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Understanding Workplace Bullying

By: Thomas Muller - Updated: 17 Sep 2012 | comments*Discuss
Bullying Bullying In The Workplace

Bullying is rife in the workplace but often it isn’t recognised, being misinterpreted as friendly banter or ‘strong management’. Better understanding of bullying and its effects therefore vital in dealing with the problem.

Recognising Bullying in the Workplace

With recent research showing that one in ten people are victims of bullying at work, it seems age and maturity sometimes account for nothing; bullies are as common in the workplace as they are in the playground.

Age and experience just makes the bullies better able to intimidate and undermine their co-workers in more subtle and underhand ways than simply being rude and shouting at someone. In these instances, the victim is not always immediately aware that they are being bullied into a type of social isolation, such as by being deliberately ignored or excluded. Unlike ‘direct bullying’ which is characterised by physical aggression, the type of bullying common in the workplace is indirect bullying, or ‘social aggression’.

However, that’s not to say being rude and shouting isn’t still as popular as it was back in the school yard. For example a common type of bullying is when, with an audience of other employees, a person deliberately humiliates another member of staff. In the workplace bullying subordinates can be confused with strong management but when the target is persistently being belittled and stressed out by the abuse then the line into bullying has been crossed.

Defining Bullying in the Workplace

As well as humiliation and deliberately undermining somebody’s confidence, bullying can also include physical or verbal violence. Also it doesn’t have to take place face-to-face but can be over the telephone or by email. If you are subject to any of the following then it is likely you are being bullied and should take action immediately:

  • Blamed for problems caused by others.
  • Persistently picked on.
  • Unfairly criticised for personal of professional performance.
  • Being regularly shouted at.
  • Always being the butt of jokes.
  • Unfairly overlooked for promotion or training opportunities.
  • Regularly excluded from work activities and communication.
  • Physically or verbally abused.
  • Always given too much work so you inevitably fail to meet your targets.
  • Humiliated in front of other colleagues.
  • Coerced into doing something by threat and fear.

Ultimately if somebody is behaving in a manner that is causing someone else distress, then it is bullying and not acceptable in the working environment.

Who are the Bullies?

To carry out bullying in its many forms, there is an appropriate variety of tormenters, each with their own motivations.

Firstly there is the classic psychopath type who, often scarred by a relations problem in childhood, believes their power increases the more they belittle others. They are typically very insecure people who use this to make them feel better about themselves. These are a rarity however - the more common workplace bullies are actually those unsuited to positions of responsibility and can’t cope with the stress and workload and so use bullying as a management tool.

Another common type is the competitive and jealous bully who deliberately uses underhand tactics to undermine and wear down those co-workers more successful and popular than they are.

The Physical Effects of Bullying

The physical effects of bullying can be very similar to those caused by any other type of severe stress. Victims can regularly suffer from nausea, headaches, loss of appetite, loss of self-confidence, panic attacks, anxiety, sleeplessness and depression. It can also be the root cause of ailments such as ulcers, skin rashes, irritable bowel syndrome, high blood pressure and various organ-related illnesses. Stress and ill-health can become such a part of daily life that the victim is unaware of what is actually at the heart of the problem.

Effects of Bullying in the Workplace on Employers

With around 18 million working days lost every year due to workplace bullying, employers also suffer. If they fail to deal with the problem then they face a high price in:

  • Lost work time – stress and ill-health caused by bullying forces staff to take time off sick.
  • Loss in performance and productivity – if bullying is rife in a department then it adversely affects general morale as well as team relations and communication.
  • Loss of staff – bullying can lead to experienced staff leaving their positions.

Additionally it is the legal responsibility of an organisation to tackle bullying. For instance, if an incident is taken to an employment tribunal or court then they could face financial penalties and loss of reputation.

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