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Ombuds' Insight: Workplace bullying

by Tony Belak, University Ombuds last modified Sep 18, 2012 02:38 PM

Workplace bullying is defined as repeated, unreasonable actions of individuals (or a group) directed toward an employee (or a group of employees) which is intended to intimidate and creates a risk to the health and safety of the employee(s).

Ombuds' Insight: Workplace bullying

Tony Belak

It often involves an abuse or misuse of power and includes behavior — often in front of others — that intimidates, degrades, offends or humiliates a worker. Bullying behavior creates feelings of defenselessness in the target and undermines the individual’s right to dignity at work.

Bullying is different from aggression, which may be a single act. Bullying involves repeated attacks against the target creating an ongoing pattern of behavior. Tough or demanding bosses are not necessarily bullies so long as their primary motivation is to obtain the best performance by setting high expectations. Many situations involve employees bullying their peers. Workplace abuse is widespread. Thirty-seven percent of American adult respondents to a Zogby poll said they had been bullied at work.

Bullying is different from harassment. Harassment is illegal discrimination defined as offensive and unwelcomed conduct serious enough to adversely affect the terms and conditions of a person’s employment. It involves a protected class.

Bullying also differs from retaliation, which occurs after a person makes a complaint of illegal discrimination and is then the subject of an adverse employment action or subjected to harassment because he or she made the complaint.

There is an overwhelming body of evidence which convincingly demonstrates a direct association between stress and ill-health outcomes. In the context of stress theory, bullying is a severe form of social stress at work and brings about a high level of escalation of unresolved emotion and often an imbalance of power/loss of power.

Most studies in mental health effects and stress behaviors of victims of bullying report that victims become hostile to their surroundings and suspicious and nervous of others, super sensitive with regard to injustices generally and specifically, and with a chronic inability to experience joy and a risk of abuse, alienation and, at worst, suicide. An Irish study (O’Moore, Seigne, McGuire& Smith, 1998) found 80 percent of those bullied had symptoms such as irritability, angry thoughts, crying, depression and feelings of paranoia.

Victims of bullying have been found to display after-the-fact increased negative views of themselves, others and the world. Stress-related effects of bullying are both cognitive and emotional in that there are effects on the person in terms of how they feel and how they think and therefore, how they work. The report identified bullying as a hazard, which can cause stress related maladies. Stress is in itself not an illness and can be dealt with both at the individual and the organizational level in order to prevent it from becoming an illness. It is also accepted that where stress levels are not addressed they can escalate and can result in an illness, either physical or psychological or psychiatric or an amalgam of all three.

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