by Maeve Halpin, Registered Counselling Psychologist
Bullying at work can have serious negative effects. It causes stress not only on those experiencing it directly, but to work colleagues, family members and on the organisation itself. Bullying can cause many stress-related symptoms. These include panic attacks, weight loss or gain, ulcers, high blood pressure, sleeplessness and palpitations. Workplace morale is undermined if bullying goes unchecked. This can result in low motivation, poor productivity, absenteeism and high staff turnover.
Bullying does not have to include overtly aggressive behaviour. It can also involve persistent low-level criticism, being sidelined, being overloaded with work, or being denied the resources needed to do the job. In any workplace, there will be regular, once-off differences of opinion between people, which can usually be resolved. Bullying differs from these episodes in that it is targeted and ongoing. It seeks to undermine others and cause distress.
Causes of bullying
At the level of the individual, bullying is recognised as evidence of a dysfunctional personality. Bullies have a strong need to dominate and control others. Sometimes this is in response to having little personal power outside their job. They can have an underlying feeling of insecurity and inadequacy. They can be envious and resentment of others. Bullies don’t bully everyone – they bully those they think they can bully. They can be easily intimidated by people they perceive as more powerful than themselves. They often are people who as children have been bullied by authority figures, such as parents, older siblings, teachers or older children.
At the level of the organisation, weak leadership will facilitate a bully, as will an authoritarian and rigid leader. Negative and stressful working conditions, where staff feel undervalued and under-resourced, can lead to friction and scapegoating. Bullying will only take place if the offender feels he or she has the support, or at least the unspoken permission of superiors to behave in this manner. Lax implementation of company polices and procedures can leave bullies knowing they will be “accountable to no-one”.
How bullying develops
Bullying tends to begin with relatively subtle aggressive behaviours, which if unaddressed escalate to more open, direct and frequent attacks. This usually will result in serious negative outcomes for the person being bullied, including anxiety, suspiciousness, compulsive worrying and impaired work performance. The person being bullied can become stigmatised as being the problem and viewed as complaining, paranoid and irrational. The bully themselves can then claim to be the victim of unreasonable and unjustified complaints.
If you are being bullied
Firstly, recognise that the behaviour is not acceptable, and that you are not the problem. Do not allow your embarrassment, guilt or fear to silence you. These misplaced emotions are well-known tactics of control. Bullies often choose targets who are popular, successful and competent, because these are they qualities they themselves lack and therefore envy. They isolate the person in order to undermine their self-confidence. If you find this happening, make sure that your colleagues know about it. Try to have all your interactions with the bully in public, where other people are watching the exchange. Keep written notes of all episodes of bullying, including copies of e-mails and memos, in order to build your case.
Do not feel ashamed about looking for outside help. Bullies are devious, deceptive, evasive and manipulative and should not be confronted alone. Every company should have an Anti-bullying Policy, which details the steps to be taken when bullying occurs. Ideally, an internal solution is found as early as possible, as pursuing a lengthy legal case can result in further trauma. Counselling can help deal with the painful emotional consequences of bullying, and develop the confidence and skills to effectively address bullying behaviour.