Francisca Carvalho, PhD candidate, BRU-IUL (PT); Silvia Silva, PhD, BRU-IUL (PT); Donatella Di Marco, PhD, University of Seville (ES) & BRU-IUL (PT); Helena Carvalho, PhD, CIES-IUL (PT); Wilmar Schaufeli, PhD, Utrecht University (NL) & Kuleuven (B)

For this study, we hypothesized that: organisational justice moderates the association of customer incivility with (a) burnout (emotional exhaustion, emotional impairment, cognitive impairment, and mental distance), and (b)trust; (c) that trust is directly linked to and all dimensions of burnout, and (d) the relation between customer incivility and burnout, via trust, is affected depending on the levels of organisational justice.

Customer incivility is defined as “low-intensity deviant behavior perpetrated by someone in a customer or client role, with ambiguous intent to harm an employee” (Sliter et al., 2010, p. 468). Past research exhibits that incivility from clients is linked with job burnout (Seung Yoon et al., 2017), anxiety and depression (Wilson & Holmvall, 2013). Thence, it becomes important to understand what are the consequences of customer incivility, the processes that link incivility to these negative effects, and what are possible mitigators or intensifiers factors in this relation. Employees expect accountability from their organisation to what happens to them, even if the uncivil behaviours come from clients. Organisational justice, as the perception that employees have on how their organisations are fair (Whitman et al., 2012), is a preponderant job resource that when low has been linked to psychological distress (Tepper, 2001).

Another important job resource is trust. In exchange of doing their job and managing customer incivility properly, workers may expect that organisations are not complacent with the perpetrators’ actions and take safeguarding actions in return. However, if they don’t, their trust can diminish significantly. Further, this lack of trust can lead to negative consequences, mainly on the victims’ health.

Finally, through the Job Demands-Resources Model (Demerouti et al., 2001), we understand that experiencing high levels of customer incivility (a job demand), through low levels of trust can trigger a stress process that can induce burnout symptoms. This stress process can even more aggravated if perceptions of organisational justice are low as well.

The study was conducted in a Public Institution (N = 562). The data collection was made through an on-line questionnaire in a link accessible by all the employees. Its filling was anonymous and answered on a voluntarily basis.

Customer incivility was assessed through five items of Wilson and Holmvall (2013). Trust and Organisational justice were measured through four and five items, respectively, from the Energy Compass (Schaufeli, 2017). Burnout was assessed through 23 items comprising the 4-dimensions? scale from Schaufeli et al. (2020). All scales were previously validated.

We tested our hypotheses using the Macro PROCESS for SPSS (Hayes, 2012), which allowed us to carry out conditional process modelling.

Results showed that organisational justice did not moderate the relationship of customer incivility with emotional exhaustion, cognitive impairment, emotional impairment, and mental distance. It did, however, at low levels, moderate the association between customer incivility and trust. Concerning the negative relationship between trust and the burnout, we found it to be significant for all dimensions of burnout, except emotional exhaustion. As for the indirect effect of customer incivility on burnout via trust, it was significant for cognitive impairment, emotional impairment and mental distance when the levels of organisational justice were low.

Organisational justice showed only to not have an impact on the moderation between customer incivility and emotional exhaustion, as well on the moderated mediation with this dimension. Perhaps organisational justice does not have sufficiently draining properties, since exhaustion is characterized by a severe loss of energy (Schaufeli et al., 2020). It can do the opposite- create strong emotional reactions, as past studies showed a connection of justice with emotional labour (Spencer & Rupp, 2009). Organisational justice can also be related to concentration deficits, leading employees to wonder why they weren’t protected upon uncivil customers (cognitive impairment). As well, this last situation can make workers more resistant to certain tasks and to avoid to the maximum extent contact with clients (e.g. proactively not asking customers if they need assistance), making them mentally distant from work.

The present research adds some contributions. Although customer incivility and burnout are a well-established connection within the literature (Matthews & Ritter, 2019) we extend its knowledge by studying trust as a mediator. Also, authors have oversighted the way in which organisational justice can impact one’s mental health (Ndjaboué et al., 2012), even more within the topic of incivility. However, our study has a few limitations as well: a cross-sectional study was conducted, allowing no casual inferences. Common method bias may also have overestimated the results due to the use of self-reported measures.

In line with Demerouti et al. (2001), we posit that low levels of organisational justice can increment a stress process triggered in workplaces where customer incivility is perpetuated. In practical terms, our results suggest that organisations should adopt fair procedures, benefiting, this way, from employees with higher trusting feelings and that experience fewer negative consequences from interacting with disrespectful clients.

Tags: Applied research, Empirical study, Psychological and Biological Effects of Job Stress, Workplace Mistreatment and Threats, Workplace Mistreatment; Threats; and Violence, Workplace Stress; Outcomes; and Recovery