Workplace Bullying: A Threat to Health and Well-being
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Workplace Bullying: A Threat to Health and Well-being

According to the US Hostile Workplace Survey, people who are targets of workplace bullying have high rates of depression, substance abuse, anxiety, and other stress-related health problems.

Janis sensed something was wrong at the very beginning, when she first interviewed at the social services agency. Her soon-to-be supervisor immediately struck her as having a domineering “drill sergeant” personal style. Three of the supervisor’s employees had quit within two weeks, and two of them didn’t even have other jobs yet.

“The signs were there, but I overlooked them. I needed this job very badly,” says Janis. “ I figured that I could get along with just about anybody.” But Janis wasn’t prepared for the challenges her new supervisor soon presented—persistent criticism, temper tantrums, name-calling, and threats. Along with these challenges, Janis was beset by a series of illnesses and stress-related problems.

Janis was a target of workplace bullying.

What Is Workplace Bullying?

According to the Campaign Against Workplace Bullying (CAWB) in Benicia, California, bullying, also known as harassment, involves persistent health-endangering personal abuse that humiliates and demeans a person. Unfortunately, in many workplaces it is often downplayed as a personality conflict, an attitude problem, or a “strong management style.”

When under pressure, anyone can become short-tempered, irritable, and engage in shouting, but they stop when the pressure subsides. Bullying behaviors, in contrast, are persistent and damaging. They may or may not be obvious.

Obvious bullying behaviors include persistent :

  • Invalid criticism and nitpicking
  • Name-calling and personal insults
  • Shouting and displays of temper
  • Public ridicule and humiliation
  • Exclusion
  • Disregarding or ignoring
  • Devaluation of efforts
  • Threats
  • Spreading harmful rumors

Less obvious bullying behaviors include:

  • Deliberately withholding important information or resources
  • Setting an employee up to fail
  • Issuing unreasonable time or performance demands (usually not directly related to company needs or goals)
  • Taking away responsibilities, without just cause
  • Sabotaging an employee’s efforts
  • Monitoring or controlling employee (excessively), with malicious intent
  • Denying rights, such as use of leave
  • Lying about the employee
  • Manufacturing “evidence” of incompetence or instigating complaints from others about the employee

Approximately 1 in 6 US employees has experienced bullying at work in the past year, according to CAWB. It is a poorly understood, "silent epidemic" that poses a serious public health threat.

What Are the Psychological Factors?

Bullying behaviors stem from psychological factors in the bully, such as low self-esteem, feelings of incompetence, or the need for power and control. Most cases are not isolated incidents and the majority of bullies have a long history of this behavior. They harass employees for any number of reasons. They may feel envious or threatened by the employee’s competence, creativity, popularity, or ethics. Employees who are non-confrontational, cooperative, or vulnerable in some way also tend to be targets of bullying managers.

Often times a targeted employee is just in the wrong place at the wrong time. “My supervisor bullied people until they quit, even though she didn’t want them to quit. When she hired new people, she would inevitably find a new target. She simply had to have people she could harass,” says Janis. “I quit this job six years ago and she has since bullied and driven out a significant number of employees. She’s still there and she’s still at it!”

What Is the Cost of Bullying?

The costs of workplace bullying are significant to both the employer and the target of the bullying.

Costs to the Employer

For the employer, the costs of bullying may include:

  • An atmosphere of fear, secrecy, and low cooperation
  • Low productivity
  • High rates of:
    • Staff turnover
    • Sick leave usage
    • Suspension and other disciplinary procedures
    • Dismissal
    • Grievances
    • Ill-health retirements
    • Early retirements
  • Increased liability for health damaging employment practices

Costs to the Employee Target

Targets of workplace bullying often experience significant physical and psychological suffering. CAWB’s US Hostile Workplace Survey revealed the following psychological and physical symptoms in the targets of workplace bullying:

Psychological:

  • Anxiety (94%)
  • Insomnia (84%)
  • Obsession over the situation (76%)
  • Clinical depression (41%)
  • Self-destructive habits, such as increased use of alcohol, drugs, food (35%)
  • Suicidal thoughts (22%)
  • Thoughts of violence to others (21%)

Physical:

  • Panic attacks, heart palpitations, increased heart rate (48%)
  • Exhaustion, requiring bed rest (45%)
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome or connective tissue/joint pain (43%)
  • Weight changes, losses or gains (40%)
  • Skin changes (28%)
  • Headaches, from mild to migraine (23%)
  • Irritable bowel (23%)
  • Hypertension (16%)

People who are bullied at work also report developing more infections, such as colds and flu.

Other Negative Effects:

According to CAWB, bullying often has a negative impact on an employee’s social relations at work and at home. Coworkers, partners, and family members may tire of hearing about the bullying and withdraw their support. In some cases, it can even impact marriage to the point of divorce.

Bullied employees also tend to lose income. Sometimes they use up all their sick leave, deplete their savings, and lose their jobs.

How Do You Stop Bullying?

Workplace bullying is a serious problem. But what can you do to stop it? Unfortunately, you can’t always stop the bullying once it starts, but here are some tips that may help.

Spot Bullying Behavior

Bullying personalities can be found anywhere, even in the “best” companies. When you’re interviewing for a job, don’t be so dazzled by impressive mission statements, titles, and awards. Talk to other employees and former employees (if you know any) about the company's management style. Ask the employer for a copy of company policies and read it carefully, taking note of their policies on:

  • Staff turnover
  • Sick leave usage
  • Suspension and other disciplinary procedures
  • Dismissal
  • Grievances
  • Ill-health retirements
  • Early retirements

It's safer to ask for written policy information and read it, rather than ask about these issues during the interview process, which could give the impression that you expect to have difficulties in the new company.

Stop Feeling Ashamed

According to Ruth and Gary Namie, organizational psychologists and the founders of CAWB, being bullied at work is very harmful to self-esteem, particularly if you are not receiving any support. Stop listening to the verbal assaults and do not feel ashamed. Remind yourself that you did nothing wrong.

Document Each Incidence

Document each incidence of bullying, what happened and how you felt. This will help reduce any confusion you may feel. It may also help you eventually get the changes you need.

Confront the Bully…Gently

You deserve to be treated with respect, regardless of who you are or your position in an organization. If you feel that you are being bullied, do not attack or blame the bully. Instead, calmly but firmly talk about the behavior you have observed and how it makes you feel. Use “I” statements—“I feel demeaned when you raise your voice to me in the office,” rather than “you” statements—“You are bullying me." Asserting yourself can sometimes stop the bullying behavior.

Discuss the Situation

If the bullying continues, talk to someone who may be able to help, such as another employee, a human resource representative, a supportive manager, or a counselor. Sometimes more than one person is being bullied in the workplace. If so, a group complaint may carry more weight.

Find Another Job

If the bullying continues despite efforts in the workplace to stop it, consider finding another job. This is especially important if the situation is causing chronic stress and/or physical and emotional symptoms or illness.

Learn More About Workplace Bullying

Currently, there are a number of international efforts taking place to raise awareness of the silent epidemic of workplace bullying, according to CAWB. These efforts include changing existing harassment laws so that they are all-inclusive, not limited to gender, race, age, national origin, and other characteristics (such as those defined in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Guidelines). Resources include organizations, books, and annual conferences on the workplace bullying, as well as consultants who specialize in reducing hostile work environments.

RESOURCES:

Bully Buster
http://www.bullybusters.org

US Equal Opportunity Commission
http://www.eeoc.gov/

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety
http://www.ccohs.ca/

Canadian Safety Council
http://www.safety-council.org/

References:

Bully Busters website. Available at: http://www.bullybusters.org.



Last reviewed February 2008 by Ryan Estévez, MD, PhD, MPH

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.


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