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Workplace Bullying: How to Curtail It

by InnerHour on Sun, 03 Jul 2016
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Workplaces are social environments where frequent interactions between employees are commonplace. A report by Times of India in 2011 claimed that on an average, adults spend over 8 hours a day at their workplaces. It is no surprise then that the workplace plays a key role in one’s overall well-being. However, workplaces come with their own interpersonal challenges, manifested in terms of stress, excessive workload and—a term that is comparatively unfamiliar to most people—workplace bullying.

What is Workplace Bullying?

The US Workplace Bullying Institute defines the phenomenon as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the ‘targets’) by one or more perpetrators (‘instigators’). It is abusive conduct that is (a) threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, or (b) work interference—sabotage—which prevents work from getting done, or (c) verbal abuse.” Being bullied at work can be very debilitating for anyone. It can make us doubt ourselves, or make us feel drained or even alienated from others around us.

Different Types of Workplace Bullying

Work-related bullying: this could manifest in a variety of ways such as when a senior or boss increases the ‘target’s’ workload, denies them responsibilities, refuses leave, sets up unrealistic goals, overrides decisions, withholds information, micro-manages them and issues constant and unfair criticism.

Personal bullying: this category includes acts like isolation, spreading hurtful gossip about the ‘target’, shouting, intimidating, humiliating and/or threatening the ‘target’.

Physical bullying: this is an extreme form usually classified under the rubric of workplace violence. It includes any action of a person or a group of people (‘instigators’) harassing another (‘targets’) in a physical manner. Physical bullying can either be persistent, relatively small acts aimed at degrading someone, or outright aggressive ones aimed at causing physical injury.

The ‘Target’ and the ‘Instigator’

Research has identified several characteristics that are typical of ‘targets’ and ‘instigators’. Some experts state that ‘targets’ of workplace bullying and high school bullying share characteristics such as physical weakness, shyness, low self-esteem and lack of social support, among others. Some other experts, however, suggest that the ‘target’ is likely to be somebody who is seen as a threat by the ‘instigator’. According to them, some of the characteristics of ‘targets’ include, amongst others, ethical conduct, honesty and being non-confrontational but independent.

Instigators, on the other hand, are typically acknowledged by experts as individuals who can be manipulative, lacking in empathy, and at times, self-absorbed. While this may be true of them, instigators are likely to display socially desirable characteristics such as an outgoing nature, assertiveness, and confidence. Many times, ‘instigators’ are also proven performers at the workplace, leading the management to view them as more valuable compared to the ‘targets’. Very often, this results in the management either defending the ‘instigators’ or becoming lenient towards them, while dealing with instances of workplace bullying.

The Role of Workplace Culture

Workplaces that stress on performance as the sole measure of the worth of an employee are generally fertile environments for workplace bullying. In addition, workplace bullying is more likely to be seen in companies that lay less emphasis on employee-support programmes, have no formal codes of conduct, or have an authoritarian leadership style.

Effects of Workplace Bullying

Bullying of any kind can severely affect the ‘target’. When it persists, it might also lead to higher absenteeism and stress levels, and lower morale, whilst raising the ‘target’s’ odds of making professional errors. The impact of being bullied is particularly harsh on one’s personal health. It can cause disturbed sleep, anxiety, depression, feelings of powerlessness, loss of self-confidence, and in some extreme cases, suicidal thoughts. Individuals who are bullied are also at higher risks of obesity, cardiovascular diseases and drug use.

However, the negative effects of bullying are not exclusive to the target; they affect the organisation too. In the short term, the extent of damage may be hard to fathom, but in the long term, the organisation can suffer from greater absenteeism, decreased employee productivity and higher turnover of staff, leading to inflated hiring costs.

What to Do if You Face Workplace Bullying

Ask yourself the following questions to determine whether you are being bullied at your workplace:

  • Is there someone at your workplace whose behaviour towards you seems unreasonable?
  • Is the unreasonable behaviour being repeated?
  • Does the behaviour seem like a threat to your psychological and physical health and safety?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, it is possible that you are a target of workplace bullying. To begin with, if you are confident that you can trust someone at your workplace, and at the same time, feel safe in sharing your experience with them, try to get their opinion on the situation. This is crucial, as it might help you get the social and emotional support that you might need in addressing workplace bullying. In addition, talking to someone you trust can sometimes help you get an objective perspective, which might help you ascertain whether you are being bullied.

Next, read your company guidelines on workplace bullying. In the absence of these guidelines, try to have an open discussion with the instigator if you feel safe and think that an open conversation might help. It is advisable to do this only if you feel that an open conversation is not likely to put you at a greater risk personally or professionally. But if things have progressed beyond this stage, you may also choose to report the incident to the management.

Finally, if you feel like you are being bullied at your workplace; it can be helpful for you to talk to a therapist. Therapy can help you learn safe ways to cope with workplace bullying, enhance your confidence and self-esteem, whilst providing you with skills for being assertive— all essential ingredients for dealing with bullying.


If you or someone you know needs help dealing with workplace bullying, one of InnerHour's expert therapists might be able to help you.






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