People who make the office a living hell

WHY does workplace bullying occur? What forms does it take? And can it be avoided or prevented?

Universiti Malaya (UM) Faculty of Medicine (Department of Psychological Medicine) consultant psychiatrist and senior lecturer Dr Muhammad Muhsin Ahmad Zahari offers some insights and advice on workplace bullying.

Are workplace bullies different from school bullies?

Yes. Bullying at the workplace is defined as persistent, offensive, abusive, intimidating, malicious, or insulting behaviour; abuse of power; or unfair penalisation. At the workplace, psychological or emotional bullying is more common. Direct physical bullying is rare in the workplace whereby employees/workers are forced to take excessive physical duties.

Bullying itself occurs when there is the presence of two parties, the perpetrator and the victim. The effect of bullying is adversarial in nature to the victim.

Perpetrators in the workplace may be employers or colleagues. Usually, the perpetrators have greater authority than the victims.

Five forms of workplace bullying have been recognised: a threat to professional status (e.g, belittling the victim’s opinion, humiliation); a threat to personal standing (e.g. name calling, insults, teasing); isolation (e.g. witholding opportunities for career development, withholding information); overwork (e.g. pressure to produce work, impossible deadlines, unnecessary disruptions); and destabilisation (e.g. not giving recognition, unnecessary tasks, keep changing goals at work).

In school, bullying takes place among students and involves physical aspects such as fights or clashes. There is always a breach of discipline in school bullying.

Why do workplace bullies do it?

Increasing competition at the workplace may explain some of the bullying. This includes feelings of jealousy, a threat to position, strategies to encourage the employee to leave the organisation, etc.

When the employer or higher-ranked staff perceives a threat from the subordinate, bullying may occur as a defensive measure.

A tough, dynamic and “macho” management style can lead to unhealthy workplace conditions. Workers may also perceive certain measures or culture at the workplace as bullying tactics.

Such environments, where there is dysfunction, fear, shame, embarrassment and feelings of intimidation, are conducive for bullying to occur.

Do workplace bullies start from school?

In school, bullying is mainly physical in nature. At work, bullies are rather psychological. However, victims of school bullies could be more sensitive towards workplace bullies. Therefore, if one experiences bullying at school, then it follows that when he/she is employed, the experience is more traumatic and predisposes him or her to serious mental health disturbances.

Psychologist Karen Goonting adds: “A study in Britain found that about 20% of school bullies grow into workplace bullies and roughly 60% of this group was highly aggressive.”

Were there any victims of workplace bullying who sought consultation from you? Can you share your experience dealing with such cases?

Victims of workplace bullying may feel demoralised. The mental health of victims may also be disturbed which can lead to a high level of work-related stress.

If it occurs continuously, it may result in lower productivity at work. This subsequently contributes to absenteeism and low self-esteem.

Usually unhealthy workplaces – for example, where there is bullying – will experience a high staff turnover owing to dissatisfaction at work. There may be premature departure of employees from the organisation.

Symptoms of anxiety and depression may also occur.

Stress at the workplace, possibly caused by being a victim of bullying, may contribute to serious mental disturbance that needs the help of a mental health professional.

Usually with proven cases of workplace bullying, the victim should be moved from the source of stress, namely the situation where the bullying happened. If the victim continuously faces workplace bullying, it could be detrimental to his/her mental health.

How do victims and employers deal with workplace bullying?

A comprehensive approach should be introduced in addressing workplace bullying. There should be policies and procedures in relation to workplace bullying.

Bullying is a workplace risk and employers should have effective systems for dealing with interpersonal conflict, bullying, and racial and sexual harassment.

Victims need to be heard by their employers. Positive support from employers or colleagues is important to minimise the damaging effects.

If the victims already experience mental health issues such as poor concentration, quick temper or other adverse changes in emotion, the experience should be shared with supportive or reliable colleagues.

Keeping the stress or bullying to oneself can be emotionally burdensome and hazardous. Perhaps seeking help from an authority, whether internal (such as the occupational safety department) or external (legal aid, union, government agency), from a workers’ rights point of view, could help victims overcome the unhealthy experiences at the workplace.

What are the ways to avoid becoming a victim?

Employees should be encouraged to share their opinions and participate actively in the running of the workplace. A sense of belonging towards the workplace or organisation would help to minimise victimisation.

Establishment of peer groups at the workplace may help detect any problems at the early stage.

A company policy that includes issues of workplace bullying is also necessary.

Related Stories: How to understand and handle the workplace bully When bullying goes too far Pain runs deep for victims of workplace bullying

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