Why Do People Use Bullying Behaviour at Work?

bullying behaviour at work

Bullying behaviour at work has serious consequences on the organisation’s culture and your employee’s mental health. It seems that workplace bullying may be triggered by poor working conditions. Research shows role conflict, workload, and lack of social support are related to bullying behaviour at work. For example, very poor working conditions may create stress reactions and feelings of frustration where some employees may display poor performance or rudeness. These reactions can fuel retaliation by their co-workers and superiors.

Workplace bullying behaviour is a complex issue and why people are targeted is an ongoing theme for research. The reasons are varied, however, bullying behaviour at work is generally directed at employees who have personal psychological vulnerabilities. For example, people who experience anxiety and depressive and neurotic symptoms may perform less well in their jobs, be less able to manage their workflow, and contribute to the development of problems and conflicts at work. Their lack of action can trigger aggression and bullying by others. Notably, existing mental health symptoms and problems are not only a consequence of bullying; they also predict the later experience of bullying.

For this article, we look at some research, published earlier this year, that investigates whether poor working conditions and vulnerable employees with mental health issues create an increase in bullying behaviour at work. Right now, employee mental health is under considerable strain with many overloaded with decreased job control through the global COVID-19 pandemic. Many of your employees are vulnerable, anxious and at high risk. Therefore, we must understand the perpetrator, vulnerable employee traits and workplace conditions that fuel workplace bullying.

The Effect of Job Demand and Job Control

When critical events, such as booming economic cycles or depressed working cycles such as the COVID-19 pandemic, lead to increased psychological job demand, employees are under strain. Job demand mainly refers to the amount of work to be done, the pace of work, and time pressure. When job demand increases, mental alertness and arousal also rise and many experience work‐related strain. Psychological job demand is related to the experience of bullying.

However, when an employee has enough control of their work they are less likely to experience bullying even when job demand is high. Job control is having the authority over decisions about your work and the skills to do that work.

Critically, when employees who are experiencing symptoms of impaired mental health are confronted with poor working conditions, they are more likely to report bullying behaviour at work. Generally, these employees see themselves as less self‐efficacious and as having less control over situations.  Because of this, the tension that generates due to high job demand may lead them to more easily act out through improper behaviour. They may be constantly complaining or performing poorly and in doing so provide reasons for others to act aggressively towards them or to marginalise them. Furthermore, others in the workplace may start to attribute negative events to bully victims who become ‘‘scapegoats’’.

See our article, Does Workplace Bullying Affect Your Staff Mental Health?

Employees With Fewer Personal Resources

The study results suggest that high job demand is a cause of bullying particularly for employees who report mental health symptoms of impaired mental health.

When you have issues with your mental health you usually have fewer personal resources to deal with high job demand.  You may lack energy, self‐control, assertiveness, and other coping skills. Fewer personal resources can lead to problems with regulating their behaviour and emotional expression in interpersonal relationships with other employees. These employees are more likely to become a target of bullying behaviour at work.

European research shows that people who are bullied at work have long-term and lasting negative effects on their psychological and physical health. For victims of workplace bullying, they perceive bullying as a psychic trauma, a traumatic life event, or as a life crisis.

Bullying behaviour at work leaves an internal scar or vulnerability, which never completely heals, and easily reopens and continues to cause harm. Victims feel less valued and can even begin to think they deserve to be bullied and over time accept the bullying behaviour at work as normal. Feelings of shame develop, affecting their self-image and their behaviour changes which leads to a deterioration of their health.

See our article, Does Workplace Bullying Have Long Term Effects?

How Can We Prevent Bullying Behaviour at Work?

During this COVID-19 pandemic, our workplaces are undergoing significant strain and change. We need workplaces that are psychologically safe for our employees and there are several things you can do.

You should monitor and modulate job demand because managing the workflow may prevent the escalation of workplace bullying. Managers play an important role in preventing work‐related strain. Here, training managers to recognise employees with declining mental health symptoms is the first step. After which they should continue to monitor and manage their strain reactions when job demand is high. The high-level of observation should help decrease the risk of these workers becoming targets of aggression and bullying.

The Tap into Safety Training Platform has dedicated training for managers to help them to recognise vulnerable employees. On the Platform, we have two courses: Signs of Declining Mental Health in Employees and Helping Employees with Mental Health Concerns.

Link Bullying and Conflict Management

An early intervention strategy to stop bullying behaviour at work is to link your organisation’s bullying and conflict management processes. By examining conflict dynamics and conflict management in organisations, it may be possible to gain a better understanding of the causes, dynamics and outcomes of workplace bullying.

You also need to support your employees with training on workplace bullying, conflict prevention and conflict management.

The Tap into Safety Training Platform covers the key points about workplace bullying using MicoLearning and couples this with teaching effective coping strategies for employees who feel that they may be being bullied. The Workplace Bullying course explains employees rights and responsibilities and appropriate actions that they may take. Another course available on the Platform is Workplace Conflict. This course looks at the conflict that can occur when people are working together in teams and groups and the strategies that can be used to accommodate different work styles and expectations. It emphasises the need to resolve issues quickly before they escalate.

See our article, Workplace Bullying: What Do We Know and What Works?

To Conclude

Right now, your employees are highly vulnerable. The COVID-19 pandemic is turning our world upside down and is taking a considerable toll on many organisations. Businesses are under threat with many fearing closures and this results in staff reductions and subsequently increased job-demand. The pandemic is creating employees who experience anxiety and depressive and neurotic symptoms. These symptoms may cause them to perform less well in their jobs, be less able to manage their workflow, and contribute to the development of problems and conflicts at work. Their lack of action can trigger aggression by others, and sadly we now have the perfect breeding ground for bullying behaviour at work.

With everyone trying to survive the crisis and get the job done there is likely to be an increase in job demand and job-strain. Managers play an important role in preventing work‐related strain and need to learn how to recognise their employees with declining mental health symptoms. After which they should continue to monitor and manage their strain reactions when job demand is high.

Another strategy to reduce bullying is to link your organisation’s bullying and conflict management processes. Finally, need to support your employees with training on workplace bullying, conflict prevention and conflict management. Using these strategies, we should emerge from this pandemic with healthy workplace cultures that support one another, rather than resorting to bullying behaviours to get the work done.

This article is also available on the Tap into Safety Podcast.

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