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What to do about workplace bullying

Written by:
Paula Coster
BA (Hons), MSc.
Associate Member CIEHF
21 April 2022

Have you ever felt threatened at work? Or unsafe, undermined or harassed? You’re not alone. It is thought that up to 94% of employees have experienced workplace bullying and it is a significant cause of chronic stress and burnout. While every job involves some degree of stress, a toxic workplace causes people to feel apprehensive, unhappy or physically unwell.

How to recognise workplace bullying

Bullying and harassment at work often take subtle forms, making them difficult to identify.  For example, a person may be ignored or excluded from team social activities.  A bully may make unreasonable requests, spread malicious rumours, take credit for other employees’ work, or deny a worker’s opportunities for promotion. Such behavious, repeated again and again, can have a devastating effect on the victim.

More obvious forms of workplace bullying and harassment commonly include:

  • Demeaning, undermining or shaming coworkers in front of others
  • Intimidating and threatening others
  • Intrusive behaviour such as overbearing monitoring by a manager or supervisor
  • Personal insults
  • Anger outbursts
  • Racist or homophobic language
  • Turning colleagues against the victim
  • Constant berating about the victim’s work
  • Sexual harassment and misconduct

Bullying and harassment at work can happen face-to-face or via emails, text messages, letters, or phone calls.  If it is out of sight, you may be completely unaware that it’s happening so it’s helpful to give your team the opportunity to disclose incidents to you.  Implementing an open door policy is one way of doing this.

While some signs are hard to spot, when you are aware, you shouldn’t hesitate to act. Act before the negative impact of bullying takes hold.

The impact of workplace bullying

Effects on individuals

Bullying can take a powerful toll on its victim and the repercussions extend well beyond the office. Bullying and harassment at work can lead to:

  • Heightened stress
  • Mood changes
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • A sense of isolation
  • Low self-esteem

Workplace bullying can also trigger physical health problems such as digestive problems or high blood pressure. Long term, the exposure to bullying and stress can increase your risk of heart disease.  At its worst, a toxic work environment can lead to suicide.

Effects on business

Workplace bullying can seriously impact on your business generating a hostile work atmosphere and lowering productivity.

A bullied employee may be less focused and less productive because they are preoccupied with avoiding the bully, ruminating about the situation, and planning how to deal with it. As a result, they may feel powerless, helpless, and depleted.

Bullying in the workplace may disrupt the work environment, erode employee morale, and cause high levels of absenteeism and staff turnover.

Furthermore, workplace bullying can lead to costly legal actions and negative publicity.

Ultimately, the impact of bullying has a far reaching, negative impact across your organisation.

Bullying, harrassment and suicide

While research has shown a significant correlation between harassment in the workplace and mental health problems such as stress, anxiety, depression and substance abuse, not much attention has been paid to the link between harassment and suicide.

However, a recent study published in the BMJ shows that workplace sexual harassment is associated with suicidal behaviour in the future.

Employee assistance programs such as mental health first aiders at work, bullying and harassment prevention training, and the promotion of a help-seeking environment can help prevent or reduce suicidal thoughts and behaviours associated with workplace bullying and stress.

Workplace bullying and the law

While no law specifically applies to bullying in the UK, harassment is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010, which replaced various anti-discrimination laws.
According to the Equality Act 2010, unlawful ways of treating someone can be related to the following protected characteristics:

  • Age
  • Sex
  • Race
  • Religion
  • Sexual orientation
  • Gender reassignment
  • Disability
  • Maternity or pregnancy
  • Marriage or civil partnership

Importantly, jokes or comments about any protected characteristics do not have to be directed at the target to constitute harassment, comments made within earshot may still be counted as harassment.

Although people are responsible for their own actions, as an employer you have some responsibility too, this is known as ‘vicarious responsibility’.  If, as an employer, you allow a situation where an employee is harassed then you could face an employment tribunal claim for discrimination. Costly in terms of time and money, and furthermore a damage to your organisation’s reputation.

When and how to intervene when bullying happens at work

Confronting a bullying employee can be challenging but nevertheless, you should do so without hestitation as it is highly unlikely to remedy itself.  In fact, unchallenged, a bully is likely to escalate so you need to be prepared to intervene as soon as you spot any offending behaviour.

You could start by encouraging the victim and the aggressor to meet, with you acting as a facilitator to their conversation. This would provide an opportunity for both parties to discuss events and agree a resolution.

Or you could speak directly to the bully. Explain how their behaviour is offensive and what its impact is on the victim. Try to elicit some empathy by asking how they would feel if they were being targetted, or if it was happening to a member of their family.  You may find they are completely unaware of the impact their behaviour is having in which case the matter should be easliy resolved.

Be very clear in the consequences if the bullying continues. Reiterate your organisation’s zero tolerance approach.

To protect yourself legally, keep records of all conversations and interventions.

How can businesses protect their employees from bullying and harassment?

It is not enough to just react to allegations or incidents when they occur.  Managers and leaders should be at the forefront of instilling a culture where people feel safe and valued.

Here are some ways you can help achieve this:

  • Do not ignore complaints about bullying; deal with issues as quickly as possible
  • Provide clear policies on bullying and harassment
  • Provide examples of bullying in the workplace so that everyone understands what is considered unacceptable behaviour
  • Zero tolerance: Have a clear statement that bullying and harassment are unacceptable and will be treated as such
  • Instruct employees on grievance procedures if bullying occurs
  • Have an open door policy
  • Provide appropriate stress management training for managers, and other traininf such as bullying prevention workshops
  • Assign Mental Health First Aiders

Plan and implement appropriate training for managers

Providing training such as Stress Management courses for managers can help team leaders identify bullying and harassment behaviours, be proactive in preventing unacceptable behaviours and promote a healthy workplace culture. They also show your workforce that you are invested in protecting their mental health.

A good training program can help team leaders identify and understand sources of workplace stress, build a supportive and non-discriminatory work climate, encourage open communication about bullying and harassment, and more.

Assign Mental Health First Aiders

Having trained mental health first aiders at work is critical in dealing with stress and mental health difficulties. A mental health first aider is someone who is designated to help support anyone at work experiencing mental ill health including someone who is experiencing workplace bullying.  In addition to being someone to talk to, a mental health first aider can also signpost their colleagues to further support or professional help.

To summarise

Managers should work hard to take appropriate actions to create a workplace culture where bullying is unacceptable and where people feel safe.

Tacking bullying seriously shows you are working hard to make a better workplace, promtoes respect and gives your team confidence to raise an issue

By managing workplace bullying properly and meeting your legal obligations to protect staff, you can help keep your business free from bullying and harassment.

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