BioMed Research International

BioMed Research International / 2015 / Article
Special Issue

Psychosocial Factors and Workers Health and Safety

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Research Article | Open Access

Volume 2015 |Article ID 215267 |

Sara Viotti, Silvia Gilardi, Chiara Guglielmetti, Daniela Converso, "Verbal Aggression from Care Recipients as a Risk Factor among Nursing Staff: A Study on Burnout in the JD-R Model Perspective", BioMed Research International, vol. 2015, Article ID 215267, 17 pages, 2015.

Verbal Aggression from Care Recipients as a Risk Factor among Nursing Staff: A Study on Burnout in the JD-R Model Perspective

Academic Editor: Stavroula Leka
Received09 Feb 2015
Revised07 Apr 2015
Accepted04 May 2015
Published19 Oct 2015


Among nursing staff, the risk of experiencing violence, especially verbal aggression, is particularly relevant. The present study, developed in the theoretical framework of the Job Demands-Resources model (JD-R), has two main aims: (a) to examine the association between verbal aggression and job burnout in both nurses and nurse’s aides and (b) to assess whether job content, social resources, and organizational resources lessen the negative impact of verbal aggression on burnout in the two professional groups. The cross-sectional study uses a dataset that consists of 630 workers (522 nurses and 108 nurse’s aides) employed in emergency and medical units. High associations were found between verbal aggression and job burnout in both professional groups. Moderated hierarchical regressions showed that, among nurses, only the job content level resources moderated the effects of the verbal aggression on job burnout. Among nurse’s aides, the opposite was found. Some resources on the social and organizational levels but none of the job content level resources buffered the effects of verbal aggression on workers burnout. The study highlights the crucial role of different types of resources in protecting nursing staff from the detrimental effects of verbal aggression on job burnout.

1. Introduction

In the workplace, nursing staff are exposed to various factors that are likely to jeopardize their health and safety. Among these, the risk of experiencing violence is particularly relevant. Work-related violence includes both physically and psychologically violent incidents in which staff members are abused, threatened, or assaulted. It can be defined as “any threat, physical, and/or psychological, that is directed toward a person while at work” [1].

More specifically, in the health care sector, the most common violence is the so-called Type II category, described as the following in the Californian Occupational Safety and Health Administration classification [2, 3]: events involving aggressions by someone who is either the recipient of a service provided by the affected workplace or the victim.

Europe is recently witnessing a progressive increase of Type II violence, which is considered an “emerging epidemic” [4, 5]. In a study across 10 European countries, Camerino et al. [6] found that 9.9% of nurses face violence from patients or patients’ relatives at least once a week (countries over the European average: France, 19.5%; UK, 12.3%; Germany, 11.5%; and Italy, 10.3%). This violence mainly consists of verbal aggression, including loud and demanding verbal hostility or verbal threats of the intent to do harm [7, 8].

Because a higher level of violence is expected in those units where patients may initiate more verbal or physical threats (i.e., psychiatric wards or elderly patient areas) or where emergencies and workload are massive (i.e., out-of-hours primary care, emergency, and ICU units), most of the research has been conducted in these specific contexts [913]. The existing literature mainly highlights the negative effects of violence exposure in terms of physical and psychological health, and it rarely investigates the protective factors or the positive resources that workers possess/adopt to buffer them [1416].

The present study focused on verbal aggression, which is one of the most common forms of Type II violence incurred by nursing staffs. Using the framework of the Job Demands-Resources model (JD-R [1719]), the study intends to investigate the relationship between verbal aggression and burnout among two categories within the nursing profession, namely nurses and nurse’s aides. The study also examines whether and which different kinds of job resources are able to buffer the impact of verbal aggression on burnout among the two subsamples considered.

Verbal aggression is a form of direct psychological aggression that includes yelling at the service provider or making sarcastic or offensive remarks [20]. According to the JD-R model [1719], verbal aggression can be considered a job demand because it is a psychological aspect of the job that requires sustained psychological effort and is therefore associated with certain physiological and/or psychological costs. The present paper focuses on a specific psychological cost, namely, job burnout, which, as the literature has extensively highlighted, represents a particularly relevant concern within the nursing profession [21, 22]. According to Green et al. [23], burnout is a syndrome recognizable by two core dimensions: emotional exhaustion, which refers to the depletion of the energy process, and depersonalization, which indicates a highly detached attitude toward patients.

The fact that being exposed to verbal aggression may lead to burnout is suggested by one of the main assumptions of the JD-R model [1719], the health impairment hypothesis. In accordance with this assumption and the Consarvation of Resources theory (COR) [24], verbal aggression may deplete workers’ energy, activating a loss cycle that can lead to exhausting employees’ mental and physical resources. In addition, as a consequence of perceiving contact with the patient as a threat, the workers may adopt an attitude of avoidance, such as depersonalization. From an empirical point of view, many studies carried out both within the customer service workers’ population [2528] and within the health sector workers’ population, in particular [2934], confirmed the positive association between verbal aggression and burnout. Based on that, in the present study, it is expected to find a significant and positive relationship between verbal aggression and respectively emotional exhaustion and depersonalization among nurses (H1a) and nurse’s aides (H1b).

The buffering assumption of the JD-R model [1719] states that job resources may buffer the impact of verbal aggression on job burnout. Job resources refer to those physical, psychological, social, or organizational aspects that help achieve work goals, reduce job demands, and lessen the associated physiological and psychological costs. As stated above, according to the COR theory [24], verbal aggression is generally perceived to be losses because meeting such demands requires the investment of valued resources, which are viewed as gains [35]. By contrast, the presence of resources in the workplace may interrupt the loss cycle and lead to boosting the motivational process by sustaining the workers in successfully coping with job demands [19, 34]. In this perspective, it is important to understand which resources are useful for dealing with verbal aggression and moderating the development of burnout symptoms.

However, whereas the research is well-developed for most job demands and provides evidence in that direction, as regards verbal aggression, the attention on the variables of the workplace that may buffer its detrimental effects is quite limited [19]. Particularly, the research needs to be expanded in the direction of examining and comparing the roles of different kinds of job resources in buffering the adverse effect of verbal aggression. According to the literature, three types of resources may be available in the workplace: job content resources, social resources, and organizational resources [19]. Rarely in the literature there are studies available that take into consideration, all together, resources from these three levels to test their buffering effects and compare their function in a unique sample. Studies examining all of these resources may advance the literature by indicating the level (job content, social, or organizational levels) to which intervention would be most appropriate [36].

In that direction, the present study includes eight specific resources at the job content, social, and organizational levels. The choice was driven by previous research that recognized the importance of these job characteristics in moderating the effects of the various job demands, including verbal aggression on job burnout, both among the general population and among nursing professionals [15, 35, 3739].

At the job content level, skill discretion, job autonomy, role clarity, and work meaning were taken into account. According to Karasek [40], skill discretion and autonomy express the extent to which workers are capable of controlling their tasks and general work activities. Skill discretion refers to a person’s opportunity to use specific job skills in the work process. Job autonomy refers to the extent to which a person is autonomous in task-related decisions, such as timing and method control. Broadly speaking, it is plausible that having wide margins of discretion may stimulate workers to exercise creativity in finding successful strategies for managing aggressive patient behaviour, thus lessening exhaustion and depersonalization symptoms caused by exposure to verbal aggression. As regards autonomy, some evidence supports its moderating effect on the relationship between verbal aggression and burnout [15, 38], whereas no studies were found in the literature regarding skill discretion.

Role clarity refers to the degree to which the task and the objectives of a job are clearly defined [41]. This job resource has been found to work as a moderator on the relationship between several job demands and workers’ outcomes [42, 43]. Even though no studies focus on its role in moderating the relationship between verbal aggression and burnout, it is plausible that role clarity may increase the opportunity to effectively manage the relationship with patients in several ways. For example, workers may be placed in the position to give adequate feedback to patients.

Work meaning refers to the degree to which the work is perceived meaningful, important, and constructive [41]. It may work as a buffer of the perceived verbal aggression on burnout by leading the workers to consider the episodes of verbal aggression as learning opportunities for improving care service rather than just as adverse events.

At the social level, support from colleagues and support from supervisors were considered. Karasek and Theorell [44] defined social support at work as “overall levels of helpful social interaction available on the job from co-workers and supervisors” (page 69). Both supervisors and colleagues may play a role in buffering the burnout symptoms caused by being exposed to patients’ verbal aggression by providing both instrumental (i.e., helping workers manage the relationships with patient/relatives) and affective (i.e., giving affective support and not blaming workers for what happens with patients) support. This explanation is consistent with the findings provided by the study from Xanthopoulou et al. [38], which found that social support moderated the detrimental effect of patient harassment on both emotional exhaustion and cynicism in a sample of home care nurses.

At the organizational level, organizational support, fairness, and social utility of the service were considered in the present study. Organizational support refers to the degree to which the organization values workers’ contributions and the extent it cares about workers’ well-being [45]. In a sample of Canadian postal workers, Schat and Kelloway [37] found that organizational support moderated the effects of violence and aggression on emotional well-being and physical health. Based on that, the presence of supportive procedures that help workers when they are victims of aggressive behaviors may help contain the development of burnout.

According to Maslach and Leiter [46], fairness reflects organizational justice and can be defined as the extent to which the organization has consistent and equitable rules for all employees. Even if no study specifically explored the moderating role of fairness between verbal aggression and burnout, the literature suggests that it may matter. Elovaino et al. [47] proposed that fairness matters to people because it helps them deal with uncertainty, suggesting that people especially need fair judgments when they are concerned with potential problems associated with social interdependence and socially based identity processes.

Social utility of the service refers to the degree to which workers perceive that the organization provides useful and high-quality services for the community [48]. The literature focused poorly on this kind of resource. However, especially in sectors such as health care, in which the link with the community is important, it may play a central role. Indeed, the perception that the service provided by the organization has a positive return for the community may support the workers in keeping a positive self-image, even if some patients show disapproval for their job or the service.

According to the buffering assumption [1719], it is expected that all the resources considered in this study moderate the burnout symptoms among both nurses (H2a) and nurse’s aides (H2b). In particular, the relationship between verbal aggression and emotional exhaustion and depersonalization is expected to be stronger when job resources are low rather than when job resources are high.

The literature developed in the framework of the JD-R model regarding the nursing context [1719], rarely paid specific attention to the various subcategories within the nursing profession, such as nurses and nurse’s aides, when the effects of job demands and job resources on psychological health were examined. In particular, previous studies, in most cases, chose to merge these two job categories without verifying the presence of any difference between them despite the fact that nurses and nurse’s aides, even if they share the same workplace, significantly differ in educational background, types of tasks they perform, and position in the hierarchy. Nurses have specialized, formal, post-basic education, and they perform more complex tasks such as developing and implementing nursing care plans, maintaining medical records, and administering care to patients. By contrast, nurse’s aides have little or no formal training or education and usually assist nurses by carrying out basic, nonspecialized tasks in the care of patients, such as bathing, feeding, and transporting patients under the supervision and the direction of a nurse [49].

Empirical evidence also suggests that merging these groups may obscure the specificity that each category has regarding job stress experience. For example, Seago and Faucett [50] and Morgan et al. [51], using the framework of the Job Demand-Control model (JDC, [40]), found that while nurses fall into the category of active strain (showing high demand and high control), nurse’s aides are in the high-strain category (having high demand and low control). Also Fiabane et al. [52] found significantly different distributions on the perception of several work-related psychosocial factors across these two job categories. For these reasons, in the belief that it may be useful to advance the understanding of the phenomenon of job stress in the nursing context, the analyses will be performed separately on the nursing and nursing aides subsamples in the present study to highlight any differences between the two job categories. Due to the exploratory nature of the aim, no expectations can be stated on this point.

The present study may advance the past knowledge on the buffering role of job resources in the demands-burnout relationship because it focuses on some aspects neglected in the previous literature: (a) it considers a wide range of resources (i.e., task level, social level, and organizational level) as possible moderators of the relationship between verbal aggression and burnout and (b) it analyses the buffering mechanism separately within the categories of nurses and nurse’s aides.

2. Method

Data were collected during a multi-centre intervention-research conducted in four hospitals in Northwest Italy in 2012. Hospital administrations evaluated, endorsed, and authorized the research, allowing researchers to use the data for scientific purposes. Upon approval, department chiefs and nurse coordinators from each ward were asked for authorization to administer the questionnaire to the nurses. An additional ethical approval was not required because no medically invasive diagnostics or procedures were involved to cause psychological or social discomfort for the participants, nor were the patients the subjects of the data collection. However, the research conforms to the provisions of the Declaration of Helsinki in 1995 (as revised in Edinburgh 2000), and all ethical guidelines were followed as required for conducting human research, including adherence to the legal requirements of the study country (Italy).

Participants volunteered for the research and were not asked to sign consent forms, but returning the questionnaire implied consent. The cover sheet clearly explained the research aim, the voluntary nature of participation, the anonymity of the data, and the elaboration of the findings.

The sample consisted of 630 workers: 522 (82.90%) nurses and 108 (17.10%) nurse’s aides. The majority were women (81.9%, ) aged between 21 and 62 years (, sd = 8.76). 57.30% were married or living with partners, 32.20% were single, .90% were divorced, and .60% were widowed.

The average period during which participants had been working in the health-care sector was 13.31 years (sd = 9.02) and ranged from 1 month to 39 years. They were employed in emergency (40.30%) and medical (59.70%) units. Sociodemographic and profession details for nurses and nurse’s aides are reported in Table 1.

Nurses Nurse’s aides

Marital status
 Married/living with partner29756.96459.3
 Medicine 30257.98074.1
Years in the health sector

The data were obtained by means of a self-reported questionnaire that included two sections. The first section collected sociodemographic (gender, age, and marital status) and professional (occupation, units, and years in the health sector) data. The second section included scales aimed at measuring job demand, job resources, and worker outcomes.

2.1. Job Demand

Customer verbal aggression that was measured by the subscale coming from the Customer-Related Social stressors (CSS) inventory was developed by Dormann and Zapf [20]. The subscale consists of four items (e.g., item: “Patients get angry at us even over minor matters.”) and reports a Cronbach’s alpha of .92. Responses were given on a four-point scale with a range between 1 (“strongly disagree”) and 4 (“strongly agree”).

2.2. Job Resources

Three categories of factors referring to the job content, the social, and the organizational levels were considered. At the job content level, we included four subscales: work meaning (5 items, , e.g., item: “Is your work meaningful?”), role clarity (3 items, , e.g., item: “Does your work have clear objectives?”), skill discretion (5 items, , e.g., item: “My job requires that I learn new things.”), and job autonomy (3 items, , e.g., item: “My job allows me to make a lot of decisions on my own.”). The former two were drawn from the Copenhagen Psychosocial Questionnaire by Kristensen et al. [41], and the latter two were taken from the Job Content Questionnaire (JCQ [53]). To measure social resources, two subscales of JCQ [53] were employed. They respectively investigate support from superiors (5 items, ; e.g., item “My supervisor is helpful in getting the job done.”) and from peers and colleagues (6 items, ; e.g., item: “People I work with are competent in doing their jobs.”). Three organizational resources were included in the questionnaire. The Organizational Checkup System (OCS [46, 54, 55]) measured fairness (6 items, ; e.g., item: “In my organization, job resources are equally distributed.”). Organizational support is a scale included in a recent revision of the Job Content Questionnaire (JCQ [53, 56]) (4 items, ; e.g., item “My organization really cares about my well-being.”). Social utility of the service is a scale drawn from Multidimensional Organizational Health Questionnaire (MOHQ, [48]) and (4 items, ; e.g., item: “The organization in which I work provides good service for the community”).

Responses on all subscales were given on a four-point scale with a range between 1 (“strongly disagree”) and 4 (“strongly agree”).

2.3. Outcomes

Job burnout was measured thought two subscales from the Italian version of Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI [5759]): emotional exhaustion (EE, 9 items, e.g., item: “I feel emotionally drained from my work”) and depersonalization (DP, 5 items; e.g., item “I feel I treat some patients as if they were impersonal objects”). Both subscales reported a good internal consistency (; ). Responses were given on a seven-point scale (ranging from 0 = “never” to 6 = “every day”).

2.4. Control Variables

Gender (0 = male; 1 = female), age, marital status (0 = not living with partner; 1 = living with partner), job seniority, and type of ward (0 = nonacute care ward; 1 = acute care ward) are potential confounders for burnout [57, 58, 60, 61]. In view of that, they were taken into consideration as control variables.

Table 2 reports descriptive statistics (means and standard deviations) and Pearson’s correlations for all subscales considered in the study.

M (ds)()()()()()()()()()()()()

) Verbal aggression1.88 (.77)1
() Meaning of the work3.38 (.48)1
() Role clarity3.34 (.53)1
() Skill discretion3.36 (.55)−.031
() Job autonomy2.68 (.60)−.081
() Support from superiors2.84 (.60)1
() Support from colleagues3.07 (.59)1
() Fairness2.36 (.50).081
() Support from organization2.51 (.62)1
() Social utility2.73 (.54)1
() Emotional exhaustion2.06 (1.28)1
() Depersonalization1.21 (1.18)1

Note: ; .

All the analyses were performed using SPSS 21. Moderated hierarchical regression analyses were employed to examine the main effect of verbal aggression and of job resources on job burnout, as well as the moderating (buffering) role of job resources on the relationship between verbal aggression and burnout. For each moderated hierarchical regression performed, predictor variables were entered within three successive steps. In the first step, demographical (gender, age, and marital status) and occupational (years in the health sector and type of unit) variables were entered as control variables. In the second step, standardized indexes of verbal aggression and job resources were entered. In the third step, the interaction term, which is the product between verbal aggression and job resource, was entered. When the interaction term showed significant value, the simple slope procedure recommended by Aiken and West [62] was adopted to further examine the pattern of the relationship.

The risk of multicollinearity between independent variables was controlled by standardizing all indexes. Analyses indicated that there were no signs of multicollinearity in any of the regression models. For each independent variable, the tolerance index (1/VIF) never exceeded the score of .70 (cut-off < .20 [63]).

3. Results and Discussion

3.1. Nurses

Table 3 reports the results of the moderated hierarchical regressions in which emotional exhaustion was entered as a dependent variable. In the third step, all the models reported significant and showed a variance explained that ranged from 20% (model 3; JR: skill discretion) to 31% (model 6; JR: support from colleagues). Concerning controlling variables, gender showed a significant association with emotional exhaustion only in model 1 (JR: meaning of the job). The type of unit was found significant in all nine models, indicating that nurses employed in medical units are more prone to develop emotional exhaustion than nurses in the emergency units. Verbal aggression was found to be significant in all models, and its coefficients ranged from .35 to .44.

Meaning of the workRole claritySkill discretionJob autonomySupport from superiorSupport from colleaguesFairnessOrganizational support Organizational social utility
Emotional exhaustion

 Gender (1 = female).
 Age (1 40).
 Marital status (1 = married/partnered = 1)−.02−.32−.01−.09−.02−.40−.04−.87−.05−1.08−.04−.85−.40−.82−.04−.91−.17−.37
 Year health sector (1 15).
 Type of unit (1 = emergency)

 Verbal aggression.387.80
 Job resource−.077−1.58

 Verbal aggression × job resource−.44−.86.02.40−.06−1.25−.01−.164−.07−1.46

() versus ()
() versus () .

Note: ; ;  .

Regarding the main effect, all the resources we considered, except skill discretion, helped lessen emotional exhaustion. The smallest coefficient was found for meaning of work with .12, and the largest was found for support from colleagues with .35.

The interaction effect between verbal aggression and job resources was found to be significant in models 1, 3, 5, and 7, suggesting that meaning of work (), skill discretion (), support from superiors (), and fairness () buffer the effects of verbal aggression on emotional exhaustion.

In all these cases, the simple slope analysis (see Figures 14) showed that when the job resources were high (+1 standard deviation, SD), verbal aggression was positively and significantly related to emotional exhaustion. However, when the job resources were low (−1 SD), the relationship was stronger (, , ). In particular, for work meaning, the slope at +1 DS showed a of .39 (, ), whereas at −1 DS, the value reached .63 (, ). Similarly, the association between verbal aggression and emotional exhaustion was weaker when skill discretion was high (, , ), rather than when skill discretion was low (, , and ). Concerning support from superiors, the value of at −1 SD was equal to .73 (, ), whereas at +1 SD, was equal to .43 (, ). Finally, regarding fairness, the value of at −1 SD was equal to .77 (, ), whereas at +1 SD, was equal to .53 (, ). Therefore, the slope tests further supported that these resources moderated the effect of verbal aggression in increasing emotional exhaustion in the expected direction.

Table 4 shows the results for depersonalization. Within control variables, gender (in all models) and marital status (in some) were significant. Based on these results, men and people who do not have a partner have more risk of developing depersonalization. Verbal aggression significantly predicted depersonalization in all the models. All resources were found to be significantly related to depersonalization; coefficients indicated that, of these variables, only meaning of work ( to ), role clarity ( to ), and skill discretion ( to ) have a stronger relationship with depersonalization than emotional exhaustion. In the third step, entering the interaction term produced a significant incremental change of only for three content-level resources: meaning of work (), role clarity (), and skill discretion ().

Meaning of the workRole claritySkill discretionJob autonomySupport from superiorSupport from colleaguesFairnessOrganizational support Organizational social utility

 Gender (1 = female)
 Age (1 40).04.74−.00−.02.01.12−.01−.−.01−.
 Marital status
 (1 = married/partnered = 1)
 Year health sector (1 15)−.03−.63−.00−.07−.02−.40−.01−.21−.04−.65−.01−.16−.03−.63−.04−.71−.02−.28
 Type of unit (1 = emergency).

 Verbal aggression
 Job resource

 Verbal aggression × Job resource−.04−.73−.06−1.29−.01−.10−.01−.10.02.33−.08−1.72

() versus ()