This insidious global infection crosses the boundaries of age, gender, race, religion and different industry sectors. I am a Psychologist who takes a special interest in workplace bullying. Incredibly, few people would readily admit to family and friends that it is actually happening to them. Naturally, many high profile executives may view it as the “elephant in the room” – everybody knows that it is there, but nobody wants to deal with it. Ultimately, the human cost from this phenomenon frequently results in human suffering and misery, and in some instances has had tragic consequences!
Researchers have found that there is an interplay between organizational and interpersonal factors which may cultivate the conditions for bullying in the workplace. On 26 May 2012, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Julia Gillard was taking “an interest” in workplace bullying, and stated that there was going to be a national high level inquiry that would examine the causes and effects. The financial cost in lost economic productivity was estimated annually to be anywhere between $3 billion-$36 billion. Heady stuff! In terms of prevalence rates, America’s Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute (WBTI) estimated it to be around 35% for the United States workforce. In Scandinavia, rates in Norway were around 8.6% (Einarsen & Skogstad, 1996), whilst in Sweden it was about 3.5% (Leyman, 1996).
The United Kingdom National Bullying Advice Line, said that up to 50% of the English workforce will have been bullied at some point in their working life. Research conducted by Quine (2001) found 44% of nurses at a National Health Service Community Trust in south-east England experienced one or more types of bullying in the workplace in the last twelve months. In other punchy statistics, America’s WBTI found in 42% of instances when the target (bullying victim) asked for assistance, the problem was compounded by management intervention. Unbelievably, in 40% of cases, management did nothing, and even attempted to minimize it by calling it a “personality clash”. Definition Currently there is no clear consensus into the actual definition of workplace bullying.
For this article, I will use the definition by Olweus (1993): workplace bullying is harmful intent, where there is an imbalance of power or strength, and the repetition of negative actions (i.e. verbal: such as making threats, name calling; or physical i.e. hit, shove, push). It is a pattern of negative events that may occur daily or weekly, across six months or more. Organisational factors Certain organizational factors may create the conditions for bullying in the workplace e.g. the workplace climate and culture; organizational power structure; and management practices and styles (Quine, 2001). Other research points to the elements of a lack of individual control, high role ambiguity, and competition as important contributions (Vartia, 2003).
In addition, the casualization of the labour force has seen contract and casual employment become more commonplace. This could add to levels of volatility and tension, which may then be superimposed onto whether the organization is undergoing restructuring, change management or downsizing. Researchers Einarsen and Skogstad (1996) and the WBTI comment that larger organizations may be more bullying-prone, as the workforce mix may consist of different personality types e.g. anti-social, manipulators, narcissistic. They assert that the specific response and policies from management, create the workplace conditions and environment for their employees.
The bully, and their tactics Whilst there is no specific general personality profile, a study of school children concluded that those with bullying traits scored higher on the scales of: extraversion, psychoticism and neuroticism (Connolly & Moore, 2003). Some research has suggested that the perpetrators may be driven by a need to control another individual, and may undertake various strategic moves to render the target unsuccessful and unproductive. It is believed that the target is the subject of the bully’s displaced aggression. In order to protect and enhance their own position and image – bullies can be good at ingratiating themselves with management, and may even take the credit for others’ work. The bully has been known to scorn, slander, belittle, mock, humiliate, embarrass, offend, put down, and dismiss (Vartia, 2003). According to Namie (2009) there are four broad categories of bullies, and they employ a range of tactics: screaming mimi; constant critic; two-headed snake; and the gatekeeper. Screaming Mimi – Has mood swings along with volatile, unpredictable anger. Likes to publicly humiliate the target/s. Constant Critic – Hypercritical, and obsessive in order to hide their own deficiencies/insecurities.
They constantly and consistently complain about the incompetence of others. Criticism is usually done privately, but can erupt in public also. Two headed Snake – A promotion-hungry person, who defames the target to boost their self image. May spread rumours, and uses divisive tactics. The bully’s version of events is believed over the target’s perspective. Gatekeeper – This control-obsessed bully wants to control money, staff, information, resources etc. They set the target up to fail, then complain about their performance. Who gets bullied? No stereotypical victim personality profile exists. Although, some characteristics such as: conscientiousness, or being more popular, attractive or intelligent have been highlighted as possible markers (Glaso, Matthiesen, Nielsen & Einarsen, 2007). Research has shown that targets are most likely to be bullied by their superiors, with men more generally bullied by other men; whereas women could get bullied by both genders (Quine, 2001).
Furthermore, older workers as opposed to younger workers may be more frequently subjected to workplace bullying (Einarsen & Skogstad, 1996). Types of bullying Bullying may be overt or covert, with indirect bullying featuring social isolation and intentional exclusion. Predatory bullying relates to an abuse of power: where the bully demonstrates their power position, and tries to exploit the weakness or vulnerability in others. Now, with the advancement of social media options and increasingly sophisticated communication systems, different types of bullying have emerged such as cyber-bullying, unwanted emails, and texting.
Bullying effects The bully’s target may view the special attention directed towards them as: humiliating, unwelcome, unwanted, offensive, inappropriate, and a violation of personal rights. Responses to bullying are varied and may involve shock, feeling paralyzed and destabilized. A great deal of intrapsychic energy can go into protecting and defending yourself from this type of “psychological warfare”. Various psychological, physiological and behavioral problems can be triggered, such as anger, shame, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, stress, low job satisfaction and morale, low self esteem, psychosomatic symptoms (headache, stomachache), suicide ideation, loneliness, social/familial relationship issues, and health difficulties. Research has found a strong association between workplace bullying and subsequent depression as an aetiological factor for mental health issues. Importantly, the work of Kivimaki, Virtanen, Elovanio, Vahtera, Keltikangas-Jarvinen, (2002) into workplace bullying established a link between cardiovascular disease and depression. Ongoing bullying results in a conditioned fear response with stress reactions coming into operation.
The target’s self esteem and self efficacy beliefs eventually become eroded. The perception that bullies appear to get away with it can create fear and anxiety, and the target may be too scared to report it due to the potential for retaliation. Critically, workplace bullying has far-reaching consequential effects which can extend to co-workers who witness the bullying. They too could feel constantly undermined, and may become hyper-vigilant (Lutgen-Sandvik, Tracy & Alberts, 2007).
Some strategies that targets have used to counter bullying behaviour When interviewed about coping strategies in response to workplace bullying targets have offered the following: develop allies; approach your Union; form peer networks – debrief,; transfer; advocate; make grievance complaints; keep records to document the events, pattern, and context; used avoidance strategies; collective resistance; confronted; used humour; and felt a moral imperative to speak out against the bully (Namie, Namie, & Lutgen-Sandvik, 2009).
Certain personality variables have been found to buffer some of the effects of bullying for example, optimism, hardiness, personal mastery or self efficacy (Namie et al., 2009). Beyond bullying: become “bullet-proof” Workplace bullying … what do you do? How will you be perceived, and who do you approach? You will need to carefully evaluate the pro’s and con’s, and look at what organizational avenues are available to you for redress. Fundamentally, the WBTI argue that it needs to become a globally recognized workplace health and safety issue. The organization has a duty of care to protect the safety, health and welfare of their employees.
That said, the organization’s response to workplace bullying needs to be thoroughly documented, and unacceptable behaviour delineated in their organizational policies and procedures. Workplace bullying – name it and recognise it, then externalize the source of the problem rather than internalize and ruminate over it on a daily basis. The opposite of rumination is detachment! Take time to heal and to think through how you will respond, rather than react emotionally and irrationally. Prioritise your health, reach out and take back control and maintain good social supports. Get professional psychological help if you need to, to give you strategies and interventions to cope (i.e. assertiveness skills training), practice good self care, regulate your emotions (anger management strategies, stress management, relaxation, breathing, exercise etc).
In dealing with the bully rehearse what you will say. Prime yourself first before approaching them. Have a witness with you (if possible), be rational, maintain eye contact, keep emotions in check and stay calm, be consistent, and focus. If relevant, state strengths and career highlights. Be specific and use non-emotive language. Bullies may lack insight and awareness into how their behaviour affects others. Tell them what you want them to do instead.
Seek agreement with them that things will change in the relationship between you. Repetition, may be required to remind them of the agreement and the presence of the witness to that agreement. Finally, there is the potential for post-traumatic growth. Individuals have reported that they found increased meaning and purpose in their life. They also noted a sense of enhanced well being, and stronger social connections and empathy with others. This may then translate into discovering increased mental strength, creativity and a drive to try different things in life, as well as exploring their options.