Declan Gilmer, University of Connecticut; Vicki J. Magley, PhD, University of Connecticut; Alicia G. Dugan, PhD, University of Connecticut Health Center; Sara Namazi, PhD, Springfield College

This project examines the role of loneliness in the relationship between workplace incivility and individual and organizational outcomes. Additionally, we examined the impact of workgroup civility norms on the relationships between incivility and outcomes.

Hypothesis 1a. Incivility will be directly positively related to depression, 1b. anxiety, 1c. health-related work absence (Sample 1), 1d. emotional exhaustion, and 1e. turnover intentions (Sample 2). Hypothesis 1f. Incivility will be directly negatively related to self-rated job performance (Sample 1) and 1g. job satisfaction (Sample 2).

Hypothesis 2a. General loneliness (Sample 1) will mediate the relationship between incivility and depression, 2b. anxiety, 2c. health-related work absence, and 2d. self-rated job performance. Hypothesis 2e. Workplace loneliness (Sample 2) will mediate the relationship between incivility and emotional exhaustion, 2f. turnover intentions, and 2g. job satisfaction.

Hypothesis 3. Workgroup civility norms (Sample 2) will moderate the relationship between incivility and workplace loneliness such that more civil norms will weaken the relationship between incivility and workplace loneliness.

Hypothesis 4. Workgroup civility norms (Sample 2) will moderate the relationship between incivility and outcomes (4a. emotional exhaustion, 4b. turnover intentions, and 4c. job satisfaction) such that more civil norms will weaken the relationships between incivility and these outcomes.

The workplace presents an opportunity for meaningful social connection and interpersonal conflict. Considering the growing loneliness epidemic (Ozcelik & Barsade, 2018) and the role of organizations as social institutions (Wright, 2005, p. 124), the workplace could be an important point of intervention to reduce loneliness. Conversely, workplace mistreatment is a stressor which could erode social connections, potentially leading to the experience of loneliness. Workplace incivility, a low-severity form of mistreatment, may be especially pervasive and harmful compared to other more overt forms of mistreatment, and its negative effects are well-documented (e.g., Geldart, Langlois, Shannon, Cortina, Griffith, & Haines, 2018; Rahim & Cosby, 2016).

Affective Events Theory (Weiss & Cropanzano, 1996) states that individuals have emotional responses to events at work. Individuals who experience mistreatment may respond in various ways, and we propose that one potential response to incivility is social withdrawal and loneliness. Given that loneliness has been conceptualized as an emotional experience and potentially is an emotional response to workplace incivility, we theorize that loneliness can act as a secondary stressor which explains the relationship between workplace incivility and outcomes.

In addition, contextual variables may mitigate the effects of incivility. Specifically, workgroup civility norms may play a buffering role in the incivility-to-loneliness pathway such that individuals in work environments which are less tolerant of incivility may be less likely to experience loneliness. This possibility presents another potential intervention point: improving workgroup civility norms may protect workers against the harmful effects of incivility (e.g., emotional exhaustion).

We utilized a cross-sectional survey design with two samples in order to examine different outcome variables. The samples consist of 165 state corrections supervisors (Sample 1) and 681 working adults from Qualtrics Online Sample Service and snowball sampling (Sample 2). Measures included workplace incivility, general loneliness, workplace loneliness, depression and anxiety symptoms, emotional exhaustion, turnover intentions, job satisfaction, health-related absenteeism, job performance, and workgroup civility norms. We tested hypotheses using simple and moderated mediation.

We found support for direct relationships between incivility and depression (H1a), anxiety (H1b), emotional exhaustion (H1d), turnover intentions (H1e), self-rated job performance (H1f), and job satisfaction (H1g). All mediation hypotheses were supported: Loneliness mediated the relationship between incivility and all outcomes (H2a-g). Moderation hypotheses were partially supported. Workgroup civility norms moderated the relationship between incivility and emotional exhaustion (H4a) and turnover intentions (H4b); however, contrary to our hypotheses, the relationships between incivility and these outcomes were stronger when civility norms were higher. Though the data may give rise to multicollinearity concerns, the literature asserts that loneliness and depression are distinct constructs (e.g., Cacioppo, Hawkley, & Thisted, 2010), and the relationship between emotional exhaustion and turnover intentions aligns with extant organizational literature (e.g., Kraemer & Gouthier, 2014).

This paper adds to the limited literature on workplace loneliness, and provides a potential explanatory mechanism to the workplace mistreatment literature. Practically, loneliness interventions may be effective in addition to civility training to prevent negative organizational and individual outcomes. In addition, the moderating effect of workgroup civility norms may point to a “betrayal effect” (e.g., Kath, Swody, Magley, Bunk, & Gallus, 2009). That is, when employees are working in a high civility climate, they may feel betrayed and experience particularly harmful effects when incivility occurs.

This study has several important findings for the workplace mistreatment literature, including potential roles of loneliness and civility norms. Future research should explore the mediating role of workplace loneliness using a longitudinal design, as well as investigate potential buffers of incivility and loneliness’s negative effects. Practically, this work can serve to inform organizational leaders of the deleterious effects of loneliness and aid in loneliness intervention development.

Tags: Comprehensive Approaches to Healthy Work Design and Well-Being, Empirical study, Organization- and Job-Level Environments and Practices, Public safety, Social and Organizational Environment, Total Worker Health, Work Organization and Stress, Workplace Mistreatment and Threats, Workplace Mistreatment; Threats; and Violence