NWO Veni project on “Aggression against public employees”

Summary of research proposal

Aggression against public employees is a growing concern. Public employees, such as social workers and teachers, are confronted with aggressive citizens. This ranges from yelling and death threats to physical attacks.

Facing aggressive citizens can have serious ramifications for public service workers including increased burnout, increased absenteeism and reduced wellbeing. However, to date, most scholars have focused on aggression among colleagues or of supervisors towards employees. Despite the current attention in the media, citizens’ aggression towards public service workers has received far less scholarly focus, and the field has been described as “underdeveloped” and “neglected”.

We  aim to fill this gap by systematically analysing the impact of citizen aggression on public service workers. I will adopt an interdisciplinary approach: combining insights from public administration and psychology. The project addresses three interrelated problems in the citizen aggression literature:

1) a failure to distinguish among typesof citizen aggression (such as verbal aggression, threats or physical attacks);

2) a lack of knowledge on the long-term effects of citizen aggression on public service workers; and

3) few insights about which coping strategies are effective in dealing with various types of citizen aggression.

Based on these problems, the goal is: To determine the impact of different types of citizen aggression on the job outcomes of public service workers, and to analyse the role of coping strategies in strengthening or weakening this impact.

A mixed-methods design will be employed to achieve this goal. First, I will conduct a systematic review of the literature. This will be followed by a qualitative phase, conducting focus group discussions and interviews with social workers and teachers. Third, a quantitative three-wave longitudinal study will be conducted analysing the long-term effects.

The outcomes of this project – including knowledge about strategies that help in effectively coping with aggression – will be beneficial for both scholars and practitioners.

Current projects

- Meta-analysis on effects of citizen aggression towards public service workers. With among else dr. Peter Kruyen and Student-Assistants Maurits van Leeuwen MSc and Christa de Geus BSc.

- Lab experiments to study effects of bureaucracy bashing on public service workers. With among else prof. Leisha DeHart-Davis (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) and dr. Wesley Kaufmann (University of Groningen).

- Longitudinal survey to study causes and effects of workplace aggression in healthcare.

- Field experiment on lowering patient aggression in emergency care. With Maurits van Leeuwen MSc.

Completed projects, including publications

- Special issue on aggression, published in the International Journal of Public Sector Management. Tummers, L., Brunetto, Y., & Teo, S. T. (2015). Workplace aggression: Introduction to the special issue and future research directions for scholars. International Journal of Public Sector Management29(1).

More information

Want to know more information about this project or are you interested in participating? Please email L.G.Tummers@uu.nl.


This research is supported by a grant from the Netherlands organization for scientific research: NWO-VENI-451-14-004, entitled “He threatened to kill me! Public service workers coping with citizen aggression”.



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