Workplace violence stabilising in the Netherlands

Employers are more aware of the issue of violence at work, according to a recent evaluation of the 1994 provisions on abuse and aggression in the Working Conditions Act. So far, however, this awareness has not resulted in a decrease in workplace violence. Nonetheless, despite a continuing increase in workplace violence from 2000 to 2003, findings from the 2004 TNO Work Situation Survey indicate that violence in the workplace is stabilising in the Netherlands.

Employers more inclined to take measures

Under the provisions of the Working Conditions Act and the Equal Treatment Act, Dutch employers are obliged to provide a workplace where employees can do their jobs without being exposed to violence, harassment and discrimination. In 2004, an evaluation was carried out to investigate how employers were implementing the provisions of the Working Conditions Act governing violence in the workplace (Van Dam and Engelen, 2004). Compared with other evaluations in 1995 and 2000, the 2004 evaluation revealed that employers were more likely to have a specific policy on workplace violence and were more inclined to take preventive measures. Almost 75% of the employers who were interviewed had a written policy on workplace violence, compared with 57% in 2000. Over half of the employers had appointed a counsellor (34% in 2000).

Employers also reported that they received fewer complaints about aggression and violence than previously. A group of experts on workplace violence, interviewed for the evaluation, were surprised by these results. They expected that the number of complaints would have risen because of: an increased awareness among employees to report incidents, the increase in the participation rate of women, and a more heterogeneous composition of the workforce.

Prevalence of workplace violence

The prevalence and distribution of workplace violence are monitored by the TNO Work Situation Survey (since 2000; Smulders et al, 2000) and the Netherlands Working Conditions Survey (since 2003; Van den Bossche and Smulders, 2004). Both surveys take place every second year, and are administered to 4,000 and 10,000 employees, respectively.

In 2004, about 21% of employees stated that they had been subjected (combination of categories ‘once or twice’, ‘often’, ‘very often’) to intimidation by customers (patients, passengers, students) in the year before the survey. Compared with 2003, this figure had decreased significantly. Sexual harassment and physical violence were mentioned by 5% and 6%, respectively. Again, these figures had declined since 2003.

Workplace violence originates mostly from customers (see figure). Clearly, sectors such as health care, hotels and restaurants, retail, and education - where work involves frequent customer contact - were more vulnerable to intimidation by customers than other sectors were.

Intimidation by colleagues (including management) remained rather constant over the period 2000-2004. A relatively large proportion of employees (14%) experienced intimidation by their colleagues. About 3% stated that they had been exposed to unwanted sexual attention by colleagues, while 1% reported exposure to physical violence by their colleagues. No significant differences between sectors were found.

The 2004 survey indicates that the tendency of increased workplace violence - especially by customers - that was observed from 2000 until 2003, seems to stabilise in 2004. However, it is also possible to conclude that there has not been a clear reduction of exposure to intimidation and violence at work since 2000. This finding contrasts with the implications of the results of the research among employers, mentioned above.

Prevalence of workplace violence, 2000-2004


Up to 2004, the concept of intimidation (by colleagues) was used to refer to acts of mobbing/bullying, in the same way that it is used in the European Working Conditions Survey. It has been suggested, however, that translations of this concept do not always adequately reflect the concept that often encompasses bullying, in the sense that intimidation refers more to threats of (physical) violence (TN0406TR01). Therefore, a new indicator of bullying was introduced in the 2004 TNO Working Conditions Survey.

Although the original concept of intimidation was correlated to the new indicator of bullying, the distribution of this new indicator was quite different. Bullying by customers was mentioned by 7.3%, while 10.1% stated that they had been bullied by colleagues in the past year. Intimidation, on the other hand, mostly originated from customers, indicating that the two concepts are related but different.

Organisational outcomes

In the 2003 Netherlands Working Conditions Survey, several questions were included on organisational outcomes of workplace violence. The survey found that exposure to violence was associated with lower levels of employee performance and increases in sickness absence rates (self-reported). In 2003, 4.8% of employees questioned in the survey stated that they had been absent from work because of workplace violence and aggression; 2.2% were absent for more than a month (Van den Bossche, 2004). In addition, 12.8% of the employees reported that exposure to workplace violence significantly influenced their work performance; 3% claimed that this had lasted longer than a month.

Employees who were exposed to intimidation or violence by colleagues more often reported absent because of aggression, compared with employees who experienced intimidation or violence by customers (see table). This also applied to the impact on performance. Among the group of employees who said that they were not exposed to any of the above mentioned forms of workplace violence in the past year (about 62% of the total sample), there still were a few who stated that they reported absent because of workplace violence. Possibly, these people witnessed workplace violence, but were not directly involved. Another explanation could be that these people suffered from an incident that took place over a year ago.

Sickness absence and employee performance in relation to workplace violence (%)
Sickness absence and employee performance in relation to workplace violence
  Sickness absence* Sickness absence > 4 weeks Impact on performance Impact on performance > 4 weeks
Not exposed 3.6 1.7 6.6 1.5
Violence/harassment by customers 5.3 1.8 17.6 2.9
Violence/harassment by colleagues 7.4 3.0 24.4 8.4
Violence harassment by customers and colleagues 10.0 4.8 32.8 8.7

* In the past year, have you reported absent because of workplace violence?

Source: Van den Bossche, 2004

Seth van den Bossche, TNO Work and Employment


Bossche, S.N.J. van den and Smulders, P.G.W, De Nationale Enquête Arbeidsomstandigheden 2003: Methodologie en globale resultaten [The Netherlands Working Conditions Survey 2003: Methodology and overall results], Hoofddorp, TNO Work and Employment, 2004.

Bossche, S.N.J. van den, Intimidatie en geweld op het werk: Secundaire analyses Nationale Enquête Arbeidsomstandigheden 2003 [Workplace violence and intimidation: Secondary analyses of the Netherlands Working Conditions Survey 2003], Hoofddorp, TNO Work and Employment, 2004.

Dam, Y. van and Engelen, M., Evaluatie van de arbowet inzake ongewenste omgangsvormen [Evaluation of the effectiveness of the Working Conditions Act with respect to undesired behaviour], The Hague, Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment, 2004.

Smulders, P.G.W., Andries, F. and Otten, F., Hoe denken Nederlanders over hun werk? Opzet, kwaliteit en eerste resultaten van de TNO Arbeidssituatie Survey [What do the Dutch think about their work? Design, quality and first results from the TNO Work Situation Survey], Hoofddorp, TNO Work and Employment, 2001.

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