Strikes: the psychological impact on non-striking staff

We’re all watching the Royal Mail strike with a genuine mix of emotions. Since the late 1980s, strike action has been restricted, outlawed and something of a social taboo.

Once our reaction may have been to offer understanding and support to striking colleagues, but nowadays we live and work in a far more individualistic environment. We typically look after ourselves and put our own interests before the collective needs of others, while organisations prefer to create silos (whether or not they will admit it), rather than team-based environments.

An easy way to consider our reaction is to look at French workers. France is typically recognised as having a strong collectivist culture, so what is the common attitude to striking? It is supported and endorsed across the board, by both public and private sector colleagues. Considerable tolerance is shown towards strikers who break the law in making their point. Compare this with our reactions – we typically see trade unions as ‘trouble makers’ and strikers as ‘workshy’ or ‘lazy’.

But what of the Royal Mail employees themselves? In strike situations, we tend to see and hear plenty of the strikers, but what impact will industrial action have on the non-striking workers?

Very early in a dispute, employees have to make a decision and fall into one of two groups – strikers or non-strikers. There is no half-way house. As soon as this happens, distinct groups emerge, and employees in each group begin to make sense of their choice and try to justify their decision. In doing so, they begin to stereotype people in the other group, hence the use of generic labels such as ‘scab’ or ‘strike breaker’.

Once these stereotypes have been established, each group further reinforces their own sense of identity by finding shared attitudes within the group, such as ‘striking is not the way to resolve the problem’ or ‘that lot are just out to cause trouble’.

This in turn creates a self-fulfilling cycle that further divides the groups, as they consistently look for positive similarities with their own group while making negative comparisons with colleagues in the other group. Any small or insignificant differences are quickly blown into major points of disagreement, leading to emotional, long-lasting divisions between once friendly and supportive colleagues.

All workers in the Royal Mail will now be acutely aware that striking is not an easy option. From past experience, including the miners’ strikes of the 1980s, rifts that form during strike action tend to be long-lasting and deep, and the longer the strike continues, the deeper the rift will be.

Stuart Duff, head of development, Pearn Kandola Business Psychologists

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