Violence and bullying in the workplace

Source: Dominik Buschardt

The term "violence" is multi-facetted. When used in the field of occupational safety and health (OSH) it can be understood according to the definition set out by the International Labour Organization (ILO), which describes violence in the workplace as follows: "Any action, incident or behaviour that departs from reasonable conduct in which a person is assaulted, threatened, harmed, injured in the course of, or as a direct result of, his or her work."

A differentiation is to be made between external violence (caused by customers, clients or visitors) and internal violence (involves colleagues, superiors and subordinates), which in turn is to be differentiated from bullying.

External violence in the workplace

Violence in the workplace primarily takes the form of threats, harassment and insults, but can also involve actual assaults on employees. Threats and attacks in the workplace have increased considerably throughout the EU, with the risk of employees being confronted with violence in the workplace much higher in some sectors than others. High-risk workplaces include building societies and banks, trains and authorities in the legal and social sectors. It is often the case that a number of risk factors coincide, for example:

  • Cash handling;
  • Fulfilment of supervisory duties;
  • Contact with difficult groups;
  • Publicly accessible, individual workplaces or solo work at the client’s private residence.


Bullying in the workplace is extremely stressful for affected employees. In view of inflationary use of the term “bullying”, there is a need for objectivity where this issue is concerned. Clear definition of the term is useful here. We favour the following definition in DGUV publications:
Bullying is confrontational communication which occurs in the workplace amongst colleagues or between superiors and subordinates, and sees

  • one person attacked by one or more people
  • on a systematic,
  • frequent (at least once per week) and
  • direct or indirect basis
  • over a long period (at least six months)
  • with the aim of forcing that person out of their job.

The consequences of violence

Violence and bullying in the workplace have become key OSH issues. In addition to physical injuries, those affected often suffer a hugely negative impact on their mental health and lose their trust in their social environment. Resultant illness-related absence can also lead to significant microeconomic and macroeconomic losses.


The following measures are amongst those which can be used to prevent violence:

In the workplace:

  • Constructional measures, e.g. emergency exits or protective walls;
  • Technical measures, e.g. access control devices or emergency call systems.
As part of work organization:

  • Avoidance of individual workplaces;
  • Minimal cash on site, use of cashless alternatives.
As part of information and training provided to employees:

  • Instruction on and monitoring of adherence to safety regulations;
  • Avoidance of stressful situations;
  • De-escalation seminars enabling employees to deal with difficult or threatening situations involving customers.
An appropriate preventive approach to bullying and in-plant violence is to be seen as a corporate policy characterized by:

  • A constructive conflict culture;
  • Regular provision of information and instructions to employees;
  • Provision of initial and further training to management personnel;
  • The drawing up of corresponding agreements between management and workers.


Dr Christoph Matthias Paridon
Institute for Work and Health of the German Social Accident Insurance
Training Department
Tel.: +49 30 13001-2114

Hannah Huxholl
Safety and Health Department
Work-related health hazards
Tel.: +49 30 13001-4587

Anne Gehrke
Institute for Work and Health of the German Social Accident Insurance
Research and consultancy department
Tel.: +49 30 13001-2222