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Workplace bullying – what it is, how to spot it and how you can help

I didn’t really know what workplace bullying was until I experienced it personally. The impact that it had on the decline of my mental health and subsequent illness was significant. But even though the impact was so great, I still believe that, in my case anyway, the bullying wasn’t actually intentional.

Of course, this doesn’t make it OK – not by any stretch. Intentional or not, bullying needs to be identified and responded to so everyone can stay safe and well at work. We can’t be our best if we’re not feeling our best – so not only does it become a personal wellbeing issue, it becomes a productivity issue as well. So in my view, there are many arguments for employers to make tackling this issue a top priority, however, many employees feel that it isn’t taken seriously enough. In fact, a recent survey conducted by the CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel Development) found that a quarter of employees feel that their employer turns a blind eye.

Bullying in the workplace is prevalent. A report by the TUC found that nearly a third of people have been bullied at work, and of these, more than 70% report that it was their line manager who was the perpetrator. Worse still, 1 in 3 who report being bullied at work leave their job because of it.

This demonstrates that workplace bullying is an issue that we must be proactive about. We can’t simply wait for a complaint to come to us before we take action – as that complaint may never arrive. I know from experience how difficult it is to speak out about it and I can’t be alone.

We also know that workplace bullying is rarely overt or obvious to others. It can happen to anyone at any level within an organisation and it can be really hard to spot the signs. Sometimes, it is so subtle that its existence can be quickly dismissed or ridiculed by the bully if challenged. Sometimes, as in my case, it maybe isn’t intentional, but that makes it no less of a reality for the person on the receiving end.

What are the signs and symptoms associated with workplace bullying?

According to Bullying UK, signs of workplace bullying might include:

  • Being constantly criticised, having duties and responsibility taken away without good reason
  • Shouting, aggressive behaviour or threats
  • Being put down or made to feel like the butt of the jokes
  • Being persistently picked on in front of others or in private
  • Being constantly ignored, victimised and excluded regularly
  • Constantly mocking and attacking members of staff
  • Spreading malicious rumours about members of staff
  • Misuse of power or position to make someone feel uncomfortable or victimised
  • Making threats about job security without any basis or substance
  • Blocking promotion or progress within the workplace

Of course, the above may not always be visible, so it’s important to listen to anyone who feels they are being bullied, regardless of whether or not you’ve seen the evidence.

So what can employers do to help?       

Authority and hierarchies can add a layer of complexity and make talking about it and getting help much harder – especially when so much workplace bullying takes place between line manager and direct report. This is why we need to go further than simply having a bullying and harassment policy in place. We need to raise awareness of the issue and we need to show people that it doesn’t make you any less of a professional if it happens to you. We also need people to know that in reporting bullying they will not be treated any differently. But this is why culture needs to change from the very top.

I work as a chief executive and I see no reason why I shouldn’t share my experience of bullying with my colleagues. The same applies to sharing my mental health experiences with colleagues. No senior leader should feel ashamed and, conversely, if senior leaders are able to open up and share their personal thoughts and feelings on these difficult topics, it can only contribute to a positive and supportive culture where others feel willing and able to speak out or reflect on their own behaviours.

What if somebody complains about me?

Sometimes the person bullying may well be completely unaware and it can therefore come as quite a shock if somebody tells you that they feel they are being bullied by you. You may be struggling with your own wellbeing or workload and taking it out on someone else without realising.

In acknowledging how the other person feels, you are by no means acknowledging that you are a bad person. But you are being given a brilliant opportunity to help your team member feel better and more valued. This can be discussed informally, or you may ask for mediation help from your HR team. Again, there is no shame in this. All this proves is that you want to support your team in being and feeling their best self.

What if the bullying is intentional or the bully refuses to acknowledge it?

There are many helplines out there for anyone who is experiencing workplace bullying who feels that they are not getting the support they need at work.

The National Bullying Helpline is available 9am – 5pm Monday-Friday on 0300 323 0169.

The ACAS helpline is a good port of call in terms of getting the advice you need to know what you’re rights are and, practically, what steps you can take. Call them on 0300 123 1100 Monday – Friday between 8am – 6pm.

Now more than ever the workplace has become a challenging place for many – whether that’s due to potential job losses and loss of income, high pressured environments or cultures that contribute to stress and bullying or personal experiences that make an individual more vulnerable to the effects of harsh behaviours. So, above all, be kind and be there. Having someone to talk to can make all the difference.

To find out more about creating positive cultures in the workplace, see our webpages for information on Creating Leadership Capability, Workshops for Teams and Coaching and Support.   

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