Workplace bullying: North America’s silent epidemic
by Ray Williams, Financial Post (Canada), May 4, 2011
Workplace bullying has become a silent epidemic in North America, one that has huge hidden costs in terms of employee well being and productivity. Also known as psychological harassment or emotional abuse, bullying involves the conscious repeated effort to wound and seriously harm another person — not with violence, but with words and actions. Bullying damages the physical, emotional and mental health of the targeted person.
The workplace bully abuses power and endeavors to steal the target’s self-confidence. Bullies often involve others using tactics such as blaming the target for errors, unreasonable work demands, insults, putdowns, taking credit for the person’s work, threatening job loss and discounting accomplishments.
Bullying has become a serious problem in the workplace. In two surveys by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) and Zogby International, where bullying was defined as “repeated mistreatment: sabotage by others that prevented work from getting done, verbal abuse, threatening conduct, intimidation and humiliation,” 35% of workers experienced bullying first hand, and 62% of the bullies were men. A Harris Interactive poll conducted in 2011 revealed that 34% of women reported being bullied in the workplace. The WBI concluded while perpetrators can be found in all ranks within organizations, the vast majority are bosses — managers, supervisors, and executives.
What’s the impact of bullying behaviour?
Bullies create a terrible toll within an organization. Their behaviour leads to increased levels of stress among employees, higher rates of absenteeism and higher than normal attrition. Because bullies often get results by getting more short-term production out of employees, they are tolerated. One study by John Medina showed that workers stressed by bullying performed 50% worse on cognitive tests. Other studies estimate the financial costs of bullying at more than $200-billion a year.
A study by Dr. Noreen Tehrani, who counselled victims of violence in Northern Ireland, and soldiers returning from overseas combat and victims of workplace, concluded that bullying exhibited similar psychological and physical symptoms — nightmares and extreme anxiety, and a variety of physical ailments.
Swedish researchers, led by Anna Nyberg at the Stress Institute in Stockholm, have published a study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine on the issue of leaders’ behaviour and employee health. They studied more than 3,100 men in a 10-year period in typical work settings. They found that employees who had managers who were incompetent, inconsiderate, secretive and uncommunicative, the employees were 60% more likely to suffer a heart attack or other life-threatening cardiac condition. By contrast, employees who worked with “good” leaders were 40% less likely to suffer heart problems. Nyberg said, “for all those who work under managers who they perceive behave strangely, or in any way they don’t understand, and they feel stressed, the study confirms this develops into a health risk.”
A study of 6,000 British office workers found employees who felt that their supervisors treated them fairly had a 30% lower risk of heart disease. A 2008 meta-analysis of the connection between health and leadership by Jana Kuoppala and associates concluded that good leadership was associated with a 27% reduction in sick leave and a 46% reduction in disability pensions. The same study concluded that employees with good leaders were 40% more likely to report the highest levels of psychological well being including lower levels of anxiety and depression.
In an article by Richard Williams, Wallace Higgins and Harvey Greenberg, published in the Boston Globe, they cited numerous research studies regarding leadership style and the health of employees. They concluded “your boss can cause you stress, induce depression and anxiety or even trigger the onset of serious illnesses. It is not just bad managers who can negatively affect employee health, but it is also the half-hearted and mediocre who put employees on the sick list.” And the cost is huge in terms of lost productivity, health care costs and employee turnover. The authors argue that a whole new field of litigation in the U.S. is developing “lawsuits against ‘bad bosses’ and the organizations that negligently allow them to supervise.”
According to the WBI, 40% of the targets of bulling never told their employers, and of those that did, 62% reported they were ignored. According to Dr. Gary Namie, Research Director at WBI, and author The Bully at Work: What You Can Do to Stop the Hurt and Reclaim Your Dignity on the Job, 81% of employers are either doing nothing to address bullying or actually resisting action when requested to do something.
As John Baldoni, author of nine books on leadership, including Lead By Example, and Lead Your Boss, says bullies may “get employees to comply, but not to commit. Compliance is okay for day-to-day operations, but when an organization is faced with a challenge or even a crisis, you need employees who are willing to go the extra mile. People who work for a bully are biding their time looking for a way out, or a time when the bully will be replaced.”
What kind of people are bullies in the workplace?
“Bullies typically possess a Type A personality; they are competitive and appear driven, operating as they do from a sense of urgency,” says Lisa M.S. Barrow, author of In Darkness Light Dawns: Exposing Workplace Bullying. “This has its advantages in the workplace but the shadow side of Type A is the tendency to become frustrated and verbally abusive when things don’t go according to plan. Impatience and temper tantrums are common for Type A individuals who haven’t engaged in t the personal growth required to gain self-awareness, maintain emotional stability and consider situations from multiple points of view.… Above all, bullies crave power and control, and this craving underlies much of what they do, say and fail to do and say. Bullies use charm and deceit to further their own ends and seem oblivious to the trail of damage they leave behind, as long as their appetites for power and control are fulfilled.”
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the targets of office bullies are not the new, inexperienced and less confident employees. According to research, they are the highly competent, accomplished, experienced and popular employees. And making them targets makes it harder for them to get notice or reprieve. Independent, experienced workers pose the greatest threat to the bullies. And when bullies find targets that refuse to be controlled and intimidated, they escalate their behaviour.
Layoffs and financial pressures on managers to perform in the recent recession may have exacerbated the bullying problem. Research conducted by Wayne Hochwarter and Samantha Englehardt at Florida State University concluded that “employer-employee relations are at one of the lowest points in history,” with a significant decline in basic civility.
Is bullying a reflection of a general decline in civility? In poll after poll, Americans have voiced concern over the erosion of civility. According to a poll by Weber Shandwick, 65% of Americans say the lack of civility is a major problem in the country and feel the negative tenor has worsened during the financial crisis and recession.
So what’s being done about workplace bullying? In the U.S., 20 states are exploring legislation that would put bullying on the legal radar screen. In Canada, the provinces of Ontario, Saskatchewan and Quebec have passed legislation that addresses workplace bullying, although both countries are far behind some European nations and New Zealand.
One thing is certain; the problem of workplace bullying will not go away anytime soon and may never be fully remedied until enough people call for a return to a culture of civility, and demand governments and companies take action.
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WORDS OF WISDOM
“Only the best are bullied.” by Tim Field
Debra Dennis, CHHC, AADP
Indigo Lifestyle Solutions, Inc.