Workplace Bullying: Causes, Effects, and Prevention

Source: Ashish_Choudhary/Pixabay

Bullying is a form of aggression that can occur anywhere. Bullies can threaten your child at school (school bullying), abuse your teenager online (cyberbullying), or intimidate you at work (workplace bullying). In this post, I review the latest research on workplace bullying, published in the September–October issue of Aggression and Violent Behavior.

Authors Nielsen and Einarsen discuss the prevalence of bullying, its causes, effects, and finally, the effectiveness of available anti-bullying interventions.

What is workplace bullying?

The question of definition is complicated by the fact that the same aggressive behavior can be (and has been) labeled differently, using terms such as incivility, harassment, emotional abuse, ostracism, abusive supervision, etc.

Therefore, in order to define workplace bullying as a unique kind of aggression specific to work setting, the authors advance the following definition: 

Workplace bullying refers to “situations where an employee repeatedly and over a prolonged time period is exposed to harassing behavior from one or more colleagues (including subordinates and leaders) and where the targeted person is unable to defend him-/herself against this systematic mistreatment.” It is a “form of persistent abuse where the exposed employee is submissive to the perpetrator.”

In short, workplace bullying involves harassment and conflict that is ongoing (i.e. not limited to one or two instances). Furthermore, there is a feeling of being trapped in the situation and being defenseless.

The prevalence of workplace bullying is, on average, about 15%. Whether bullying occurs in a particular setting depends on a number of factors (some work-related, some more general) such as gender, climate, rate of poverty, and the characteristics of the particular occupation. For instance, previous research has shown that bullying is especially common in large male-dominated industrial companies. It is also more prevalent among unskilled workers than among supervisors/managers.

Why does workplace bullying occur?

One of the main explanations for why bullying occurs emphasizes characteristics associated with the workplace environment, including job design. Specifically, prior research has linked bullying to work-related factors and stressors such as job insecurity, workload, role conflict/ambiguity, and cognitive demands of the job. Other investigations, however, have not found a consistent association between bullying and such role-related stressors.

Another major explanation for bullying stresses personality factors. Most of this research has focused not on the bullies but on targets of bullying and their personality characteristics. Some studies have observed that neurotic employees and ones who experience negative affect more frequently, are at increased risk for being bullied. That is, some of the employees who become targets of bullying are ones who regularly experience negative emotional states (e.g., anxiety, anger, sadness, insecurity).

A third account simply combines these two types of explanations and suggests that workplace bullying is the result of interaction between personality and work-related factors considered above.

What are the effects of workplace bullying?

Bullying may have serious health consequences, and has been previously linked to numerous physical and psychological symptoms, including headaches, chronic neck pain, fibromyalgia, type 2 diabetes, sleep problems, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress symptoms, suicidal ideation, and others.

Furthermore, bullying is also associated with negative work-related responses. People who are bullied are more likely to have reduced commitment to work, feel dissatisfied with their job, experience job insecurity, have a high rate of absenteeism, and become recipients of disability pension.

Nevertheless, though bullying appears to result in mental health issues, longitudinal research has found evidence for the opposite causal relation as well—for mental health problems resulting in being bullied. Indeed, as we saw earlier, some research indicates that people who experience negative emotions are at a greater risk for being bullied.

The question is: Why? According to one view, people with lower well-being are more prone to interpreting aggressive behavior as indication of bullying because they have less tolerance for such behavior. Another view proposes that those with mental health issues violate norms of friendly behavior and other people’s expectations, and thus incite aggression in others.

Are anti-bullying interventions available and effective?

A recent systematic review of 12 studies found that none of the interventions against bullying were effective; and only two of them reduced incivility (e.g., rudeness, sarcasm).

Another systematic review concluded that anti-bullying interventions have a positive effect but mostly in increasing knowledge and awareness about workplace bullying, and in changing attitudes and perception—not in preventing bullying behavior.

In short, there is need for research on developing more effective anti-bullying interventions at work because the current ones do not seem to be of much use.

Summary

Workplace bullying is characterized by the following three components:

  • A person becomes the focus of systematic unwelcome/adverse behavior.
  • This goes on for some time.
  • The victim can not easily avoid the situation or the negative treatment.

Two common explanations for workplace bullying relate bullying to either the personality of the bullied individual or to the aspects of the work environment.

Regardless of the cause, the consequences of bullying can be severe, including physical and psychological symptoms, and negative work-related outcomes (e.g., absenteeism).

The anti-bullying interventions available do not seem to prevent bullying, though they do appear to have some positive effect, such as increasing awareness of the problem.

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