Spotting, understanding and combatting bullying in the workplace
Published 21 August 2023
Bullying once dubbed a ‘silent epidemic’ is the scourge of countless workplaces and creating widespread problems for employers to deal with.
It is an extremely serious issue that affects many employees and employers.
Bullying can have a dangerous and negative impact on the mental and physical health of the victim, as well as the performance and reputation of organisations.
It can take various forms, such as verbal, physical, or psychological abuse and it can also be more subtle and covert.
Cases of bullying can be complex, challenging and difficult to investigate and establish.
The days when such cases may have been clear and obvious, are not necessarily gone but rare.
An aggressive boss shouting, openly threatening, berating and belittling staff or being racist, sexist or homophobic appear to have been consigned to a bygone workplace era.
Bullying has evolved and in a workplace can present itself in a much more clandestine guise, which is difficult to detect.
The bully can appear calm, articulate and not someone prone to outbursts or raising their voice. They operate in a way that is eloquent, cunning and underhand.
The modes operandi of the modern day bully can include expectations continually changing, regularly setting unattainable targets or ‘forgetting’ to invite someone to important work-related events or copy them in on important emails.
It is the type of unfavourable treatment that can result in the victim feeling confused, anxious, starting to doubt themselves and their well-being inevitably suffers.
And when reported such treatment is less likely to be taken seriously leading to even greater frustration and stress for the target.
Workplace bullying can thrive out of sight, and it remains a prevalent issue.
Researchers labelled bullying in the workplace a ‘silent epidemic’ back in 2014 after 96 per cent of the 2,283 people quizzed said they had experienced workplace bullying[1 cited 21.8.23]
A more recent study revealed that intimidation and mistreatment at work continues to be a serious problem.
Workplace bullying disguised as banter was found to be the most common problem in the UK, affecting a third (32 per cent) of workers[2 cited 21.8.23]
The survey, involving 2,179 people, revealed that some of the most affected sectors were accounting and finance (38 per cent), hospitality (39 per cent) and retail (38 per cent)[3 cited 21.8.23]
The company behind the research warned the data raised serious questions about how to recognise unlawful behaviour in the workplace, which could entitle employees to pursue legal claims such as discrimination and constructive dismissal.
Here we will explore what workplace bullying is, the impact of it and how employers can combat it.
What is the definition of bullying?
ACAS state that although there is no legal definition of bullying, it can be described as unwanted behaviour from a person or group that is either[4 cited 21.8.23]
- Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting.
- An abuse or misuse of power that undermines, humiliates, or causes physical or emotional harm to someone.
- Be a regular pattern of behaviour or a one-off incident.
- Happen face-to-face, on social media, in emails or calls.
- Happen at work or in other work-related situations.
- Not always be obvious or noticed by others.
It is possible someone might not know their behaviour is bullying. It can still be bullying even if they do not realise it or do not intend to bully someone.
Bullying at work can be complex, have different causes and effects and be perceived and experienced differently by different people.
The perception of the target of bullying is always important and must be reasonably considered, along with the behaviour of the perpetrator and the context of the situation.
It is essential that employers understand and respect the different perspectives and experiences of those involved, and take appropriate action to prevent or resolve it.
What can be the impact of workplace bullying?
It can be wide ranging and harmful and have a detrimental impact on the mental and physical health of the victims. It can also affect the performance, productivity and reputation of an organisation.
Some of the possible impacts of workplace bullying are:
- Health risks: For the victim can cause stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, headaches, digestive problems, high blood pressure, and other physical and mental health issues. It can also increase the risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviours.
The Bafta-winning director Brian Hill was so concerned about bullying in the film and TV industry, that he made a short film called Toxic, which featured four anonymous, haunting testimonies from victims of bullying at work, which included[5 cited 21.8.23]
One interviewee describes feeling "hunted" by her boss.
She recounts being at home with her two young children: "We're just brushing our teeth and my phone starts ringing and it's her. I feel sick, and my children look at me and go 'What is it Mummy?' And I realise I'm crying."
Another says: "The people at the top won't intervene to deal with it [bad behaviour] as long as the bullies deliver. Ratings are more important than the welfare of the workers."
A third speaks about being "gaslighted" by a director, while the fourth - working on a reality TV show - spoke of "months of mental torture", adding he was "blamed" for problems when he raised them.
- Effect on job performance: Employees who are bullied can lack motivation to perform and their productivity, creativity and quality of work can all suffer. It can also lead to lower self-esteem and confidence resulting in a loss of job satisfaction. The mental and physical impact can lead to more time off or even the victim feeling forced to leave their role.
- Changes in the workplace: Bullying can create an unpleasant work environment and one that feels antagonistic, dangerous and that is harmful. It can lead to a loss of trust and breakdown in communication and working relationships between colleagues and management. A toxic workplace can also cause reputational damage to any organisation.
Combatting Workplace Bullying
It requires an all-round approach involving both employees and employers working together to prevent and stop it. Steps that can help to do so include:
- Creating awareness: Education is vital and making all staff aware of the signs of bullying, how to recognise it and creating an environment in which they know how to raise and report any concerns, and feel safe to do so, is essential.
- Clear policies: Although there is no one specific law that outlaws workplace bullying, employers are expected to take a zero-tolerance approach to it. Established policies communicated to all employees should be in place and convey that all forms of bullying are unacceptable. Any reported cases should be investigated thoroughly in line with any established policy, or the ACAS Code of Practice[6 cited 21.8.23]
- Supportive culture: Developing a workplace culture of respect, empathy and open communication can discourage bullying and spur the victims to seek help.
- Effective reporting procedures: Many people are afraid to report bullying out of fear of retaliation, worry nothing will be done about it and that they will not be believed. Putting in place effective and confidential channels to enable employees to report bullying can encourage victims to come forward.
- Leadership role: Managers can play a crucial role in stopping bullying at work, as they are responsible for creating and maintaining a positive and respectful work culture that values diversity and inclusion. Management should lead by example in treating workers with respect and dealing with any concerns without unreasonable delay.
Workplace bullying is a serious problem that affects the health and happiness of workers and the productivity and reputation of organisations.
It is vital for everyone involved to work together to stop this problem and create a work environment that is safe and welcoming for all.
Increasing awareness, enforcing effective policies, and promoting a culture of respect, can help to combat workplace bullying and create much better environments to work in.