Playground tactics: The scourge of the workplace bully

stop workplace bullyingWhile some of you might be keen to reminisce about your own school days – first years’ heads being flushed down the toilet, writing lines in detention and perhaps (for those of you of a certain age) even a sound thrashing from the head teacher – the rest of us are glad to have left the mental and physical torment of school behind to enjoy a bully-free career in the adult world.

Bullying and harassment at work

According to a 2013 study, one in five NHS workers said they have been bullied by colleagues, while 43% have witnessed bullying in the last six months. The survey of just under 3,000 staff across seven NHS trusts in the North East of England found that 19.9% said they had been bullied to some degree by other staff in the last six months, including 2.7% who reported being bullied several times a week or almost daily.

What perhaps is even more shocking is that the most common source of bullying was cited to be from a supervisor or manager, with workplace culture being highlighted as a source of bullying and workload pressures (particularly managerial workload) also partially blamed for bullying behaviour.

What constitutes bullying in the workplace?

The research, led by Durham University and published in the online journal BMJ Open, described a wide range of abusive behaviour, including:

  • Threats
  • Physical violence
  • Abuse
  • Practical jokes
  • Being ordered to do work below level of competence
  • Having opinions ignored
  • Being the subject of excessive teasing and sarcasm

The researchers also found that both being directly exposed to and witnessing higher levels of bullying behaviours in the workplace were associated with higher levels of psychological distress, increased intentions to leave the job, higher rates of self-reported sickness absence and lower levels of job satisfaction.

The effects of bullying

Of course, these problems are in no way exclusive to the NHS. Unfortunately, many people are likely to experience bullying or harassment over the course of their career. In some cases, this can have a significant impact on employee health, including:

  • Psychological health problems such as depression, anxiety or low self-esteem
  • Physical health problems such as stomach problems, or sleep difficulties
  • If you’ve witnessed the bullying of a colleague, this can also be very upsetting and can impact on your health.
  • Your performance at work can be affected.

For more information, please see our guide to work related stress.

Define harassment

The Prevention of Harassment Act (1997) was created to cover all forms of discrimination, which can be on the grounds of race, sex, disability, age, religion or belief, or sexual orientation. It encourages businesses and organisations to take the following actions in order to prevent the risk of bullying:

  • Devise and implement a bullying and harassment policy
  • Promote a culture where bullying and harassment is not tolerated
  • Be aware of the organisational factors that are associated with bullying, and take steps to address them

If as an employee you are being bullied or harassed, or know of a colleague who is, then the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) provides guidance about things you can do to try and tackle the problem, including:

  • Consulting your organisation’s bullying and harassment policy
  • Speaking to someone you feel comfortable talking to about your concerns
  • Attempting to resolve the issue informally
  • Mediation by a neutral third party

If however informal resolution has not worked, you should follow a formal complaints procedure and if your complaint is upheld, your organisation may pursue a number of options, including obtaining professional legal advice.

Further reading

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