Bullying in the Workplace

It is estimated that over half the population has experienced or witnessed bullying at one time or another. Bullying can happen to anyone, at any level of an organisation, and from any walk of life. In the workplace it occurs most frequently between a person in authority and a subordinate, but it can also occur between peers and in other working relationships. It creates fear and anxiety and can have devastating effects on an individual’s self-esteem and health. Organisations also suffer as it lowers morale, decreases productivity and leads to greater absenteeism. Whilst bullying in schools and with young people is often physical, bullying in the workplace is often, though not always, psychological in nature and equally damaging. Increasingly it is happening by email, online and via smart phones also known as cyber-bullying, which means it continues outside of the workplace.

Although the incidence of bullying is reported to have risen in the last ten years the good news is that there is better awareness in many workplaces. This has led to more robust anti-bullying policies, complaints procedures and greater protection for those affected. While this is very helpful the very nature of bullying often leaves the victim feeling isolated and at a loss as to how to improve matters.

This article offers insight into why bullying occurs, the impact bullying can have and what you can do if you are being bullied. If you are affected by anything in this article and would like to talk further, you can call your Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) in confidence.

What is Bullying?

Defining bullying is not as straightforward as it sounds. While physical intimidation is easier to recognise subtle forms of bullying may not be. Wherever there is a relationship between two people or more there is the possibility that bullying can occur. Bullies aim to undermine others, by hurting them physically or emotionally, in order to make themselves feel or appear better. It frequently involves exploiting another person’s difference and can be anything from race, religion, sexuality, gender or age through to appearance, social background, disability or skill set. Under the Equality Act 2010 harassment is defined as unwanted conduct which is related to one of the following: age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation and is therefore unlawful.

Whole groups or individuals can be targeted. ACAS, the government sponsored advisory organisation, describes bullying and harassment as ‘any unwanted behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated, degraded, humiliated or offended.’

Here are some of examples of bullying:

  • Physical assault
  • Unfair treatment
  • Being excluded – from conversations, meetings, projects, social events
  • Making unfounded threats about job security
  • Sharing information that criticises the individual or group with irrelevant parties e.g. emails, appraisals
  • Spreading rumours
  • Setting impossible targets and deadlines
  • Teasing and ridicule
  • Unwelcome sexual advances, making decisions on the basis of these being accepted or rejected
  • Blocking opportunities for advancement such as training and promotions
  • Overbearing supervision or misuse of power
  • Posting compromising or humiliating photos and video footage online
  • Repeated offensive texts or messaging via chat rooms
  • Sharing private information without permission
  • Posting comments and updates on social network sites that tease or ridicule

Understanding Bullies

It is widely believed that bullies operate from a place of insecurity. They are unwilling to face these uncomfortable insecurities and so project them onto others. For instance, if they feel threatened by another individual who appears to be more capable than they are they will react by undermining them. If they criticise a person, enough or present their work badly they gain the upper hand and thus feel more secure. This cycle then perpetuates. The employee who is being bullied works harder in order to appease the bully and this leads to further undermining.

Recent studies have suggested that bullying has increased in tandem with the economic downturn. Many organisations have had to adapt to reduced staffing levels, which has meant heavier workloads, higher stress levels and more aggressive behaviour. In some cases, bullying behaviour is a sign that somebody is not coping with the demands of their job and more support is needed.

The Impact of Bullying

The direct impact of bullying is stress. It may begin slowly and increase in intensity as the bullying continues, or it may stem from an isolated event. Prolonged bullying erodes self-confidence and self-worth. This devastating attack on the person can lead to depression, burn out and sometimes even suicide. It is not unusual for victims to feel isolated as they try to maintain a veneer of normality in the workplace. Bullying can be so undermining that those who experience it can wind up believing it is their fault and feel too ashamed to tell anyone. Indeed, bullying often happens in private, so that others are not aware of it. It can have an impact on one’s physical and emotional wellbeing. Here is some of what you might experience if you are being bullied:

  • Insomnia, disturbed sleep and nightmares
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Frequent minor infections such as colds
  • Dread of going to work
  • Palpitations or panic attacks
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Loss of libido
  • Frequent apologising for own work or behaviour
  • Irritability or sudden weeping
  • Mood swings
  • Lack of concentration

What you can do about Bullying

Bullies rarely go away on their own. Occasionally they leave or are relocated elsewhere; sometimes other victims choose to confront and expose them. In most cases doing nothing means that their behaviour continues and so does the suffering. Here are some steps you can take to regain control:

Name it – One of the first ways to help yourself is to recognise that what is happening is bullying. This is not always as easy as it sounds, as one of the effects of bullying is to make the victim feel as though it is their fault – that there is something wrong with them, they didn’t work hard enough etc. Perhaps there is a workplace culture of aggressiveness and intimidating behaviour that has been normalised. If you are unsure go through the list of bullying examples and see how much you recognise.

Talk to Someone – If you suspect you are being bullied talk to somebody you trust. This may be a good friend or colleague, family member or a trained counsellor. You can talk to your Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) service or contact the National Bullying Helpline (details at the end of the article). This support can make a big difference at a time when your emotional reserves and confidence are likely to be low and you need help to think through your options.

Gather evidence – Start recording events in a journal. This has two benefits; it builds evidence that may be useful if you choose to make a complaint or go to tribunal; and it can have a cathartic effect as you have somewhere to vent your feelings. Keep copies of any relevant information such as appraisals or emails. Talk to colleagues and find out if others have received similar treatment.

Get informed – Most organisations have a policy regarding bullying. Check what yours is so that you know how a potential complaint will be handled, what procedures you need to follow and who might be involved. If you belong to a union, you can read their guide to workplace bullying. For impartial workplace advice you can speak to ACAS. Knowing that there are procedures and policies in place to protect you is a step towards feeling empowered again.

Raise the issue with management – Share your concerns with your manager (if they are not the bully), or if that does not feel safe you can choose to speak to a more senior or alternative manager who feels trustworthy. You may also speak with an HR representative.

Talk to Occupational Health – Occupational Health teams are experienced in helping individuals suffering from work related stress. Together you can explore strategies that support you better.

Avoid being alone with the bully – Bullies usually behave worse when they think nobody is watching and may even be quite charming to others. Limiting time alone with them gives them less opportunity to act inappropriately and also ensures there are witnesses to any future incidents.

Confronting the bully – This option is not for everybody. It can take a huge amount of courage to confront the person that is causing distress and if you do this you need to ensure you have sufficient personal support in place. In some circumstances a person may not be aware of the impact that their behaviour has on you and an informal chat can really help the situation. If you decide to challenge them be firm, rather than aggressive, and stick to the facts. Make it clear that what they are doing is causing distress and needs to stop. Not everyone will want to confront the bully head on. If you feel unable to do this perhaps a manager could speak to them on your behalf. Do not play them at their game; this will reflect poorly on you and could make matters worse.

See your GP – If you feel you are suffering poor physical or psychological health as a result of your experiences talk to your GP. Any medical appointments may be taken into account if you wish to pursue the matter formally.

Cyberbullying – Protect yourself by not replying to offensive messages and posts; this gives the bullies what they want and can worsen the situation. You can report any abuse to the Internet Service Provider. Do not delete messages, as they can be useful as evidence.


Bullying is something that every organisation needs to be vigilant about. It is in everyone’s interest to eliminate any unwanted, offensive or discriminatory behaviour so that individuals have enjoy positive working relationships, work satisfaction and organisations can flourish. The more aware we are of the risks and nature of bullying the more we are able to work together to support those affected and create a culture that fosters positive working relationships.

Employees can contact their respective EAP service at any time, day or night – accessible around the clock.  EAP access details can be found on the EAP information leaflets provided specially for your organisation and via your HR Department.  The National Bullying Helpline can also offer support and can be contacted separately on 0845 22 55 787.

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