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Blog: Chronic Embitterment – now there’s a name for it

At our recent annual national conference, UK employment lawyers enjoyed an excellent opening plenary session on mental health at work. Here we learned a new phrase: chronic embitterment.  It was one of those phrases which, as soon as we heard it, we recognised as a common situation we have all dealt with for our clients on many occasions.

Chronic embitterment in the workplace presents itself as an employee developing a very deep sense of having been wronged by his or her employer in general or certain managers in particular. It’s a feeling that they have suffered a breach of ‘organisational justice’, as occupational psychologists would describe it.  The employee perceives there to be a lack of resolution from a distressing workplace event and maintains a long-term sense of deep unfairness and injustice.  Small and usually innocent or accidental subsequent events in the employer’s behaviour toward the employee then tend to cause fresh outpourings of complaint and anger, with the perception that these are yet more attempts to undermine them.

The employee will have a tendency to go into great detail, on a regular basis, as to the injustice of their situation and the malign intentions of their employer.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, chronic embitterment tends to have an association with depression, anxiety and high levels of sickness absence.

Chronic Embitterment at Tribunal Hearings

Many of us will have come across colleagues who have displayed some or all of these symptoms. As an employment lawyer, it is sadly something with which I am very familiar.  Without doubt, all of the most difficult, lengthy and costly Employment Tribunal hearings I have had to deal with during my career have involved claimants who would have come firmly within the chronic embitterment definition.  How many thousands of pages of complaint and vitriol, going into nit-picking detail about alleged (but usually unfounded) breaches of legal rights and poor treatment at the hands of managers, have we in HR and employment law had to deal with?

I’m going to take a wild guess and suggest that a notable proportion of all Employment Tribunal claims ever started will have been fuelled by an element of chronic embitterment. As well as that high-profile cost, I’m sure that millions of sick days each year are caused by the condition.

So is there anything we can do about it?

I’m sure many of you will say that you are already aware of the pattern of negative thoughts that can occur. And I’m sure that you do your best to spot it and tackle it as early as you can.  But you are also very busy people and, being only human, may sometimes not have the necessary time, energy or indeed inclination to devote to someone you perceive as being perhaps fussy, unreasonable or too thin-skinned.

Occupational psychologists have identified a strong employer commitment to ‘procedural justice’ as key in reducing the incidence of chronic embitterment.  This includes:

Maintaining procedural justice

Many of you will have some or all of these in place, or be heading towards it, and well done.  However, each new manager needs to be made aware of the standards expected from managerial decisions. This can help ensure that maintaining a high presence of procedural justice is a constant process.

Procedural justice is clearly based on uncontroversial concepts of the fair application of rules. It is also based on effective employee consultation and simply treating others as we’d hope to be treated ourselves. Given that, I’m sure we would all feel that “we do it anyway”. That it is part of what being a decent HR professional or manager is all about.  But with the many pressures of our roles, the task of ensuring full procedural justice at all times, for every employee, is perhaps more of a goal than a reality.

However, the cost, effort and unpleasantness of the worst sort of Employment Tribunal claims is enormous. The far greater cost and drain of sick leave might be avoidable. Therefore it’s worth seeing if we can sprinkle a little more procedural justice across our organisations. The key priority here being to ensure that line managers understand the concept and are encouraged to act accordingly.

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