Laura K. Link, B.A., Southern Connecticut State University Courtney DiCocco, B.A., Southern Connecticut State University Robert Kinzler,?B.A.,?Southern?Connecticut State University Christopher J. Budnick, Ph.D. Southern Connecticut State University
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (e.g., flashbacks, behavioral/mood/sleep changes; American Psychiatric Association, 2013) impacts many individuals? lives. Moreover, PTSD prevalence is higher since Covid pandemic onset. For example, one in five healthcare employees reported elevated PTSD, anxiety, and depression symptoms mid-pandemic (Li, Scherer, Felix, & Kuper, 2021). Yet despite increased prevalence and impacts on functioning, few studies address PTSD?s influence the workplace. Therefore, we sampled a demographically (U.S.) representative sample of working adults to examine whether PTSD symptomology and workplace treatment jointly influenced workplace perceptions and behavioral intentions.
I-Cubed theory suggests aggression is most likely when individuals experience instigation, opportunity (impellance), and reduced inhibition (Slotter & Finkel, 2011). Similarly, the frustration-aggression hypothesis holds that aggression occurs due to strong negative affect and the opportunity for retaliation following a frustrating event (Breuer & Elson, 2017). Unfair treatment by a supervisor meets these criteria. If a supervisor takes credit for an employee?s contribution, that employee may experience high negative affect/feel instigated. As the instigation?s source is the supervisor, the employee likely cannot aggress directly for fear of retribution. Yet as the supervisor is the primary organizational representative, aggression may instead be directed toward counterproductive workplace behaviors (CWBs, i.e., indirect retaliation). Such behaviors provide opportunities to aggress with less likelihood of getting caught. For employees seeking retaliation against a supervisor, acts like negatively gossiping about the supervisor or undermining workflows are more difficult to observe and punish. However, some individuals may possess a heightened threat sensitivity. For example, individuals experiencing symptoms of PTSD tend to exhibit hypervigilance (Kimble et al., 2014), paranoia, and anxiety (Morrison, Frame, & Larkin, 2003). Given that PTSD symptoms result from experiencing strong past trauma, self-protection motivations may be heightened for those individuals. As such, individuals experiencing higher PTSD symptoms might perceive higher intent to harm in unfair supervisor treatment. Additionally, such individuals may also be more likely to intend to engage in CWBs to restore fairness and cope with that perceived threat. Therefore, we predicted that PTSD symptoms and supervisor treatment (fair versus unfair) would interact to predict intent to harm perceptions and CWB intentions.
A demographically representative Qualtrics panel (n?= 205, 51.7% female, 18 – 24 years old = 6.3%, 25 – 44 years old = 41.5%, 45 – 64 = 36.1%, 65 years or older = 16.1%) was randomly assigned to view a fair (n = 98) or unfair (n = 107) supervisor treatment scenario. PTSD symptoms were measured before vignette exposure, and after exposure we assessed CWB intentions and intent to harm perceptions. Data collection and analyses are complete.
To test our hypotheses, we conducted hierarchical linear regression analyses with PSTD symptoms and condition assignment entered at Step 1 and their interaction term at Step 2 to predict perceived intent to harm and CWBs. When predicting intent to harm the interaction term failed to explain unique variance beyond the individual predictors (?F [1, 201] = .20, p = .66; FFull Model [3, 201] = 2.71, p < .05). However, being in the unfair condition resulted in significantly higher intent to harm scores than in the fair condition (b = 3.60, t 201] = 2.56, p < .011, CI95% [.17,.18]); PTSD symptoms did not significantly influence perceived intent to harm (b = 1.26, t  = .131, p = .19, CI95% [.08,.09]). When testing whether condition assignment and PTSD symptoms would influence CWB intentions, the results indicated the interaction term did not contribute unique variance (?F [1, 201] = .03, p = .87; FFull Model [3, 201] = 20.7, p < .001). Still, higher PTSD symptoms did significantly predict increased CWBs (b = .53, t  = 5.45, p < .001, CI95% [.34,.72]), as did being in the unfair (compared to fair) condition (b = .37, t  = 2.65, p = .009, CI95% [.10,.65]).
Results indicated that CWBs are influenced by unfair workplace treatment and PTSD symptoms. The finding that PTSD and unfair workplace treatment both uniquely lead to CWBs is consistent with, and expands upon, Breuer & Elson (2017) who indicated that CWBs restore fairness and serve as a coping mechanism for perceived threat. Yet contrary to Kimble et al.?s (2014) finding that individuals experiencing PTSD are more likely to perceive harmful intentions in their supervisor?s behavior, our results did not observe a significant effect of PTSD on intent to harm perceptions. In fact, only unfair compared to fair supervisor treatment resulted in harmful intent perceptions.
Although we observed relationships between PTSD symptoms and key outcomes, this study did not clinically diagnose individuals with PTSD, but rather assessed PTSD levels within the general population; as such, PTSD symptom levels may have been restricted. Further research is required for more conclusive information on PTSD symptoms and their workplace effect. Using an experience sampling methodological approach seems a profitable next step.