Bullying needs to be tackled head-on

Workplace bullying cost society about £682.5m in 2007, according to research by Giga et al. 1 When the figures for absenteeism, turnover and the productivity costs of bullying are included, the total cost for organisations in the UK can be estimated at about £13.75bn.

This is a staggering amount, made all the more shocking by the psychological damage to the victim. As a 14-year-old, I was mercilessly bullied at school for a year. The verbal abuse started for no reason and ended just as abruptly.

While this was a long time ago, I can still recall the fear of entering the school gates and the dread of what insults would be heaped upon me that day. However, bullying can have a different meaning for different people. It can be seen as strongly as exercising a psychological hold over another person, but others see bullying behaviour as normal – as “office banter” – with the perpetrators not realising the effect of their actions.

Therefore the following definition is a good starting point: “Workplace bullying can be interpreted as a form of persistent, intimidating, insulting behaviour which makes the recipient feel threatened, undermining their self-confidence”.2 Whatever the classification, the outcome can make the lives of those on the end of it a complete and utter misery and in many cases destroy their ability to work.

As an occupational health educator I am in a privileged position not only to support students on their learning journey, but as a provider of pastoral support for them. They can come to me with a range of personal and professional issues knowing that this information will be held in confidence. Conversely, it provides me with an opportunity to gain insight into their working practices and the culture and professionalism of the organisation that employs them.

What has alarmed me over recent months are the stories of increased bullying and intimidation from various quarters, such as line managers, human resources staff, trade union reps, employees and employers and, in some cases, the student’s own OH colleagues.

OH nurses tell me that in most instances the perpetrators are HR and line managers (who are not always occupational health professionals). In one case the perpetrator was well-known for her bullying behaviour and made up a raft of serious, unsubstantiated allegations against the OH nurse which were never upheld.

For this abysmal behaviour she was removed to another position, but has not been held to account for her actions, leaving the hapless OH nurse with little recourse to justice, her self esteem in tatters and no public apology.

In another case the occupational health manager’s lack of management acumen has led to a disparate department whose members are all leaving for other organisations or going on long-term sick leave.

For other occupational health nurses, it’s the continual clash and bullying relating to access to medical records and confidentiality issues. This situation if often made worse when acting in the role of advocate for an employee, which can be viewed as the wrong stance to take, leaving the occupational health nurse in a vulnerable position to receive yet further unwarranted criticism.

Bullying can happen to anyone, and even the most robust can fall prey to this form of abuse as it can be subtle, such as exclusion from meetings, being cut out of the loop of important decisions and meetings and added to e-mails as an afterthought, which serves to undermine authority and can destabilise a department.

We all need to be aware of how our actions can be perceived by others and mindful that pressures on all of us can at times lead us to behave out of character.

But perpetrators need to be made aware of the damage their behaviour can have on others and held to account, not moved sideways into another role or promoted away from taking responsibility for their actions.

Caroline Whittaker, senior lecturer, public health (OH), University of  Glamorgan

Further reading/ links

1. Giga, S. Hoel, H., H.Lewis D. (2008) The costs of workplace bullying Research Commissioned by the Dignity at Work Partnership: A Partnership Project Funded Jointly by Unite the Union and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

2. Lee, D. (2000) An analysis of workplace bullying in the UK, Derby: University of Derby.

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