullying and harassment in this patient population, the symptoms exhibited by this group of patients and their treatment needs. Furthermore, the data will be used to examine the effect of work-focused meta-cognitive treatment on common mental disorders and return to work ability in this group of patients. In addition, if there is a difference in treatment effect between this group and the patient group that has not been exposed to bullying behaviour.

Destructive leadership in a military context

PhD Candidate: Thomas Hol Fosse

Supervisors: Prof. Anders Skogstad (UiB), Prof. Ståle Valvatne Einarsen (UiB) and Monica Martinussen (UiT)

Project funding: The Norwegian Defence University College

Over the last decades, researchers and practitioners have become interested in studying destructive forms of organisational leadership. However, destructive leadership in a military context remains relatively unexplored, even though inherent factors of this context (hierarchy, discipline and frame of high and cost) may render military personnel particularly exposed to consequences of destructive leadership.

This PhD project will first (paper I) provide a systematic review and meta-analysis of research concerning active and passive forms of destructive leadership in a military context (e.g. abusive supervision and laissez-faire). The review will summarize findings related to prevalence, measurement, antecedents, and consequences of this type of leadership behavior. A systematic literature search will identify relevant papers, and the meta-analysis will estimate mean effect sizes of the different forms of destructive leadership behavior and compare it with constructive forms of leadership. Further, the analysis will estimate the effect of possible moderators like level of rank and operational settings.

Paper II and III will analyze data from a longitudinal study in the Norwegian Armed Forces based on questionnaire data, test results and performance data. Previous studies indicate that destructive leadership behavior may be associated with a number of antecedents. In a broader perspective both supervisor characteristics and organizational factors may contribute to explaining the occurrence of destructive leadership behavior.

Paper II will investigate to which extent criteria used in a military selection process may predict future destructive leadership behaviour. General mental ability, personality, interviews, and other test are currently used to select candidates, based on their ability to predict both academic performance and efficient leader performance. Unwanted and destructive leader behavior has received less attention in selection processes. To address this knowledge gap, paper II will examine if destructive leader behavior can be predicted by leader characteristics at the time of selection.

In paper III, we will examine the influence of conducive environments on destructive leadership behavior. We will examine the moderating role of contextual variables (workload, predictability, role ambiguity) on the relationship between destructive forms of leadership and followers work engagement and military leader performance.

This Phd project will provide a systematic examination of different forms of destructive leadership in a military context, and bring forth new knowledge of how different factors may contribute to unwanted destructive leadership behavior. This information is required to introduce and implement evidence-based strategies to prevent and manage such unwanted psychosocial risks in the work place. Indeed, applied knowledge and the implementation of appropriate measures in the organization often represent the difference between efficient handling of the situation and non-intervention with detrimental outcomes.

Motivation in military selection

PhD Candidate: Henrik Sørlie

Supervisors: Associate Prof. Jørn Hetland (UiB) and Prof. Anders Dysvik (BI)

Project funding: The Norwegian Defence University College

The goal of personnel selection is the prediction of future job performance, or other desired future outcomes, before a hiring decision is made. Important predictors that are commonly used by organizations for this purpose are intelligence and personality, both of which are relatively stable traits of a person and that are indicative of performance across a range of professions. However, motivation also plays an important part in employees’ performance and well being at work. For this reason motivation is also sometimes attempted assessed by recruiters and hiring managers during a hiring process, with little research showing that this can be expected to lead to better employees and a range of difficulties relating to measuring motivation reliably in a selection context.

The problem with this is that motivation is situational, and not a stable trait of a person. Thus, it can vary wildly depending on other factors. An applicant for a position might for instance feel very motivated during the application process, but situational characteristics of the organization might make this motivation decline rapidly after onboarding.

The PhD project explores motivation as it relates to personnel selection in a military context. Among other things, it investigates whether we can predict job motivation in a selection process. That is, can we, based exclusively on data available before a hiring decision is made, predict who is most likely to be highly motivated in the specific position? Different theories relating to motivation are used to explore this. A central concept in the project is Person-Organization Fit (P-O Fit), or value congruence between a person and an organization. P-O Fit is interesting because it is neither a characteristic of the person or the organization, but rather of the relationship between them. P-O Fit has been shown to be related to a range of attitudinal and behavioral outcomes that are beneficial to an organization, but its potential for selection has not been investigated extensively despite the fact that it can be measured reliably before organizational entry and without the applicant having any knowledge of the organization in question.

The project uses longitudinal data collected in the Norwegian Armed Forces, among applicants for leadership education, with follow-up surveys during their education and again during service as young leaders in the different branches.

The theoretical contributions of the project are more knowledge about the way individual and situational factors interact and contribute to work motivation and performance. Among the possible practical implications are methods that might be utilized for personnel selection to increase the degree to which new employees feel at home in their organizations and are motivated for their work.

Outcomes of exposure to bullying behaviours at work: The moderating role of previous victimization

PhD Candidate: Øystein Løvik Hoprekstad

Supervisors: Prof. Ståle Einarsen (UiB) and Associate Prof. Jørn Hetland (UiB)

Project funding: University of Bergen

Project period: August 2016 - June 2021

Exposure to bullying behaviours at work is a severe social stressor that can threaten employee health and well-being. Based on existing research, we know that exposure to bullying behaviours at work is related to higher levels of psychosomatic and mental health problems among those exposed. However, we know less about moderating factors that may weaken or strengthen this relationship. At the individual level, it is possible that exposure to bullying behaviours at work is more strongly related to distress for some employees than for others, depending on factors that vary between individuals. We argue that one such moderating individual-level factor may be the extent to which an employee has been bullied in the past, either in school or at work.

The aim of this PhD project is to investigate whether having previous experiences as a victim of bullying may affect how individuals perceive and react to subsequent and unrelated instances of exposure to bullying behaviours at work. In a stress-theoretical framework, the potential effect of a stressor on the individual is largely dependent on the individual’s acquired expectancies related to that stressor, and we expect past victimization experiences to have an impact on the reactivity to similar stressors. Furthermore, we know that victimization from bullying, be it in school or at work, has been systematically linked to loss of a wide range of coping resources. Such resources are functional in dealing with stressors in life, and individuals with less resources are thus at higher risk of experiencing stress reactions and further resource loss when exposed to stressors, compared to individuals with more resources. Accordingly, individuals who have undergone a process of victimization from bullying in the past may be less capable of mitigating the negative impact of subsequent exposure to negative acts, due to their experienced resource losses.

In this PhD project, we will test the assumption that having been bullied in the past, either in school or at work, may make the victims more vulnerable to the impact of subsequent exposure to bullying behaviours at work. More specifically, we will test whether previous victimisation from bullying affects the extent to which individuals label themselves as victims when exposed to bullying behaviours at work, and whether previous victimisation status affects the strength of the relationship between subsequent exposure to bullying behaviours at work and mental health outcomes. The results of the present project will be documented in three scientific papers, all of which will be based on self-report survey data.

Antecedents and developmental pathways to workplace bullying: The role of individual, situational and contextual factors

PhD Candidate: Lena Zahlquist

Supervisors: Associate Prof. Jørn Hetland (UiB) and Prof. Ståle Valvatne Einarsen (UiB)

Project funding: The Norwegian Research Council (grant number 250127 – Workplace bullying: From mechanisms and moderators to problem treatment) and University of Bergen

Project period:  September 2017- September 2021

The aim of this PhD project is to improve our understanding of how and when workplace bullying develops by investigating potential risk factors and protective factors.

Workplace bullying has been described as an escalating process in the course of which the person confronted ends up in an inferior position and becomes the target of systematic negative social acts. Exposure to workplace bullying has shown to be a psychosocial stressor with severe negative consequences for the health and well-being of those targeted, as well as for the social environment where it occurs. Yet, despite extensive studies and knowledge about the detrimental outcomes of workplace bullying, less is known about its possible antecedents and mechanisms explaining how and when bullying arises and develops.

Drawing on the work environment hypothesis, studies have shown that bullying seems to thrive in demanding workplaces where employees experience organizational constraints and contradictory expectations and demands. In line with this, we investigate the relationship between various workplace stressors (e.g., interpersonal conflicts, workload and role conflicts) and exposure to bullying behaviours. In addition, we test whether the organizational climate can have a buffering effect on these relationships. More specifically, we investigating the conflict management climate, which refers to employees’ assessments of the organization’s conflict management procedures and practices, and of how fair and predictable the interactions between leaders and followers are perceived to be. Our findings so far show that having a strong conflict management climate may have a protecting effect in this regard. Lastly, we also test the assumption that individual factors, such as personality traits, can influence the relationship between workplace stressors and workplace bullying, by testing whether having a higher score on trait anger and trait anxiety enhances these relationships.   

The overreaching aim of the present project is, therefore, to contribute to a better understanding of how workplace bullying develops and the mechanisms involved in this process. The results of the present project will be documented in three scientific papers, all of which will be based on self-report survey data.