February 25th. Anti-Bullying Day in Canada has been coined "Pink Shirt Day". Throughout many communities in Canada yesterday people saw pink! From the Starbucks Barista to the bank teller, the country took a stand against bullying. Mostly, the emphasis on bullying and its effects was directed toward the bullying that takes place in schoolyards.
While that is certainly an important route to take in decreasing a tremendously hurtful behavior, it isn’t the only place bullying occurs. Dr. Shimi Kang, a psychiatrist in Canada, recently wrote a blog post for the Huffington Post on February, 25,2015 outlining the “shockingly increasing problem of workplace bullying”. In that same electronic issue, S.L. Young wrote a post showing the impact of workplace bullying and how judgments related to it keep the targeted individuals from coming forward.
Both of these posts show the need for a focus to be placed on workplace bullying and its very detrimental effects on both individuals and organizations.
It seems unusual to think a person could go to work where everyone is supposed to act like adults and get along with one another, but run into what seems like elementary school playground behavior. The unfortunate truth is about 35% or 54 million working people fall prey to a workplace bully at some time in their careers (Tye-Williams & Krone, 2014).
Workplace bullying is sometimes difficult to define. The behavior may begin as something very subtle, nothing totally aggressive or obnoxious or intended outwardly to be harmful. These kinds of behaviors may be brought on by the perpetrator simply appearing to be thoughtless (Harvard Business Review, 2013).
However, the behavior continues and grows in severity. Workplace bullies usually rely on verbal abuse and not physical, although the latter does happen. Even though the bullying carried on in the workplace is typically verbal, the results can be detrimental to the health of the targeted individual, often leading to loss of work and, in some cases, to suicide.
Defining Bullying in the Workplace
A working definition of workplace bullying has been proposed (Bullying Adults -- Not Just Kids Anymore, 2014). Bullying in the workplace occurs when either a single person or a group of people targets another person on purpose by intimidating, embarrassing, and unreasonable behavior. And this targeting is intentional. Often, the person doing the bullying is in a position of authority over the targeted individual and may feel threatened in some way by that individual. This isn’t always the case; sometimes immature and insecure co-workers express these feelings through bullying.
Just as with school-yard bullies, workplace bullies tend to enjoy the reactions they bring in those they target. These reactions are usually negative emotions that fuel the enjoyment of the bullies.
Whenever one person at work harasses, does something to offend purposely, or even excludes another from the social network over and over again, this is bullying. Some researchers (Rodrigues-Munoz, et al., 2015) put a time of six months as a frame for bullying to occur.
Important to keep in mind is the fact that no matter the actual behavior engaged in by the workplace bully, it is the interpretation of that behavior by the targeted individual that makes it bullying (McKay & Fratzl, 2011). And it is the perception of the bullying behavior that leads to significant consequences in many people.
Some of the behaviors that may be perceived as bullying include (Boulanger, 2013):
- yelling or cursing at others at work
- verbally abusing others at work
- criticizing or blaming others at work without justification
- isolating others at work from the social environment
- giving others at work unrealistic deadlines for work to be completed
- ignoring others’ work on purpose
- embarrassing others by language or behaviors
- playing practical jokes on the same person over and over
Just how prevalent is workplace bullying? According to a 2011 survey by Monster (Pinkos, 2012), very prevalent. This survey included over 16,000 in several countries. Sixty-four percent of the respondents reported having been bullied at work to the point of being physically injured. Sixteen percent reported having seen bullying happen to others. Eighty-three percent of the European respondents reported having been bullied. Sixty-five percent of those from the Americas, and fifty-five percent of respondents from Asia reported having been bullied.
Types of Workplace Bullies
Those that bully seem to fall into several general types (Bullying Adults -- Not Just Kids Anymore, 2014). Being aware of these types may be helpful in knowing what to watch out for.
Sadistic/narcissistic type. An adult bully of this type has no concern for others. He, or she, is self-centered and cares little for the consequences of his or her actions. Their apparent self-esteem is dependent on putting others down.
Impulsive type. Bullies of this type do not plan their behaviors. They have trouble inhibiting their desires, their behaviors, and it doesn’t matter if the likelihood of the authorities becoming involved is high. They act out in a bullying way when they feel stressed or worried about something that has nothing to do with the targeted individual.
Physical type. These bullies strike out physically through punches, kicks, or damaging others’ property. They may steal the property of others, also. Threats to the targeted individual or against his or her belongings also are seen.
Verbal type. These bullies use words to humiliate, embarrass, or hurt. People who start rumors about others fall into this category. For many who become the targets of this kind of bullying, work performance suffers and depression may result.
Secondary type. These bullies are the ones who jump into the bullying against others, but do not initiate bullying themselves. They often join in the bullying due to their concern for their own protection.
Causes of Workplace Bullying
There are multiple causes of workplace bullying, just as there are multiple causes of most human behavior. As seen above, each of the different types suggests reasons for those individuals to be bullies. Each of those types appears to have a psychological or emotional basis for the desire to bully.
However, a disturbing factor that seems to play a part in causing workplace bullying is found right in the organizations where the bullying takes place (Neall & Tuckey, 2014). There often can be a tendency in organizations to “turn a blind eye” to bullying that occurs in them (Stambor, 2006). In these kinds of organizations, bullying can become a type of normal behavior. Bullying comes to be accepted by allowing those in authority positions in the organizations to engage in some of the bullying types of behaviors listed above and by failing to intervene. Some organizations don’t label bullying as bullying, but as personality differences. In these cases, the upper management may hold both the bully and the targeted individual responsible for the bullying, leading the target to endure unfair treatment at that point, also.
Consequences of Workplace Bullying
Numerous researchers have investigated the end results of workplace bullying. Invariably, these results have been negative for both the targeted individual and the organization he or she works for.
Harvard Business Review (2013) reported on a survey of 800 managers and employees in 17 industries. The results showed:
- 48% of the workers lowered their work effort on purpose,
- 47% spent less time at work on purpose,
- 38% lowered quality of their work on purpose,
- 80% worried so much about being bullied they lost time at work,
- 63% avoided the bully to the extent that they lost work time,
- 78% felt significantly less commitment to their organization,
- 12% resigned from their jobs due to bullying, and
- 25% took out frustrations on customers.
Regarding this last finding, the Review found only one bad interaction with an employee led customers to feel badly about the other employees, the organization, and even the brand (Harvard Business Review, 2013). Clearly, this kind of situation is not something any organization wants to happen.
Perhaps more serious and significant are the effects, both physical and psychological, on the targeted individuals. Overall, people who find themselves targets of bullying report increased stress (Vartia, 2001). Stress is linked to secretion of the hormone, cortisol, which can have significant effects on physical health. Some research (Clarkson University, 2014) reported hormonal changes to be brought about by the rejection and victimization felt by those who are bullied in the workplace.
Being the victim of workplace bullying can lead those people to become easier to subject to this kind of abuse (Rodriguez-Munoz, et al., 2015). Anxiety resulting from being the target of bullying causes the victims to be less able to stand up to the bullies and thus become vulnerable to further abuse.
These same researchers found those who were bullied at work experienced poorer mental health and less of a feeling of well-being. This adds to the spiral of abuse they suffer at work.
An online survey with 516 respondents revealed 71% of them had been treated for work-related health problems, and 63% reported seeing a mental health professional (Boulanger, 2013). The most-frequently reported symptoms, both physical and psychological, were:
- elevated blood pressure
- erratic heart beat
- heart attack
- anxiety and panic attacks
- loss of sleep
- headaches, both tension and migraine
- out of control mood swings
- posttraumatic stress disorder
- eating problems
- irritable bowel syndrome
Almost half of the respondents reported feeling depressed.
One research project (Lallukka, et al., 2012) reported increased prescriptions for medications designed to treat anxiety and depression to be related to workplace bullying. Women who were subjected to bullying were reported to be 50% more likely to have such a prescription. Men were twice as likely to have these prescriptions.
These same researchers also reported those who simply witnessed workplace bullying likewise had an in increased incidence of prescriptions for anxiety and depression. A story in USA Today reported people who witnessed workplace bullying to report more depressive symptoms (Lebowitz, 2013). Another study (Vartia, 2001) reported those individuals who were targets of bullying in the workplace used medications for sleep more often than those who were not bullied.
Some researchers (McKay & Fratzl, 2011) reported a connection between workplace bullying and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They suggested this connection may be due to the limited success of attempts in the workplace to bring the bully and the bullied together to resolve the issue. This, along with education and the initiation of policies in the workplace regarding bullying, seems to be the typical approach by organizations to deal with bullying in the workplace. These researchers also suggested management in organizations do not seem to connect lowered workplace performance with the impact of workplace bullying. Instead, those whose performance is decreased for this reason are simply let go by the organization. Being fired in this manner does nothing except increase the impact of the bullying on the ones being bullied and thus increase the stress. The lack of control felt by these individuals also increases the perception of stress on their parts.
One interesting study (O’Reilly, et al., 2014) suggested it may be better to be bullied than to be ignored at work.According to this research, the feeling of being excluded in the workplace is significantly greater in its effect and more likely to lead a person to more dissatisfaction at work, to be more likely to quit work, and to increased health problems. This seems to be a result of feeling unworthy of any attention at work.
Clearly, workplace bullying is becoming more and more a problem. The cost in terms of human suffering, lost productivity at work, and lost growth in business and industry is tremendous. This is an area in which much more research is needed. Research that will ultimately lead to more effective ways to prevent workplace bullying and to treat those who are targets of such behavior.
Boulanger, A. (2013). Physical effects of workplace aggression: the toll bullying takes on your mind and body. Retrieved from http://www.medicaldaily.com/physical-effects-workplace-aggression-toll-bullying-takes-your-mind-and-body-247018.
Bullying Adults -- Not Just Kids Anymore. (2014). Retrieved from http://nobullying.com/bullying-not-just-kids/
Clarkson University. (2014). making connection between bullying, health problems. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/05/140516202703.htm.
Cobb, E.P. (2012). Workplace bullying: a global health and safety issue. The Isosceles Group: Boston, MA.
Harvard Business Review. (2013). The price of incivility. Retrieved from http://hbr.org/2013/01/the-price-of-incivility/ar/1.
Lallukka, T., et al. (2012). Workplace bullying and subsequent psychotropic medications: a cohort study with register linkages. BMJ Open, 2:e001660. DOI: 10.1136/bmjopen-2012-001660.
Lebowitz, S. (2013). What’s behind a rise in workplace bullying? Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/health/2013/10/08/hostile-workplace-less-productive/2945833/
McKay, R. & Fratzl, J. (2011). A cause of failure in addressing workplace bullying: trauma and the employee. International Journal of Business and Social Science, 2(7):13-27.
Neall, A. M. & Tuckey, M. R. (2014). A methodological review of research on the antecedents and consequences of workplace harassment. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, DOI: 10. 1111/joop.12059.
O’Reilly, J., et al. (2014). Is negative attention better than no attention? The comparative effects of ostracism and harassment at work. Organization Science. DOI: 10.1287/orsc.2014.0900.
Rodriguez-Munoz, A., et al. (2015). Reciprocal relations between workplace bullying, anxiety and vigor: a two-wave longitudinal study. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping. DOI: 10. 1080/10615806.2015.1016003#.VOMvS_msXTo.
Stambor, Z. (2006). Bullying stems from fear, apathy. APA Monitor, 37(7):72.
Tye-Williams, S. & Krone, K. J. (2014). Chaos, reports, and quests: narrative agency and co-workers in stories of workplace bullying. Management Communication Quarterly. DOI: 10. 1177/0893318914552029.
Vartia, M. A. (2001). Consequences of workplace bullying with respect to the well-being of its targets and the observers of bullying. Scand J Work Environ Health. 27(1):63-69.