Workplace Bullying: What We Know and What Works

Office worker bullying

Workplace bullying has become a topic of extreme interest in organisations with legislation, policy, training and workplace culture under continued scrutiny. It’s a unique, and especially detrimental form of aggression in the workplace.

Workplace bullying is where an employee repeatedly and over a prolonged time period is exposed to harassing behaviour from one or more colleagues and is unable to defend themselves. It’s a form of persistent abuse where the exposed employee is submissive to the perpetrator.

It’s been estimated that about 15% of employees on a global basis are exposed to some level of workplace bullying. For this article, we look at a publication from academics in Norway who are world experts on the topic. They provide a review of the literature on research conducted over the last 30 years to investigate what we know and what we don’t know about workplace bullying and the effectiveness of workplace bullying interventions.

Where and Why Does Workplace Bullying Occur?

There are global trends that show high rates of workplace bullying are dependent on a number of factors. Workforces in poorer countries with more demanding climates, for example, countries with very cold winters and those with very hot summers, show a higher prevalence. Organisations with large employee numbers and unskilled workers have higher rates. Male-dominated organisations and industrial organisations have the highest prevalence of bullying.

The research explains why workplace bullying occurs along two schools of thought and those ideas combined:

  1. Work environment – bullying is a consequence of the prevailing job design and social environment within organisations.
  2. Personality traits of the individual – either increase the risk of being exposed to bullying or to bully others.
  3. Both work environment and personality traits.

Most research indicates that the workplace environment, including job design, job insecurity, workload, role conflict/ambiguity and cognitive demands of the job were the most significant predictors of being a target of workplace bullying. However, the authors question these results because some studies failed to show a link between role and workplace bullying and they have called for more research to better understand how bullying is associated with the overall work environment.

The second explanation for why workplace bullying occurs is personality factors. Of the limited research, most have focused on the targets of bullying and their personality characteristics. Neuroticism, conscientiousness and people who experience negative emotional states (e.g., anxiety, anger, sadness and insecurity) are at an increased risk of being bullied.

Finally, the authors suggest that the reason behind workplace bullying prevalence is likely to be a combination of the interaction between personality and work-related factors.

See our article, Why Do People Use Bullying Behaviour at Work?

How Does Workplace Bullying Affect Our Mental Health?

Poor mental health has been linked to numerous physical and psychological symptoms, including headaches, chronic neck pain, type 2 diabetes, sleep problems, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress symptoms, suicidal ideation and others. Bullying has been most strongly associated with post-traumatic stress symptoms, depression, and anxiety. Exposure to bullying is also associated with work-related and behavioural outcomes such as intent to leave, lack of commitment, job dissatisfaction and absenteeism (increased sick days).

Employees who experience negative thoughts and whose wellbeing and health are in decline are more vulnerable. They have a lower tolerance for exposure to aggression and a lower threshold for interpreting certain behaviour as bullying. They can violate expectations, annoy others, and even violate polite and friendly interaction and trigger aggressive behaviour in others.

In a workplace environment where employees continuously interact with each other things can escalate very quickly. Victims are typically subjected to aggressive behaviour that is difficult to pinpoint due to their indirect and discrete nature. If the bullying is allowed to continue, more direct aggressive acts can occur. The victim may become isolated and avoided or humiliated in public. Both overt physical and psychological aggression may be used.

The research suggests that the long term effects of bullying are dependent upon a range of personal, situational and organisational characteristics such as individual dispositions and resilience, coping behaviours, social support, and leadership practices. Bullying can affect a person’s sense of coherence, cause self-labelling as a victim of bullying, their ability to defend themselves, agreeableness, coping mechanisms and optimism. When there are low levels of workplace bullying, personal strengths have a protective effect against mental distress. In cases of high workplace bullying exposure, targets report equally high levels of mental distress irrespective of their individual personal strength or predisposition. High-intensity bullying is detrimental for all.

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

Are Anti-bullying Interventions Available and Effective?

Organisations are keen to address the problem and many provide programs on interpersonal conflict management. However, the research conducted to date shows that very few of the general interpersonal conflict management strategies available to those bullied seem to be effective in preventing and stopping a workplace bullying situation. We still know very little about how to handle and prevent workplace bullying or how to rehabilitate victims of bullying, perpetrators and work environments. Where workplace bullying interventions are successful is in improving knowledge, attitudes and self-perceptions and reducing incivility (e.g., rudeness, sarcasm).

Anti-bullying interventions are generally undertaken as primary, secondary and tertiary programs.

Primary Interventions

Primary interventions aim to prevent workplace bullying. The aim is to prevent factors that cause bullying, alter the organisation’s climate or culture, stop behaviours that can be experienced as bullying in an early phase and improve resources that increase the resistance to bullying if it does occur. A suggestion is to link bullying and the organisation’s conflict management climate together. 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. Examples are 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 course explains rights and responsibilities and appropriate actions that they may take. Within the Tap into Safety solution, employees are encouraged to seek help. Organisations can also access data to identify staff groups with mental health issues early on. Want to know more? Try a free demo and contact us with any questions.

Furthermore, by understanding whether it’s specific factors in the work environment that causes bullying, whether it’s the occurrence of bullying that leads to changes in the work environment, or whether the association between the work environment and bullying is reciprocal and dynamic, organisations could shape prevention strategies and interventions.

Secondary and Tertiary Interventions

Secondary interventions aim to reduce the impact of bullying. The aim is to detect bullying as soon as possible to halt or slow its progress.  Strategies are in place to prevent a recurrence, to help employees who have been bullied to retain regular health and functioning and to address and adjust the behaviours of the bullies.

Tertiary interventions aim to reduce the impact of the lasting effects of bullying. The aim is to help people manage long-term, often complex health problems and psychological injuries. To improve their ability to function, their quality of life and their life expectancy. Bullying can result in changing the targets’ basic assumptions about themselves and their view of the world.

Where to From Here?

Bullying is now considered as one of the most detrimental stressors in contemporary working life. Nonetheless, as highlighted in this review, there’s still a lot we don’t know about the phenomena of workplace bullying. 

Developing a robust organisational psychosocial safety climate where all employees share perceptions of organisational policies, practices and procedures for the protection of psychological health and safety reduces both the occurrence of bullying and the health consequences following bullying. Organisations that support employees’ health and wellbeing may reduce both bullying and its impact. See our article on psychological safety climate measures. See our courses on Identifying and Managing Psychosocial Hazards and Creating a Psychosocially Safe Environment.

If you are looking for a way to educate and support your employees more, Tap into Safety have a substantial number of out-of-the-box mental health training courses, with one of these being workplace bullying. Get in contact today to find out more.

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

Social Media

Contact Information

Phone: 1300 901 849

Opening Hours

Monday – Friday
8:00am – 5:00pm (AWST)
Saturday – Sunday / Public Holidays

Scroll to Top