What is workplace bullying?

Pamela Howard, B.A., M.Ed.
Counsellor, Employee Assistance Program
May 2, 2021

This article is part one of a two-part series.

Researchers at the University of Manitoba found that workplace bullying caused more harm to employees than sexual harassment. Workplace bullying is an emotionally and financially costly issue for individuals and employers. Negative consequences include higher stress rates, lower morale, reduced productivity, increased workers compensation claims, absenteeism and sick leave.

Workplace bullying usually involves repeated incidents and a pattern of behaviour intended to offend, intimidate, degrade or isolate the targeted person. Bullies put their personal agenda of controlling another above the needs of the organization. When bullying is allowed to take place, the workplace climate becomes unhealthy.

Bullies are often selective of when they exhibit negative behaviours and know how to present themselves well when they choose to do so. Some regard them as confident individuals, but evidence indicates that the higher the level of self-esteem, the more likely one will be to treat others with respect, kindness and generosity. Bullying behaviour is typically exhibited by people who aren't truly confident or self-assured and who lack the skills to communicate or get their needs met more effectively.

Bullying tactics include constant criticism through insults, belittling comments, glaring, unjustifiable blaming and even put-downs about the target's life that are irrelevant to work (e.g. appearance, choice of friends).

There can also be rumours, gossip and social isolation. Bullies can choose to cut the target out of communication needed for work or deliver the silent treatment. Some bullies create a sense of dread and intimidation with explosive behaviour, outbursts, threats, profanity, invasions of personal space, interruptions and rejections of targets' thoughts and feelings. Sometimes, there is a pattern of offensive jokes. Some might tamper with personal belongings or work equipment. Bullies often adopt one or more of these methods based on opportunity and circumstance.

Expressing differences of opinion is not bullying. Neither is offering constructive feedback and advice about work-related matters. Reasonable action taken by an employer to manage work performance, give assignments or take appropriate disciplinary actions is not bullying.

If you are not sure whether an action constitutes bullying, ask yourself whether most people would consider the behaviour as unacceptable. Get a second opinion from a trusted source. Review your workplace policy related to respectful conduct and harassment.

It is important to understand that anyone can find themselves targeted by a bully. You can be competent at your job, self-confident and well-liked by others. It is a misconception that only individuals who appear vulnerable in some way become targets. The target may initially want to deny that this is happening to them or minimize the experience as a way of mentally coping with the discomfort caused by the bullying.

As it continues, there can be a range of impacts to one's psychological and physical health. Targets report impacts to work performance like decreased focus and concentration, difficulty with decision making, anxiety, dread in going to work and being constantly on guard wondering what will happen next.

Stress symptoms often include disrupted sleep, obsessive thinking, fatigue, headaches and poor digestion. The targeted person may talk about the situation constantly with family and friends, and they may lose the ability to enjoy other parts of life. Home life and time outside work can eventually become compromised as the anxiety and dread associated with work bleed into all corners of life.

Most of our waking time is spent at work and everyone deserves a mentally, emotionally and physically safe work environment. Remember that work shouldn't hurt. It can take considerable time to heal from being the target of a bully. With support, individuals can learn from the experience, restore their equilibrium, respect themselves and move on to better times.

What to do about workplace bullying, part two of a two-part series, will provide tips and strategies to handle a bullying situation.