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Health issues, negative behavior consequences of workplace bullying, researchers say

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Norwich, England — A new study links workplace bullying to health problems and negative behaviors among people who are frequent targets.

Researchers from the University of East Anglia, in collaboration with the International Telematic University in Rome, surveyed more than 1,000 Italian workers about their experiences with bullying at work, health symptoms and counterproductive behavior. The workers answered questions about their coping strategies, negative emotions experienced at work and “moral disengagement” – meaning rationalizing one’s own actions and absolving oneself of responsibility for the consequences.

Two forms of bullying were identified: workplace-related and personal attacks. For the former, bullying affected workload (e.g., removing responsibility) and work processes (e.g., attacks on someone’s professional status), while cases of the latter involved direct (e.g., physical abuse) and indirect (e.g., exclusion and isolation) negative behavior.

Among the participants, 4.4% reported being frequent victims of bullying, both at work and in their personal lives. This group experienced increased health problems and had more incidents of misbehavior. Meanwhile, 9.6% identified themselves as being bullied at work but not often in their personal lives. This group presented fewer health problems and episodes of misbehavior. However, they had a tendency to become morally disengaged and regularly felt overwhelmed by negative emotions.

The researchers also found that some frequent victims of workplace bullying may exhibit a lack of problem-solving skills and high-avoidance coping strategies. Examples include drinking alcohol, experiencing negative emotions and having high moral disengagement.

“The findings highlight that victimization is associated not only with health problems, but also with a greater likelihood of not behaving in line with the expected social and organizational norms,” Roberta Fida, lead author and senior lecturer in work psychology at UEA, said in a May 17 press release. “The greater the intensity of bullying and the more the exposure to different types of bullying, the higher the likelihood of engaging in counterproductive workplace behavior.”

Human resources and management must consider emotions when developing intervention policies, the authors wrote. “It is essential to also promote behavioral regulation strategies to reduce moral disengagement, as well as negative compensating behavior, such as drinking more alcohol and taking more risks,” Fida said in the release.

The study was published online May 15 in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

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