Workplace Bullying: The Mental, Physical and Economic Costs

Workplace Bullying: The Mental, Physical and Economic Costs

[Update December 17, 2013]: Since writing this post, I’ve done a lot more reading on the issue of bullying. I’ve started wondering what you can do to stop bullying, or what the most effective response is when you are bullied or see someone else being bullied at work. Here’s a smattering of what I’ve found:

In How can I report a bully without looking like a whiner?, HR pro Suzanne Lucas recommends carefully documenting all your interactions with a bully so you can substantiate your claims later, or refute theirs. She also suggests dealing with the person and the bullying behavior directly by refusing to accept it, saying something like: “Jill, I can see you are upset. When you are ready to speak in a normal voice, I'll be happy to speak with you." Or try what she calls the magic question: “Can you clarify what you mean by that?” when someone spreads bad things about you.

Other experts suggest that you ignore the bully and don’t respond to them emotionally, since the bully is doing it to get a reaction from you. Your reaction is their “fix” and they’ll keep bullying you as long as they get one. If they get no reaction, they’ll eventually stop.

The catch here is that it can take a long time for them to stop. And of course you are going to be emotionally bothered by the encounter. The key is to find safe people with whom you can share this emotion, and who will help you regain your perspective.

I’ve also read that it can be effective to simply name the bullying. By “shining a light” on it without directly combatting it, you make it known. You can say something as simple as:

“This behavior is unprofessional. When you are ready to deal with me in a positive, constructive way, I’ll be happy to speak with you.”

And then walk away (or hang up the phone). Or you can say:

"STOP. You are harassing/bullying me, I do not like the nature of your tone and request you stop speaking in this manner immediately."

Preventing workplace bullying is everyone’s responsibility

Almost everyone seems to agree on the fact that you can’t change the bully. You can only change your response to them or manage your encounters with them. Understanding that the problem is with them, not you is paramount to gaining perspective on the situation. You need strong self-esteem in these circumstances. And you need to pull heavily on your support network to help you stay positive.

I also think we have a responsibility as colleagues to call out inappropriate behavior in the workplace when we see it. I think at times the bystander effect can take hold and we don’t push ourselves to say or do something when we should. Or if we do, we think of it after the fact. And maybe that’s okay.

Taking a colleague aside when emotions have calmed and discussing how her behavior was less than professional might be a less inflammatory approach to addressing the issue. Either way, we need to speak up when see behaviors that our counter to a corporate culture of mutual respect.

Sometimes workplace bullying isn’t so obvious though. It can be a little more insidious and even systemic to the organization itself, and that makes it all the more difficult to prevent.

With that said, here’s where my article, originally published in November 2010, starts. Take a look at the suggestions on how to prevent workplace bullying, then let me know what you think. What’s been your experience in fostering an anti-bullying workplace culture?

Two weeks ago, the UK held its 4th annual National Anti-Bullying Week, which aims to raise awareness about the growing problem of bullying among youth. But bullying doesn’t only take place in schoolyards. It happens in the workplace and it can be extremely harmful to victims — even more so, new research suggests, than sexual harassment. Business researchers have discovered that victims of bullying report feeling angrier and more stressed at work and are more likely to quit their jobs than employees who have experienced sexual harassment.

But in a turbulent economy, where there is lack of job security, many employees feel they have little choice but to endure mistreatment. In what’s considered the largest study conducted in the United States on bullying in the workplace (2010), 37 percent of American workers said they have experienced workplace bullying. That’s nearly 54 million people who have been bullied on the job!

What is workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying is the repeated mistreatment of individuals or groups using persistent aggressive or unreasonable behavior. It includes tactics like verbal, nonverbal, psychological and physical abuse, as well as intimidation and humiliation.

Who perpetrates workplace bullying?

In the majority of cases, bullying in the workplace is perpetrated by management — but it can also occur with clients, subordinates and co-workers. It probably comes as no surprise that the higher one’s organizational position, the lower the incidence of bullying. Managers are identified as abusers in 60-80 percent of cases and they often have the support of executives and managerial peers.

Though most researchers conclude that there is no such thing as a “bully” personality or “victim” personality, they do find that individual factors might increase the likelihood of bullying or being bullied.

For instance, an employee who appears too weak, submissive or unassertive could invite aggression in others. Conversely, employees who are well-liked, assertive and talented may also trigger similar feelings among envious peers.

People in positions of power who perpetrate bullying often have impossibly high standards and expectations of others. They may lack basic social, anger management and communication skills. In many cases, they are insecure and resort to threats, punishments and put-downs to maintain power.

Physical environment may also contribute to aggression within an organization, from small, uncomfortable workspaces to unsuitable equipment and accommodations to effectively perform tasks. High levels of job insecurity or pressures to increase productivity while decreasing production costs can also yield a high stress, hostile work environment.

Personality disorders and workplace bullying

A recent study carried out by psychologists Belinda Board and Katarina Fritzon at the University of Surrey, UK, has shed some light on personality disorders and bullying in the workplace.

In their study, they interviewed and gave personality tests to high-level British executives and compared their profiles with those of criminal psychiatric patients at Broadmoor Hospital (one of the best known high-security psychiatric hospitals in England).

They found that three out of eleven personality disorders were actually more common in the executives than in the disturbed criminals. These include:

What are some of the main tactics used in bullying?

Workplace bullying can be executed in many ways. It includes everything from:

  • overworking employees
  • hreats to professional status
  • intimidation, teasing, preventing access to opportunities
  • stealing credit for work
  • withholding necessary information to successfully complete tasks
  • isolating an employee, giving them the silent treatment
  • imposing impossible deadlines
  • failing to acknowledge good work, and
  • repeatedly reminding employees of past failures.

Again, the key is that these behaviors are repeated, persistent, aggressive and/or unreasonable.

How does workplace bullying affect employee performance and productivity?

(image source)

Scholars at the Project for Wellness and Work-Life at Arizona State University claim “workplace bullying is linked to a host of physical, psychological, organizational, and social costs.”

One of the predominant health effects associated with workplace bullying is stress. Post-traumatic stress disorder and even suicide are unfortunately not uncommon.

In fact, inseki-jisatsu “responsibility-driven” suicides in Japan are closely tied with business. According to government figures, “fatigue from work” and health problems, including work-related depression, were prime motives for suicides and accounted for 47 percent of the suicides in Japan in 2008.

And bullying isn’t only affecting the person being bullied. Witnesses of the bullying suffer too. Not only does the harrying environment affect group cohesion and communication, co-workers who observe workplace bullying also experience fear, stress, and emotional exhaustion. Many will choose to leave the abusive work environment.

Studies that have attempted to quantify the cost of bullying to an organization show that workplace stress can have significant negative effects on employees’ mental and physical health.

The direct costs include an increase in absenteeism, staff turnover, litigation, work accident rates and worker errors. Indirect costs could include negative publicity for the organization, loss in productivity, rehabilitation costs and increased workers’ compensation premiums.

A report released by the Productivity Commission in Australia found that the total cost to the economy of bullying and harassment is about $14.8 billion a year.

Does gender affect workplace bullying?


(image source)

In the 2007 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey, research findings indicate that 32 percent of all bullying is man-on-man, 29 percent woman-on-woman, 28 percent man-on-woman, and 11 percent woman-on-man.

While men make up the majority of bullies — 60 percent of all bullies are men — women bullies tend to pick on other women 71 percent of the time.

According to 2007 polling by Sogby for WBI, of all male and female Americans who witnessed or experienced bullying, 44 percent said employers did nothing when the incident was reported.

How can workplace bullying be prevented?

1. Have clear policies against bullying. In order to prevent or stop workplace bullying, organizations must have clear policies against it. Policies should apply as much to management as to employees, clients, independent contractors or anyone who has a relationship with the company.

2. Management should be committed to creating a healthy and safe work environment. This commitment includes providing comprehensive training to help all employees identify and address bullying. When anyone witnesses bullying, it should be reported, documented and addressed. The bullying employee needs to be clearly told that their behavior will not be tolerated in the organization.

3. Provide support and resources. Organizations should also provide resources, like counselors through the company’s Employee Assistance Program, that victims AND bullies can turn to for help.

4. Prevent bullying before it starts. Companies should carefully screen job candidates, using behavioral-based interviewing techniques, to identify behaviors or attitudes that underlie bullying and go against corporate values and culture. And they should perform background checks and screening to uncover any previous history of bullying or violence.

Speak up against workplace bullying

Though victims of bullying may feel their options are limited, they need to realize that staying silent is detrimental. Bullies thrive on silence and a victim’s inaction fortifies the idea that the bully has won, has the power, and can continue behaving antagonistically because no one will stop them.

The best thing to do is to keep a diary, documenting every incident of bullying. This diary can serve as written evidence when you decide to make an official complaint. No one should tolerate abuse and if your workplace can’t offer the help and support you need, consider moving on to a new job.

Your health and well-being must come first and if quitting is the only option, make your exit loud and known, so the bully has nowhere to hide.

Tags:  For Employees For Managers


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