How to identify the signs of workplace bullying and stopping it

Verbal threats and intimidation are some of the more obvious form of workplace bullying.

Most of us are aware of the bullying that takes place in schools and universities. People have spoken out about it, articles have been written, experts have given their opinions, and there are even organisations that tackle childhood and teenage bullying.

However, it wasn’t until quite recently (and in concurrence with the spate of reports of sexual harassment) that the whole issue of bullying and harassment at the workplace was highlighted.

Of course, this is a common problem that has been occurring in many companies and industries for many years. In fact, work-related stress is one of the most common and pervasive forms of stress, and in many instances, workplace bullying and a toxic working environment have much to do with it.

So, why has this pervasive problem not been dealt with? Why haven’t better policies been put in place?

One reason is denial, which is the usual manner this “epidemic” is dealt with. Companies and perpetrators pretend that the problem does not exist, feign ignorance and brush things under the carpet.

And so the cycle continues and victims continue to suffer in silence.

Bullying in schools has received the attention it rightly deserves, so we should now start highlighting how adults are bullied at their workplace. A few pertinent questions arise when discussing this topic:

What kind of behaviour constitutes workplace bullying?

Why do victims feel like they have no recourse?

Are there laws to protect victims?

Recognise the signs

Let’s begin with some examples of workplace bullying. At times, it may be quite obvious, like being yelled at or called derogatory names. Verbal threats and intimidation are also stark examples of bullying.

However, such behaviour is quite rare and it is actually the more subtle forms of bullying that are more common and the cause of significant distress. Here are some common forms of workplace bullying, which I am sure many of us have been victim to at some point in our careers:

Workplace bullying, bullying, depression, anxiety, burn out,
Victims of workplace bullying often suffer from depression, anxiety and other stress-related health problems.

Made to carry out meaningless tasks

Being the subject of rumours or gossip

Given unrealistic deadlines that are sure to end in failure

Given excessive amounts of work

Given too little work, and hence, made to feel useless

Being socially isolated

Constantly being criticised and have your opinions or ideas belittled

Have information deliberately withheld from you

Forced to attend an ad hoc meeting or given work assignments just as you are about to leave the office

Deliberately being denied applications for training, leave or promotion

Repeatedly being sent messages or emails on weekends and after office hours

Being the recipient of offensive, sexist or racist jokes or innuendos

Constantly being pitched against other people

Having your privacy invaded and your work station or personal items tampered with

Sabotaging of your work

These are some examples of bullying behaviours that are commonplace. Most of the time, the victim is a subordinate and bosses are by far the most likely to be the perpetrator.

Billion-dollar impact

When my patients relate their experiences to me, they are often on the verge of throwing in the towel and are tethering on the brink of total burnout. Not uncommonly, patients arrive at my clinic with full-blown depression and/or anxiety. The impact on their quality of life is immense.

However, the damage is not limited to the victims of bullying alone. Corporations, business owners and employers should take note: Workplace bullying has financial impacts that will hit your business.

It will result in reduced productivity (and therefore, profit), increased compensation and medical claims, as well as lower employee morale, which eventually leads to high employee turnover, not to mention the negative impact to the company’s reputation.

One Australian report showed that workplace bullying costs the Australian economy up to AUD36bil (RM104bil) each year.

Clearly, this is something we cannot ignore any longer. Unfortunately, even in this modern age of worker’s rights, occupational health and safety codes, and human resource policies, many employees still feel like they have no recourse.

“The company will get away with it” seems to be the usual perception. Most of my clients feel that the human resources department is inherently going to protect the perpetrator who holds a more senior position in the organisation.

Change from top down

Workplace bullying, bullying, office gossip, office rumours,
Being the subject of office gossip or rumour is one of the more subtle forms of workplace bullying. Photo: TNS

Most of the time, when they cannot take it anymore, victims of bullying resign, with serious repercussions to their careers, finances and personal well-being. Herein lies the problem: bullying per se is not a criminal offence.

Physical assault and sexual harassment or assault can be quickly addressed by making a police report and allowing the law to take its course. But bullying lies in a very grey area and legislation to make bullying an offence is years away.

To curb this menace, the onus lies with progressive organisations taking the lead to put in place formal policies to prevent and deal with cases of workplace bullying and harassment.

These policies must protect the victim and ensure that reports are kept confidential and will not adversely affect their promotions and career advancement.

How to get help

So, if you feel that you have been subject to bullying and harassment at your workplace, what can you do to get help? If you feel that discussions with the human resources department or senior management are futile, then do consider seeking help from the Industrial Relations Department.

Also, do not hesitate to visit your family doctor or a mental health expert to get an assessment on the state of your physical and psychological health. It’s extremely common for people who are being victimised by bullying to suffer physical and psychological effects.

Some common complaints are sleep disturbances, low mood and anxiety, loss of appetite and weight, various musculoskeletal problems, migraine and high blood pressure, to name a few.

It is time to tackle this problem head on. So speak up about it, seek help from experts and understand your rights as an employee. You don’t have to suffer in silence any longer.

Dr Gurdeep Singh Grewal is a lecturer in Psychiatry at Perdana University Graduate School of Medicine. This article is courtesy of Perdana University. For more information, email The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

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