For some of us, it is a daily plight. We start dreading Monday morning on Sunday night, which is a bad start to our week. This can affect our physical and mental health. According to ACAS, the cost of workplace bullying is around £28.5 million annually to UK employers.

This is due to the failure of employers dealing with this problem early, employees leaving, absence due to stress-related illnesses and dismissals following disciplinary actions.

What is workplace bullying?

The definition of workplace bullying is repeated harmful actions directed at an employee which creates an intimidating and hostile environment. These actions can include verbal abuse, exclusion, or sabotage. True bullying is characterised by its persistent and intentional nature, causing substantial distress, and negatively impacting the target’s wellbeing and performance.

The physical and mental effects on bullying targets can include depression, anxiety, loss of self-worth and in the worst case, PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome). Including sleep disturbances, headaches, high blood pressure, digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome and a weakened immune system.

What are the signs?

Signs that workplace bullying is taking place include but are not limited to:

  • Verbal abuse – bullies often use aggressive and demeaning language towards their target. This could be derogatory remarks, consistent criticism of the target’s work or personal attributes.
  • Undermining and sabotage – undermining the target’s efforts by spreading false rumours, withholding critical information, or taking credit for the victim’s work. They could also sabotage the target’s project or assignment.
  • Exclusion and isolation – bullies may purposefully exclude the target from meetings, social gatherings or team activities making the target feel isolated.
  • Intimidation and threats – intimidation to create fear and control targets. These can include aggressive body language, threats of job loss or demotion and in extreme cases physical intimidation.
  • Power and control – bullies frequently seek to assert power and control over their targets. They may misuse their position of authority by excessive micromanagement or setting unrealistic goals to set the target up for failure.

Why does this behaviour happen in a professional setting?

There are several reasons for this behaviour. Some common reasons for this are as follows:

  • Power imbalance: Bullying often arises from a power imbalance where one individual or group feels superior or has more authority than another. This power dynamic can manifest through titles, positions, or tenure. This can lead to mistreatment of those with perceived less power.
  • Inadequate leadership: Poor leadership can contribute to a toxic work environment. Failure to address bullying or managers exhibiting these behaviours can perpetuate a culture of mistreatment.
  • Ineffective communication: Poor communication can lead to misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and conflict. If this is not resolved constructively, it can escalate into bullying.
  • Workplace culture: A workplace culture that tolerates or even indirectly encourages aggressive behaviours can foster an environment where bullying thrives. This can include a lack of appropriate policies, insufficient training, and normalization of disrespectful behaviour.
  • Stress and pressure: High levels of stress, heavy workloads and tight deadlines lead to strained interaction between colleagues. If not managed properly this stress can lead to negative behaviour.
  • Personal traits: A bully displays certain personality traits such as narcissism. This can be recognised by a need to be at the centre of attention, a need to be in control, a lack of empathy, and openly aggressive or passive-aggressive behaviour.

Why can it be difficult for employees to ask for help or speak out?

Again, there are reasons why employees may find it difficult to speak out or seek when they are bullied at work.

They may fear that career advancement may be impacted, or they may lose their jobs if they report bullying and be labelled as a ‘troublemaker.’ Employees fear retaliation from the bully, especially if this happens to be their line manager. They also fear it may harm their reputation within the organisation. Employees may also fear damaging relationships with other colleagues, especially those with peers they must work closely with.

Employees do not trust the HR department or management in the organisation they work for that their complaint is taken seriously or managed appropriately. If complaints were mishandled in the past, they may well hesitate in coming forward. They may not be aware of any policies and reporting processes.

Some employees believe they can handle the situation by adopting coping mechanisms, such as avoiding the bully, and trying to tough it out instead of seeking help.

In some workplaces, bullying may be considered as ‘normal behaviour’ and part of the culture. It may be downplayed as harmless banter. This could deter employees from reporting uncivil behaviour because they believe that this is just the culture at their workplace.

Bullying can lead to feelings of isolation and self-blame. Targets believe that they are the only ones receiving this treatment and that they somehow deserve it. This makes them less likely to seek help.

My Bullying Story

When I started to work in London as a junior secretary, I came across some managers who had a short fuse and came across as very aggressive. Back in the early 80’s nobody talked about workplace bullying. I also thought I was the one who did something wrong because I was made to feel like I was the one at fault. I had some great bosses and some awful ones. Sometimes colleagues came to my desk and whispered, ‘don’t worry, he/she’s like that with everyone.’ This was hardly any consolation when I was at the receiving end of their nastiness.

I had holes picked in my work despite making every effort to make everything perfect. After that, I was so nervous and devoid of confidence in my abilities, that mistakes crept in, and I was shouted at and humiliated in front of other staff. Feeling down-hearted, stupid, and demoralised I often locked myself in the ladies’ toilet to cry silently with the light out.

At first, I thought I must be useless at my job, and I did not tell anyone about this for fear they would confirm what I thought.

One night I was watching television news and there was a short report about workplace bullying which I watched with interest. They talked about how staff at the receiving end were treated and I was beginning to think it was happening to me. It was still a long time before this subject became more talked about.

A colleague sign-posted me to the ACAS website which contains lots of detailed information about workplace bullying. This was when I realised I was bullied at work. It was a shock and at the same time I was relieved I could finally name the demon. However, reporting bullying was still pointless because the HR departments were more interested in protecting the company rather than individual employees.

What were the effects workplace bullying had on me? I felt demoralised, had no self-worth and no self-confidence. I was always in fight or flight mode and felt incredibly stressed all the time. This affected my immune system resulting in frequent sickness absence from work. Being off sick gave me some respite from this nightmare. I also felt anxious and depressed. Luckily, I found great help and support from a local mental health charity. They helped to rebuild my resilience, self-worth, and self-confidence.

What can employers do to ensure their employees work in a safe workplace?

As mentioned at the beginning, workplace bullying comes at a tremendous cost to UK businesses every year through high staff turnover and staff absence. Therefore, it should be in their interest to ensure that their employees work in an environment which is non-toxic and psychologically safe.

The good news is that there are various measures employers can put in place to safeguard employees from workplace toxicity:

  • They can create comprehensive anti-bullying policies that define workplace bullying, outline reporting procedures, and emphasise the organisation’s commitment to respectful workplaces.
  • Provide training and workshops for employees and managers to support them in recognising, addressing, and preventing workplace bullying behaviours. It is essential that everyone understands the negative impacts of bullying on individuals and the organisation.
  • Leaders and managers need to promote respectful behaviour from the top down. They should model the behaviour they want to see and treat every employee with respect and fairness.
  • Clear and confidential reporting channels need to be set up for employees to report incidents of workplace bullying and feel safe and comfortable in doing so.
  • Take all reports of bullying seriously and conduct thorough and impartial investigations promptly. Ensure the process is transparent, fair, and free from bias.
  • Clearly define the consequences of engaging in bullying behaviour and enforce them consistently. This may involve disciplinary actions, counselling, or other appropriate interventions.
  • Offer support to both victims and bullies themselves. Victims may need emotional support and bullies may benefit from coaching or counselling.
  • Foster an environment where employees feel comfortable discussing their concerns. Encourage open dialogue and provide conflict resolution resources.
  • Regularly assess the workplace environment through surveys and feedback sessions to identify any signs of bullying. Use the information to make improvements where necessary.
  • Create an inclusive and positive workplace culture that values diversity, teamwork, and collaboration. Recognise and celebrate employee achievements to boost morale and discourage negative behaviours.

Stopping workplace bullying requires concerted efforts from employers and employees. By implementing the above strategies employers can create a safe and respectful work environment where bullying is not tolerated.

Annette Shaw
Life coach at Unstoppable You Coaching | Website | + posts

Annette Shaw, located in Oxford, is a dedicated life coach specialising in assisting professional women who have faced the challenges of workplace bullying. Having personally encountered workplace bullying, Annette became driven to provide the supportive guidance she wished she had during her own experience. Annette also serves as a laughter yoga coach. Through this unique approach, she empowers professionals to alleviate stress and tension while nurturing their mental and physical well-being through enjoyable and engaging practices.