According to a national study conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute, 35 percent, or approximately 53.5 million adult U.S. workers, reported being bullied at work. The same research determined that an additional 15 percent reported witnessing workplace bullying. Bullying usually involves repeated acts or verbal comments intended to intimidate, offend, degrade or humiliate a particular person or group of people.
Because bullying can adversely affect the safety and health of employees, there is a national grassroots legislative movement to enact the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill. Illinois was the 15th state to introduce a version of the Healthy Workplace Bill. Unfortunately, the bill is presently parked in the Rules Committee indefinitely.
There are two main types of bullying behavior, overt and covert. Examples of overt, or obvious, bullying behaviors include:
- abusive, insulting or offensive language
- behavior or language that frightens, humiliates, belittles or degrades, including criticism that is delivered with yelling and screaming
- inappropriate comments about a person’s appearance, lifestyle or family
- teasing or regularly making someone the brunt of pranks or practical jokes
- interfering with a person’s personal effects or work equipment
- harmful or offensive initiation practices
- physical assault or threats.
Covert, or more subtle bullying behaviors, are intended to undermine or inhibit others, or treat them less favorably. Less obvious bullying behaviors include:
- unreasonably overloading a person with work
- setting timelines that are difficult to achieve or constantly changing deadlines
- setting tasks that are beyond a person’s skill level
- ignoring or socially isolating a person
- deliberately denying access to information, consultation or resources
- unfair treatment in relation to accessing entitlements such as leave or training.
Some factors that increase the risk for bullying behavior include: significant organizational change or internal restructuring, worker characteristics (e.g. age, gender, parental status), inadequate information flow between organizational levels, lack of employee participation in decisions, lack of policies about behavior, high rate and intensity of work, staff shortages, interpersonal conflict, organizational constraints, role ambiguity and role conflict.
Employees who are the targets of workplace bullying may experience a range of effects. These reactions include:
- Stress, anxiety or sleep disturbance
- Panic attacks or impaired ability to make decisions
- Incapacity to work, concentration problems, loss of self-confidence and reduced output and performance
- Depression or a sense of isolation, and in extreme cases, risk of suicide
- Physical injury
- Reduced quality of hope and family life.
Employees who are not the direct targets of workplace bullying may experience similar effects. If you are aware of bullying in the workplace and do not take action, then you are accepting a share of the responsibility for any future abuses. In other words, individuals who witness bullying behavior must report such incidences. Bullies are less likely to engage in antisocial behavior when it is understood that his/her peers, as well as the organization, do not tolerate such behavior.
What can you do to stop workplace bullying? Bullying can be stopped. Regain control by recognizing that you are being bullied and realize that you are not the source of the problem. Some informal steps in dealing with most bullying cases:
- Explore your employer’s bullying policy and complaint procedure for dealing with bullying at work.
- Seek advice and discuss the situation with someone who may be able to help, such as a supportive supervisor, a human resource representative, another employee or a counselor.
- Keep a detailed record and document each incident of bullying, what happened and how you felt. This will reduce any confusion that you may feel. It may also help you eventually get the change you need.
- Consider gently confronting the bully. You deserve to be treated with respect, regardless of who you are or your position in the organization. If you feel that you are being bullied, do not attack or blame the bully. Instead, calmly but firmly talk about the behavior you have observed and how it made you feel. Use “I” statements—“I feel uncomfortable when you raise your voice to me”—rather than “you” statements—“You are bullying me.” Asserting yourself can sometimes stop the bullying behavior.
- Contact your employee assistance program or a counseling professional. Counseling may help you develop ways of dealing with a bully or the effects of bullying. iBi
Edna Ng, MSW, LCSW, CRADC is the coordinator for the Counseling Center at Proctor Hospital.