Bullying: Beyond the schoolyard

Many U.S. workers report being a target or witness

  • Workplace bullying is repetitive behavior with the intention to intimidate, humiliate or undermine one or more workers against one or more co-workers.
  • Safety professionals should address bullying by modeling acceptable managerial styles and establishing that is is unacceptable, unprofessional behavior.
  • Predictors of workplace bullying include group and culture norms that make it "acceptable behavior," high-pressure work environments, and undefined work roles and power structures.

By Thomas J. Bukowski, associate editor

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

This childhood saying is meant to convey that unpleasant words will not affect someone. However, the idea that “words will never hurt me” is misguided both for children on the playground and adults in the workplace, according to Alexia Georgakopoulos, associate professor of conflict resolution and communication in the Department of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at Davie, FL-based Nova Southeastern University.

A 2010 survey from the Bellingham, WA-based Workplace Bullying Institute found that one-third of U.S. workers reported experiencing bullying firsthand at their workplace and 15 percent reported witnessing it.

Workplace bullying is repetitive behavior with the intention to intimidate, humiliate or undermine one or more workers against one or more co-workers. In its most dangerous form, bullying can cause effects similar to domestic violence, said Gary Namie, social psychologist and co-founder of WBI. “It is domestic violence where the abuser is on the payroll. The interpersonal dynamics are identical: You have a dominating, intimidating, narcissistic person who feels they own the other, [that the other is] a lesser-than,” he said.

The workplace heightens the sense of conflict and the seriousness of the dynamic when an employee perceives he or she is being intimidated or demeaned, said Mark Horstman, co-founder of Burke, VA-based Manager Tools LLC. And the feelings of insecurity that can come from being demeaned by a boss can be a major source of stress, said Horstman, who co-hosted an educational podcast on dealing with angry and demeaning bosses.

Workplace impact

Dealing with the insecurities caused by intimidating, threatening or demeaning language poses a serious safety concern for workers at any organization, but especially at those where employees work with machinery or equipment, such as construction sites or health care settings, said Georgakopoulos, who also is director of the Institute of Conflict Resolution & Communication in Boca Raton, FL.

“If [workers] are preoccupied with these thoughts, the research supports that there is a direct relationship with their actions at work,” she said. “These are real fears they have, and they impede their thought processes and rational thinking because they are preoccupied by these other thoughts. This jeopardizes their ability to focus on the task on hand.”

Long-term adverse health effects are another result of workplace bullying, said Catherine Mattice, an expert on workplace bullying and president of San Diego-based Civility Partners LLC. When employees perceive they are being targeted by a bully on a continual basis, negative stress can result. Elevated for long periods of time, negative stress can lead to cardiovascular disorders, high blood pressure and strokes.

Bullying also can have psychological effects: Long-term bullying dynamics can induce clinical depression, anxiety disorders and symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, Namie said. Employees with pre-existing mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression are especially vulnerable, he said, noting that a bully can throw an anxious or depressed worker “off their kilter” even if that worker has been effectively medicated.

Not only is bullying a real concern for the targeted employees, but co-workers who witness a bullying incident also can be severely affected, Namie said. He cited studies that concluded that when someone sees a co-worker being bullied, that witness can suffer stress and anxiety as a result, partly from fear of being targeted by the bully.

Outlawing workplace bullying
The United States does not have any laws or regulations addressing workplace bullying.

Motives for attacks

Although the reasons why someone may bully a co-worker are unclear, a study published in the International Journal of Business and Social Science (Vol. 2, No. 3) found that predictors of workplace bullying include group and culture norms that make it “acceptable behavior,” high-pressure work environments, and undefined work roles and power structures.

Alan Rosenstein, medical director for Physician Wellness Services in New York and a researcher of disruptive behavior in the health care industry, said he has found that bullies tend to have low levels of emotional intelligence – a measure of how much a person is cognitively aware of others’ feelings. According to Namie, when a bully with low emotional intelligence attacks a target’s personal characteristics or demeans them, the bully might not realize how this will affect the other person. A bully may become confused and hostile if confronted, and may not think the behavior was wrong.

When confronting someone engaging in this behavior, Horstman advises safety professionals to model acceptable and professional managerial behaviors. “If you see a manager behaving rudely or unprofessional to [an employee] in a way that is demeaning, you can go to that manager if you know him or her and say, ‘What you are doing is wrong. You are creating an unsafe environment here. You can’t be yelling at people; they are going to go back to their workstations and be unsafe because they are going to be upset and not thinking clearly,’” Horstman said.

Actions to take

If a worker feels he or she is being bullied, the first thing to do is document each incident, Mattice said. This would include keeping copies of all relevant emails from the bully and writing detailed accounts – with input from witnesses, if possible – of any in-person bullying.

Throughout the process, it is important that a worker remains rational and keeps external emotions in check if he or she ends up reporting the incidents, Namie said. If the person appears to be less stable, the bully may use this to his or her advantage, he said.

“[Bullying] is real,” Mattice said. “The research in the past 25 years says it is real. Whether you believe it or not, please pay attention to this.”

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