Workplace Adversity

  • Margaret H. VickersEmail author
Living reference work entry


Positive Psychology Organizational Response Organizational Life Alternative Dispute Resolution Workplace Bully 
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Any negative phenomenon or event experienced at work, or related to work, that makes it difficult for workers to perform and retain their jobs and to feel comfortable, satisfied, and happy in their place of work


Workplace adversity, adversity at work, adverse workplace conditions, adverse psychosocial working conditions, or aversive workplace conditions are all terms used, often interchangeably, to represent the large, and growing, number of industrial and organizational challenges continuing to face workers around the world: from being exposed to bullying, violence, and corruption, to expectations of longer working hours, to widespread structural changes to the timing and way people work and the increasing use of part-time workers and casual workers, through to the routinized nature of restructures, redundancies, and layoffs. Workplace adversity is something all workers are likely to face at one time or another during their working lives, and its deleterious impacts and possible remedies remain as widely debated this century as they were the last.

Workplace Adversity

The term “Workplace Adversity” has had the greatest prominence in the nursing workplace literature (see, e.g., Grafton et al. 2010; Hunter and Warren 2014; Jackson et al. 2007), but its sources, challenges, and impacts have been of keen interest to scholars in business, organization and administration, nursing and midwifery, sociology, psychology, health, education, and law. Unfortunately, workplace adversity is something most working individuals can expect to face at some point and, while recognized sources of workplace adversity may change according to shifting economic conditions, events of social misbehavior, and varying stakeholder priorities, it remains widely acknowledged as having serious negative consequences for individuals, groups, and organizations.

For decades, scholars have lamented that workplace institutions have a wide, multi-sourced, and increasing array of challenges that can cause workers stress and anxiety, undermine health and well-being, and create physical, psychological, and emotional discomfort. While the literature is also clear on the multitude of positive identity, social, financial, personal, psychosocial, psychological, health and well-being, and emotional outcomes that have been directly attributed to work and working, workplaces have also long been characterized as potentially dark and dangerous places, capable of great harm, even devastation, for workers exposed to their traumatizing social transactions, cultures, practices and processes, and modes of operation. Scholars have variously described workplaces as toxic, hostile, violent, abusive, dark, alienating, stigmatizing, traumatizing, machine-like, emotionally anorexic, dehumanizing, discriminating, unrelenting, demanding emotional labor, evil, soulless, unsatisfying, unrewarding, unsupportive, corrupt, sources of humiliation and degradation, and crucibles of anger, embarrassment, humiliation, jealousy, anger, frustration, hate, resentment, shame, grief, and loss (e.g., Blauner 1964; Braverman 1994; Fineman 1993; Fromm 1963/1994; Frost 1999; Goffman 1963; Hochschild 1983; La Bier 1986; Stein 1998; Weber 1948). Workplaces have even been described as “evil,” home to malicious psychopaths, sociopaths, bullies, and thugs that routinely traverse their corridors and who often reach positions of considerable power (Boddy 2006), although some have warned that such research has been dominated by popularist coverage rather than systematic scientific attention (Smith and Lilienfeld 2013).

It would be fair to say that many workers feel under siege in their places of work given the range of problems they routinely face while engaging with work. Sources of workplace adversity that can emanate directly from the workplace have included (but are not limited to) unskilled and abusive management; poor job design; expectations of longer working hours; efficiency-based, bottom-line, managerialist norms and assumptions; negative and unsustainable workplace cultures; an increasingly casualized and part-time workforce; unsustainable environmental workplace practices; crime and corruption; bullying, harassment, stalking, abuse, and violence; organizational change, downsizing, and restructuring; redundancies and layoffs; and increasing levels of unemployment and underemployment.

In addition to what workers face at work, workplace adversity can also emanate from the numerous sources of personal trauma that can emerge in a worker’s life and cross the border into their working lives. Examples discussed in the literature include (but are also not limited to) the changing nature of work and employment; increased career responsibilities for aged and infirm friends and family, or chronically ill or disabled children, or grandchildren; diagnosis of, and coping with, serious chronic illness or disability; hospital treatment for disability and chronic disease; a partner or family member’s suicide; the serious illness or death of a loved one; mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and panic disorders, for self or a family member; drug and alcohol addiction or overuse; financial challenges stemming from unemployment, underemployment, impending retirement, or increased casual work; facing nonvoluntary redundancy or early retirement for self, partner, or family member; outcomes of natural physical disasters such as storms, fires, and floods; car accidents for self, partner, or friends and family; being subjected to stalking, abuse, or violence beyond the workplace; and the multitude of other significant stressors and personal losses that may be experienced by workers that are then expected to keep working.

Given the aging population in many developed and developing nations, there have also been particular concerns about the high levels of workplace adversity faced by older workers as a result of ageism and discrimination; increased casualization of work; increased redundancies and layoffs; an increasing and ongoing need for (older) workers to reskill to maintain their employability; the increased likelihood of chronic illness and disability associated with increased age; higher levels of unemployment and underemployment for ageing workers; financial concerns for those approaching retirement; and, the erosion of older workers’ sense of purpose and fulfillment.

In such situations, the workplace adversity stems from a lack of recognition of, and compassion for, the emotional and physical outcomes of the personal grief, stress, strain, anxiety, turmoil, and loss that can accompany significant personal challenges faced by individuals (Vickers 2009). Workplaces that have been termed emotionally anorexic (see Fineman 1993) expect workers to leave their problems at the door during times of distress, to carry on working and performing, and to not allow personal circumstances to impact their productivity during the working day. However, this lack of acknowledgement of personal turmoil at work can make matters worse. For example, grief has been characterized as an intense emotional distress that typically follows traumatic events and which may last for years; it is not something that can be easily worked with or through.

The literature confirms that organizations can sometimes respond to workers’ significant personal losses with small allocations of personal leave – perhaps a few days to grieve the death of a close family member – but only if such leave is available and if said worker is eligible. Workers experiencing personal traumas are, for the most part, required to carry on doing their jobs, without any diminishment to productivity, or to take paid or unpaid leave – if that is available to them and is approved by their employer. Research focused on challenging personal circumstances brought to workplaces is less evident in the literature, but such studies do exist, and show workers experiencing significant negative health and well-being outcomes as a result of their personal adversity combining with the challenging rules of work and working (see, e.g., Hunter and Warren 2014; Kemeny et al. 2004; Vickers 2011).

Adversity at work can also be sourced from, and magnified by, the type of work being performed. Some roles have been noted in the literature as being especially demanding on individuals, bringing with them considerable, even excessive, levels of stress, anxiety, pain, fear, and grief. Examples include (but are also not limited to) health-care workers, including doctors, nurses, and midwives, perhaps doing oncology or palliative nursing; social and community workers, including case workers in child protection agencies; drug rehabilitation workers; and police, ambulance, fire, and other security and emergency workers. All are routinely exposed to high levels of uncertainty, danger, and emotionally charged situations while working. Professions such as these require workers to continue their duties in often volatile, uncertain, and emotionally intense situations that require high levels of emotion work skills, skills that have been claimed to have been unrecognized, overused, and undervalued (Hunter and Warren 2014). Such work has also been recorded as negatively affecting the emotional well-being of workers, and concerns have been raised about long-term negative effects on worker morale; increased levels of stress and strain, especially in workplaces where a perceived lack of trust and support between management and staff exists; a lack of workplace autonomy for professionals charged with such work; and any generalized insufficiency of workplace support.

Workplaces are often not good for our health and well-being. The association between workplace-related stress, especially chronic stress, and its deleterious impacts on physical, emotional, and psychological health has been well established. There is a vast, and growing, amount of evidence that confirms this. The field of psychoneuroimmunology provides evidence of a significant biological link between the state of mind and emotions of an individual and the health and well-being of that individual. The negative impacts on workers facing adversity noted in the literature are considerable: increased stress and strain; onset and exacerbation of chronic and acute illness (e.g., asthma, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, and cancer); worsening levels of disability; loss of employment; reduction of employment; loss of status; negative impacts on home, family, and close partner relationships; loss of trust; financial loss; career loss; post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); severe psychological trauma; lowered self-esteem; sexual health difficulties; heightened emotional responses, such as angry outbursts; reduced coping skills and self-efficacy; sleeplessness; alcohol and drug addiction, overuse, and abuse; social isolation and withdrawal; onset and exacerbation of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, panic, and self-harm; an eventual inability to work; and the ultimate workplace injury and suicide. Suicide rates are claimed to be increasing, with most suicide victims having been found to have experienced at least one or more such adverse life events within the year of their death, with such events having been found to have been concentrated in the few months before their death (Olie 2014).

Finally, the literature also confirms that the negative impacts of workplace adversity are not just felt by the workers experiencing adversity. The ripple effect flowing to third parties has also been investigated: Friends, family members, intimate partners, children, and colleagues have also been noted as having been impacted by witnessing the workplace adversity experienced by others. Unemployment, layoffs, restructures and redundancies, inherent stresses of some work being performed, bullying, and other forms of organizational violence have all been found to have detrimental outcomes, not just on those workers experiencing them but on those connected to them (see, e.g., Duffy and Sperry 2007; Hockley 2003; Skarlicki and Kulick 2005). For example, colleagues of workers terminated during redundancies, restructures, and layoffs report feeling guilty and traumatized; family members, close personal friends, and partners have been found to experience stress, confusion, and guilt as a result of not knowing how best to support those close to them being bullied, harassed, or exposed to other workplace violations; counselors have reported feeling overwhelmed and uncertain as to how to respond to clients traumatized by chronic bullying; and colleagues of people experiencing workplace misbehaviors such as violence, corruption, and bullying have been found to leave their workplaces as a result of what they have witnessed.

The key indicators of a healthy work environment are also well known: work engagement, work identity, person-job fit, and job satisfaction (see Hackman and Oldham 1976). Workplaces have also been found to be able to promote effectiveness and flourishing in people, both on and off the job (Kossek et al. 2012). However, and unfortunately, workers faced with precarious ongoing employment offering little or no job security; underemployment and inflexible, unpredictable, or nonstandard work schedules; and pay systems that transfer risk to the payee have been found to feel increasingly insecure, stressed, and anxious – all outcomes likely to negatively impact that worker’s health, well-being, and productivity. For workplaces, the outcomes of allowing adversity to flourish have been well documented as being very costly. Workplace bullying, for example, has been found to cost workplaces billions in lost productivity and lost opportunity costs. Negative impacts on workplaces have been found to include an inability to retain a talented workforce; heightened negative media attention; the emergence of organizational whistleblowers; a negative, even toxic, workplace culture; loss of organizational reputation and consequential loss of shareholder confidence; staff loss of innovation and creativity; lowered morale; decreased productivity and loyalty; increased absenteeism, sick leave, and “presenteeism” (where workers are present at work but not fully engaged); increased staff turnover; an increased intention to leave; reduced organizational learning and knowledge translation; reduced profits and shareholder wealth; and direct financial and political threats to the organization which, in turn, can further threaten that organization’s sustainability over the short and long term.

Traditional Organizational Responses to Workplace Adversity

Traditional organizational responses to workplace adversity have tended to be made in response to complaints made by workers against the organization and have tended to include improved job design, the development of relevant policies and procedures (e.g., anti-bullying policies), the implementation of employee assistance programs (EAPs), the use of alternative dispute resolution procedures, and offering of training and educative initiatives. Unfortunately, such approaches have often been found to be of limited value, ineffectual, and sometimes having a deleterious outcome for workers and the organization. Scholarly scrutiny in recent years has revealed some flaws, misconceptions, and (perhaps) unintended consequences of some of those responses.

Improving job design by enhancing autonomy over tasks was one of the earliest attempts to respond to worker stress and strain, while also being aimed at enhancing their productivity. Autonomy is defined as the need to experience one’s behavior and actions as freely chosen and fully endorsed, rather than being imposed by external forces. Autonomy at work allows for significant freedom, independence, and discretion over daily work decisions, such as work scheduling, and how to go about tasks (Hackman and Oldham 1976). When needs for autonomy are met, individuals have been found to experience high levels of well-being. Autonomy has been noted as a core psychological need that must be satisfied if individuals are to function at optimal levels. Reorganizing work tasks to increase people’s job control and autonomy has been found to improve mental health and well-being, increase work performance, improve physical health, enhance motivation, increase job satisfaction, and reduce absenteeism. However, if needs for self-determination and autonomy are not met, or obstructed or neglected – as they are likely to be if a person is also facing workplace adversity – well-being may be adversely impacted. Notably, workplace adversity has been found to be experienced by workers whose autonomy is threatened, undermined, or reduced, through threats to job security and unhelpful changes to job roles and design.

Another response by workplaces has been to develop putative supportive workplace policies. However, researchers have found that, sometimes, such policies can be little more than “empty shells,” policies and procedures that exist to supposedly support workers but can have paradoxical, even negative, effects on workers who invoke them (see, e.g., Hoque and Noon 2004). Workplace policies, for example, that advocate zero tolerance for bullying, or corruption, might encourage reporting of these workplace misbehaviors without having appropriate procedures in place to respond to complainants in a supportive way after the complaint is made. Further, such policies – often in place to protect the organization, not workers – may not be enforced or acted upon by the organization. If the organization does respond, the skills and resources available to investigators of complaints from within that workplace may not be sufficient for the task. Middle managers or human resource professionals asked to conduct such investigations may not have been specifically trained in investigation skills and will be operating to protect their employer. Such investigations have been reportedly conducted as part of already onerous workloads, making the outcomes for complainants at best, unpredictable, and, at worst, causing more harm.

Support policies also usually require the target of workplace adversity to be the one to instigate action. That person – already stressed – must take their time, energy and resources, risk alienation, career disruption, unemployment, increased stress and strain, substance abuse, potential damage to close personal relationships, and negative health outcomes to initiate action against the adversity. Targets have then been reported as finding themselves ostracized at work, unsupported by HR practitioners, and finding their complaints ignored. Such organizational responses have been claimed to seriously erode trust and may result in further trauma to an already highly stressed worker. Some researchers have argued that such policies are only in place to underpin that organization’s public relations agenda and protect the organization in the case of unwanted litigation by complainants.

Litigation is another possible response for those exposed to adversity. Various forms of protective legislation exist in developed nations around the world and are, again, ostensibly in place to protect and support workers against various forms of adversity. They include legislation on anti-bullying, anticorruption, antidiscrimination, wrongful dismissal, and occupational health and safety. For workers in developing nations, the existence and enforcement of such legislation is less reliable, and, in both instances, the onus remains on the injured person to use their time, energy, and resources to make a complaint and, if a litigious path is followed, the likelihood of an alleged perpetrator(s) reforming is low. Decisions to pursue legal grievances tend to be made by workers based on their subjective expectations around the utility of making their complaint, versus a decision to suffer in silence, or leave. Hirschman’s (1970) seminal model of Exit, Voice, and Loyalty still has relevance for those so faced; the perceived utility and net benefits of filing a grievance, combined with the perceived probability that any perceived net benefits will actually be realized, have been found to be at the front of the minds of injured workers.

Injured workers tend to litigate, usually, for three reasons: (1) for compensation or monetary gain; (2) for vindication, that is, to have the wrongdoing acknowledged; and (3) to achieve workplace reform. However, and unfortunately, the literature confirms that litigation rarely achieves any of these goals. Cases can take months, or years, to find their way to court, and bring considerable stress to individuals involved, and further reduce their well-being. The stress effects of litigating have been widely reported as being long lasting and, potentially, very damaging. Further, the costs of litigation can be prohibitive and generally far beyond any likely award of damages (if the damages can be proven). The complainant may also lose their job during, or as a result of, the instigated legal proceedings. Evidence confirms that litigation process is a long, stressful journey, infrequently successful for complainants of workplace adversity, and the likelihood of any benefit being realized having been found to be very low.

As a result of increasing recognition of the high personal and financial costs of litigation, alternative dispute resolution (ADR) approaches have emerged. Mediation and facilitated negotiations have become popular alternatives to litigation, especially within workplaces seeking to “resolve” allegations of workplace adversity. Workplace violence, abuse, bullying, discrimination, harassment, and interpersonal conflict are frequently referred to mediation, or some other forms of ADR, in an attempt to resolve the “dispute,” keep the “problem” in-house, and avoid legal proceedings. However, the literature has cited numerous problems with the use of ADRs: unhelpful influence of negative stereotypes attributed to those involved in bargaining processes (e.g., members of diversity groups, such as women, people of differing race/religion/sexual orientation, or people with disability); the inappropriate use of ADRs between parties with an existing power imbalance; outcomes of such proceedings being not legally enforceable, leaving perpetrators to return to their misbehaviors with impunity, perhaps making things worse for targets; and, finally, that participation in most forms of mediation and conflict negotiations require all parties to implicitly accept equal responsibility for the “problem” in order to participate in the mediation of a possible resolution. Such a response has been found to be completely inappropriate, especially where the misbehaviors being alleged involve violence, bullying, or discrimination.

The provision of counseling, and EAPs, has also been provided by many organizations to support staff facing workplace adversity, usually at no cost to the worker, and would appear to be a very supportive workplace response. However, the literature also reflects numerous concerns being raised by about EAP use: that there is little evidence that EAP use actually works to ameliorate the ill effects of workplace adversity and that EAP use may offer an endorsed means of organizational surveillance and social control for “troubled” workers, with reports to management from EAP providers having been noted by researchers in past years, especially for high users. Still other researchers have claimed that EAPs have been instigated to protect the organization in a number of ways: as part of a positive, public relations campaign, confirming to internal and external stakeholders that the organization “cares” about their staff; as a defense against litigation by an injured worker to reduce associated insurance premiums; and as a means for senior management wishing to absolve themselves of their responsibility for allowing toxic and harmful workplace cultures and practices to continue. Researchers have also noted that counselors working for EAP services have had difficulties, with some reporting feeling powerless to respond, and other reports showing counselors’ misunderstandings of the complexities of the workplace phenomena being described to them by clients (e.g., bullying or violence) and of them unhelpfully sending traumatized individuals back to their workplaces for support.

Finally, training of staff about aspects of workplace adversity, including the surrounding issues, processes, and behaviors involved to enhance worker understanding, has also been investigated. Training workers as to their rights and responsibilities, and how to implement workplace codes of conduct, has been noted by some scholars as productive. However, once again, a number of weaknesses with the use of education and training as an organizational response to workplace adversity have been reported. First, sending both complainant and alleged perpetrator to training, especially in cases where bullying, violence, or corruption are alleged, presupposes that the worker reporting adversity is in equal need of remedial response. Situations of adversity that involve physical, psychological, or emotional violence, such as harassment and bullying, are often incorrectly diagnosed as interpersonal conflict. With this comes a flawed expectation that training in interpersonal communication skills, violence prevention, or codes of conduct will remedy the problem. Unfortunately, there has been little evidence to suggest that such responses assist, while the opposite outcome has been reported: violence prevention programs have been shown to not produce long-term changes in violent behavior or decrease the subsequent risk of victimization of complainants.

Alternative Organizational Responses to Workplace Adversity

Given the noted failure of many of the usual organizational responses to workplace adversity, scholars have increasingly been turning their attention to more positive, productive, and appreciative approaches. It is widely acknowledged that workers feeling violated, overloaded, and insecure and who are being bullied or harassed, or who have low control over work tasks and how and when they might perform them, are likely to experience significant, adverse impacts on their psychological and physical well-being. In response, scholars have shifted attention toward finding ways for organizations and individuals to enhance the resilience, positivity, and mental and physical health and well-being of workers facing adversity. Finding ways to enhance the perceptions of individuals with regard to their capacity to respond successfully, cope, and survive have also been investigated. The study of individual psychological traits, such as self-concept and self-efficacy, have been found to be powerful components of enhanced resilience, improved well-being and positive self-concept, and fundamental to successful coping with adversity (Marsh and Craven 2006). Understanding and enhancing self-esteem, self-concept, self-perception, and self-efficacy have been found to be useful ways to support the physical and mental health of workers experiencing workplace adversity.

This new paradigm of positivity has spawned numerous new approaches to management, management training, research, and consultancy. Rather than focusing on problems, problem-solving, and negatives in organizational life, researchers have increasingly been searching for ways to stimulate new images, ideas, and positive actions through the appreciation and recognition of both the light and dark in organizational life. Finding ways to develop positive responses in individuals and organizations faced with adversity has emerged from recognition that workers damaged by workplace adversity need a means of articulating the devastation that has befallen them, a means to transform their lived experience into positive outcomes, and a means of getting past their fear, humiliation, shame, and pain. Finding ways to explore the hurt, anger, injustice, and despair, and in ways that can benefit both the injured individual and the organization, has been strongly advocated (see Bushe 2007). It is a paradigm shift intended to mobilize informed, positive action and has arguably contributed to the development of more effective organizational responses to workplace adversity.

A key development has been the emergence of positive psychology. Positive psychology is a growing body of research intended to enable the flourishing of human potential. It was first introduced as a science of positive subjective experience, positive individual traits, and positive institutions and promised to improve quality of life and prevent the pathologies of a barren, meaningless one (Müceldili et al. 2015; Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi 2000). The focus of positive psychology on enhanced coping and well-being through the generation of ideas, hope, wisdom, creativity, future mindedness, courage, spirituality, responsibility, and perseverance has become clear research directions, for organizations, individuals, and groups wanting to improve the quality of their work life (see, e.g., Tejeda 2015).

Within the organizational context, positive psychology has focused on strengthening and building the best and repairing the worst problems of workplaces. It aims to achieve this through building positive qualities in individuals and encouraging the flourishing and prospering of individuals, groups, organizations, and communities. Two specific fields of positive psychology in organizations have included (1) positive organizational behavior (POB), which has focused on microlevels of analyses (individuals), and (2) positive organizational scholarship (POS), which has focused on macro levels of analyses of organizations and groups (organizations). POB has been concerned with studying positively oriented human resource strengths and psychological capacities to improve individual performance in workplaces. POS is a study of the conditions and processes that contribute to the flourishing or optimal functioning of people, groups, and institutions (Müceldili et al. 2015). These approaches have offered a positive lens for seeing, analyzing, and better understanding organizational life. Positive psychology in organizations has been of particular interest, with its emphasis on exploring and better understanding of the role of resilience, authenticity, empowerment, appreciation, energy, meaningfulness, and gratitude in workplaces and within individuals (see, e.g., Müceldili et al. 2015).

Indeed, the literature has confirmed that some workers, despite much workplace adversity, have still been able to sustain themselves physically, mentally, and emotionally. Not only have they reported surviving but some have been confirmed to have thrived while sustaining long, successful, and satisfying careers (McDonald et al. 2012). It has been claimed that resilience is a beneficial, even essential, trait for those able to sustain themselves and thrive, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Importantly for workplace adversity researchers, resilience has been described as being able to be developed or enhanced through cognitive transformational processes, education, and environmental or workplace support (Grafton et al. 2010).

The role of resilience in protecting workers and workplaces has been increasingly recognized, and investigated, especially with regard to various forms of workplace adversity. Resilience describes an individual’s ability to resist adversity and cope with it and to recover and grow as a result of it (Grafton et al. 2010). The presence of individual resilience has been said to confirm a person’s capacity to function optimally under stress and duress, to find opportunities in tragedy, to bounce back from setbacks, and to be able to turn adversity to their advantage. The study of resilience can be found in physics, medicine, theology, philosophy, psychology, and spirituality, though the conceptual roots stemmed from the childhood development, psychology, and stress literatures. Most definitions of resilience highlight outcomes of positive adaptation to adversity, without significant residual psychological or physiological disruption. Resilience research began with attempts to identify resilience traits or characteristics that were believed to be common to resilient individuals. Investigations then shifted toward learning how such characteristics might be acquired. More recently, resilience has been described as a form of accessible inner strength that can be enhanced or supported by external resources (Grafton et al. 2010).

One small area of controversy around resilience has been a challenge to the expectation that a resilient person will always “bounce back” from their adversity, unchanged. Many studies on resilience have been underpinned by the assumptions that (1) resilient individuals can and do bounce back from traumatic events in their life, relatively unchanged; (2) individuals can learn to be more resilient, through learning enhanced interpersonal capacities and by drawing on the collective resources available to them; and (3) the supply of appropriate organizational resources intended to foster and develop individual- and group-based resilience can assist in this process. However, some have suggested that, while resilient workers may cope and survive even significant, chronic workplace adversity, those workers may still be permanently injured, or at least changed, as a result of their negative experiences. It has been argued that their capacity to resume their lives, cope, survive, and even flourish does not necessarily confirm a lack of long-term negative impact for that individual (see Vickers and Kouzmin 2001).

Alongside the increased interest in positivity and resilience has been a growing recognition of the need for health and well-being in workers and organizations. Well-being has been defined by the World Health Organization as a state in which every individual can realize his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community (WHO 2013). The subjective well-being of individuals has been found to consist of three things: positive mood, an absence of negative mood, and life satisfaction. Unfortunately, there is abundant evidence that workplace adversity damages positive mood, emotions, and well-being; increases the presence of negative emotions and affect; and can have a profoundly negative impact on worker’s health, happiness, and well-being. Some scholars have investigated the well-being of individuals, while others have focused at a more macro level, on organizational wellness. For still others, employee and organizational well-being have been claimed to be a “dual agenda” where the interests of workers and the organization employing them are regarded as complimentary (Kossek et al. 2012). Concern for an organization’s health and well-being has been motivated by associated concerns with an organization’s ongoing success. Claims have been made that individual worker’s health and well-being is intimately connected with the well-being of the organization and its culture.

Similarly, the presence of positive emotions, such as happiness, has been found to enhance cognitive ability, memory, innovation, and creativity, thus confirming their value in workplaces, especially in response to the presence of adversity. It has been repeatedly confirmed that workers who are happy and healthy do a better job. Happiness has also been found to be not just as a positive outcome in people’s lives but resulting in many beneficial outcomes for workplaces. Individuals with high levels of happiness have been found to be more productive at work, earn higher incomes, and facilitate more democratic governance in organizations. Happiness and contentment (see Diener and Seligman 2004) have been recognized as forming important components of wellness and well-being, but happiness also requires positive emotion, engagement with life and work, feeling connected with others, and a sense of meaning and accomplishment in one’s life. Workers experiencing adversity are unlikely to be happy at work, at great cost to both those individuals and their places of work.

Increasing recognition of the need for happiness, positivity, and resilience in workers and the continuing need to find ways to respond to workplace adversity have led to a growing interest in, and recognition of, the value of compassion in organizational life (see Kanov et al. 2004). Compassion and compassion organizing have been increasingly seen as virtuous individual and collective responses to adversity that contribute to both personal and social good, with compassion having been recognized as being at the core of what it means to be human. Discussions about compassion are not new, dating back over 2,000 years, and spanning the disciplines of religion, philosophy, and sociology. However, in recent times, compassion has been reclaimed as an essential, but frequently overlooked, element of productive and successful workplaces, especially those needing to respond to workers facing adversity. Jane Dutton, Peter Frost, and colleagues (Dutton 2003; Dutton et al. 2006; Frost 1999) have been at the forefront of recognizing that while organizations are often sites of pain and suffering, they can also be places of healing and somewhere where caring can be both given and received. The presence of compassion has been claimed to help people feel seen, known, and less alone and has been associated with a wide range of positive emotions, attitudes, behaviors, and feelings. Within the workplace, compassion has been recognized as a means where individuals might assist in healing one another, singly or collectively, by noticing another’s suffering, experiencing an emotional reaction to that person’s pain, and acting to ease or alleviate it. Acting compassionately has been increasingly argued as another way organizations can respond positively and proactively to the adversity they spawn.

Alternative Ways to Learn About Workplace Adversity

As part of the quest to find new ways to respond to workplace adversity, researchers and managers have increasingly noted that the investigation and resolution of challenging, complex, and ambiguous phenomena – such as workplace adversity – require nuanced perspectives, different analyses, and explication of both the positives and negatives of organizational life. Enhanced understanding of, and response to, challenging phenomena and their associated negative experiences, social interactions, and critical incidents have been increasingly recognized as requiring various representational options, including more appreciative, positive, and creative forms of exploration and presentation. Workplaces have been urged to find alternative, more humane and sustainable ways of doing things and learning about themselves; holistic, new, innovative practices, including emancipatory and innovative action learning approaches, appreciative inquiry, critical reflections, reflexive thinking, and double loop learning have increasingly been advocated (see, e.g., Bushe 2007; Schein1992).

The seminal article on appreciative inquiry by Cooperrider and Srivastva (1987) was considered by many to be revolutionary and has been a precursor to many positive developments in researching organizations. Tools for organizational change have been increasingly used that offer constructive reimaginings and positive and appreciative foci and that are intended to improve structures, competitiveness, profitability, and sustainability. These appreciative orientations are said to have been based on the “heliotropic principle” (where plants grow toward the light (see Michael 2005: 222)). In similar form, it is claimed that people and organizations also move toward their light, by imagining positive futures and creating affirming, appreciative responses to past and present events, such as workplace adversity. It is a research orientation that is intended to enable pathways to new ways of thinking about troublesome workplace phenomena and in ways that lead to more positive and constructive options for action (Bushe 2007).

Appreciative and positive approaches allow researchers, and managers, to depict examples of success and embrace the goodness that may be present in organizations, even when success is overshadowed by dark, dysfunctional, or otherwise precarious organizational systems. Such approaches have not been intended to ignore the negatives or deny the unpleasant. Rather, they proceed with analyses based on hope and that use imagination to explore how workplaces might function in a better world. An increased use of action and engaged research approaches, where researchers work with organizational members to brainstorm, create, and develop responses to negative workplace situations, are being seen. Workplaces, and workers, have been claimed to benefit from involvement with positive processes that seek workers’ views and learn from workers’ capacities for innovative thinking. Appreciative inquiry, creative writing, portraiture, action research, and engaged research all seek positive responses and solutions via workers’ ideas about how they would like the world to be.

Similarly, the use of stories remains a positive means of exploring difficult workplace phenomena. Recent decades have confirmed the value, increasing use, and acknowledgement of stories as a credible and significant means of acquiring knowledge about workplaces (e.g., Boje 2014; Hummel 1991). The use of stories, combined with a focus on the positive in organizational life, has seen a burgeoning of creative, qualitative research methods that have gained increasing traction as a means of grappling with nuanced and complex issues, such as workplace adversity, that are traditionally difficult to effectively interrogate, and respond to, using more traditional research approaches. Creative research approaches founded on appreciative, compassionate, and generative responses to workplace adversity have been numerous. Narratives; short stories; re-storying of the self; portraiture; critical, reflective, and reflexive diaries and journals; fiction, semi-fiction, and creative nonfiction; poetry; and interpretation and interrogation of existing fiction all have been used to illuminate some of the many sensitive, painful, and fraught aspects of social and organizational life. Creative writing has been used by scholars dealing with challenging social and institutional phenomena, for decades (e.g., Cope et al. 2015; Gutkind 2009; Harold 2003; Ketelle 2004; Phillips 1995; Rolfe 2002; Vickers 2011), but now forms part of a crucial paradigm shift being made around responses to adversity in organizational life.

Finally, the literature has also been bathed in discussions of sustainability of the planet, the problem of global warming, the need for clean air and conservation of water resources, and the growing numbers of endangered flora and fauna. However, sustainability of workplaces has also been an area of concern, and the damage created by workplace adversity is something scholars have become increasingly concerned about. Multidimensional, critical, human resource management that is socially conscious and contributes to building just, compassionate, democratic and sustainable workplaces has been called for in tandem with a shift toward positive change in workplaces.


Contemporary workplaces are increasingly being admonished to embrace the societal and organizational transformations necessary to shape, and improve, worker experiences and perceptions, especially in relation to preserving worker humanity, diversity, equality, justice, and trust. Approaches that encourage and develop workplace and worker sustainability – which support positivity, compassion, well-being, and appreciation and ameliorate the often devastating consequences of workplace adversity – are increasingly being sought, and used, by managers, workers, and scholars to respond to the harm caused by workplace adversity.



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© Springer International Publishing AG 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of BusinessWestern Sydney UniversitySydneyAustralia