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Understanding the damaging effect of workplace bullying

Published: 

Mon 27 July, 2020

Bullying

Bullying in the workplace is abhorrent and should be stopped but how much do we really know about the impact on the victim.

It can make working life miserable and unbearable. It can ruin lives.

Bullying can take many different forms, it can be obvious but it is often subtle.

It can range from physical violence and intimidation to excluding or ignoring an individual or their contribution.

An online newspaper report from a few years ago documented employee accounts of workplace bullying, which included (1):

  • Stephanie. I've found out a guy at work makes elephant noises when I walk by.
  • Ellodie.  After letting slip that I had a girlfriend was called any number of anti-gay names, while a co-worker joked that if he’d known me at school he would have beaten me up every day. When I reacted with shock, I was alienated by everyone – as the one who had destroyed the banter.
  • Lisa. I have [been bullied] pretty much in every job I've ever had….But being bullied by management is really hard to stand up to, which has resulted in me leaving a job
  • Catriona. I have worked in a place where the boss was controlling and manipulative. Big in every sense and knew how to use that to make employees feel small and stupid…I regularly came home in tears.
  • Anne. I was bullied by my boss. She and my co-worker would whisper, go out together for lunch and not invite me, laugh at each other's jokes and stare dumbly when I would try to join in – all the petty ways to make you feel small and stupid. She would also hold private meetings with me where she would attack my character, my ability and my performance.

There has been much focus on workplace bullying in recent years, but it appears that it remains a problem.

The Trade Union Congress (TUC) 2018 annual survey of safety representatives listed bullying as the second biggest complaint, behind stress, that they had to deal with (2)

The workplace bully deliberately manipulates, belittles, intimidates and tries to control or undermine their victim using any means available to them.

The damaging impact of bullying at work is not confined to the workplace. Victims can suffer physical and psychological health problems, including stress, anxiety, panic attacks, trouble sleeping, higher blood pressure and ulcers.

There is also likely to be an inevitable impact on performance. For example bullying can lead to problems making decisions, lack of capability and concentration, loss of confidence and self-esteem and reduced motivation and productivity.

The target of the workplace bully can feel powerless, isolated, afraid, defenceless, bewildered and traumatised.

Although there is no one specific law that outlaws workplace bullying, employers are expected to take a zero-tolerance approach to it.

All employers have a legal duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees, which includes protection from bullying and harassment at work (3).

Bullying and harassment are very similar, but harassment is unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act 2010.

Harassment is defined by the Act as: Unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual (4).

ACAS advise an employee who believes they are being bullied at work to initially try to resolve it informally, if possible and comfortable doing so, by letting the bully know the effect of their actions.

Alternatively seek support from a manager, HR, trusted colleague or trade union representative if there is one in the workplace.

It is also a good idea to keep a diary or record of the bullying, including how the bullying made you feel, dates and times it happened, any witnesses and any evidence, for example emails or screenshots of social media posts

ACAS has produced a booklet for employers, including advice on setting up a policy as well as how to recognise, deal with and prevent bullying and harassment (5).

 

References:

(1) An online newspaper report from a few years ago documented employee accounts of workplace bullying [Internet] www.theguardian.com [Cited 27.7.2020] https://www.theguardian.com/money/us-money-blog/2014/jul/06/bullying-at-work-political-experiences-bullies-solutions

(2) The Trade Union Congress (TUC) 2018 annual survey [Internet] www.tuc.org.uk [Cited 27.7.2020] https://www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/Safety%20Reps%20report%202018.pdf

(3) All employers have a legal duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act [Internet] www.legislation.gov.uk [Cited 27.7.2020] https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1974/37/contents

(4) Harassment defined [Internet] www.legislation.gov.uk [Cited 27.7.2020] https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2010/15/section/26

(5) Booklet for employers produced by ACAS [Internet] www.archive.acas.org.uk [Cited 27.7.2020] https://archive.acas.org.uk/media/304/Advice-leaflet---Bullying-and-harassment-at-work-a-guide-for-managers-and-employers/pdf/Bullying-and-harassment-in-the-workplace-a-guide-for-managers-and-employers.pdf

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