Imagine waking up every day and going to a workplace where you felt uncomfortable or even unsafe. That's the reality for 20 percent of the American workforce, according to a survey of more than 3,000 employees.
The research, conducted by Rand Corp., Harvard Medical School and the University of California, Los Angeles, revealed that 1 in 5 workers faces hostile conditions at work, including behaviors like sexual harassment and bullying. This type of abuse is disproportionately directed at public-facing workers who deal with customers and clients directly, researchers found. [Trying to improve your work environment? Here are four ways offices can create more positive experiences.]
Additionally, about 55 percent of workers say they face "unpleasant and potentially hazardous" conditions, which includes frequently inhaling dangerous particles like dust or smoke and handling chemical products. About half of the respondents also reported that their work spills over into their personal lives, either in the form of doing work in their free time or in unpredictable schedule changes.
"To us, it is kind of a very interesting and somewhat striking portrait of what people go through on a daily basis," Nicole Maestas, an adjunct economist at Rand Corp. and co-author of the study, told Business News Daily.
It isn't all doom and gloom, though: Researchers found that American workers have a great deal of autonomy in their work. About 80 percent of respondents said they are able to solve problems and formulate their own ideas on the job. And a majority said their bosses are supportive of them (58 percent) and that they have good friends at work (56 percent).
"A substantial proportion of workers is exposed to an adverse physical and social work environment and is subject to high pressure and hours variations that spill over into personal lives," the study's authors wrote. "At the same time, many workers say that they have latitude over how they do their jobs, and a majority feel supported by their coworkers and bosses."
The researchers will expand their body of data in 2018, as well as follow up with respondents from the 2015 survey, Maestas said. This will allow them to examine not only larger trends in the American workplace, but also the impact of hostility or hazardous workplaces over time, in terms of things like turnover, productivity and health.
"My idea here is to ask, 'What role do working conditions play?' It's not just a matter of economic performance in U.S., but also the health and well-being of the American worker," Maestas said. "We're talking about recognizing that jobs can be really stressful for a lot of people and impact their physical well-being, as well as their emotional well-being. We work quite a bit, and we don't have a lot of control over when we work."
What can be done about hostile work environments?
Despite the positives, hostile work environments are still a common occurrence for large swaths of the workforce. And a majority feel, at the very least, uncomfortable. These findings bring with them an imperative to change how we see things in the workplace, said Joel Klein, a certified professional business coach and producer of BizTank.
"If people feel that their environment is hostile, whether they know it or not, their work is likely to suffer, and the success of the company is at jeopardy," Klein said. "The less this is spoken about, the more a hostile environment becomes a topic that is too normalized to be addressed, leaving people unhappy in their jobs constantly."
Fortunately, Klein said, there are ways for both employers and employees to address when hostility is bubbling under the surface. Resolving these issues before they grow beyond control or to a tipping point is essential to maintaining a functional work environment with happy and productive employees.
"Employers can take courses, speak to HR or seek counsel to help to alleviate the company's hostile culture," Klein said. "Employees, although difficult to do, should speak up to a human resource professional at the company or someone in upper management that they can trust. It's important that the suffering doesn't go unnoticed or you will just have resentful employees."