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Bullies, bullies everywhere! – Bullying at work is the new buzz word

In this article I wrote about bullying in the workplace and the new Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 which came into force on 4 April 2016. With fines of up to $250,000 that can now be imposed for serious breaches and for failure to keep an employee safe at work, the million dollar question is how are employers going to create and keep a balance between their desire to have high performance and high productivity from staff and prevent the inevitable stress this might create in the workplace?

Being bullied at work is not a new phenomenon, and all employers should have processes in place both for preventing bullying and for dealing with it effectively.

The new legislation requires “protection [for an employee] from both physical and psychological harm” and it defines “health” as including mental health; thus making bullying the new buzz word.

Contrary to what might be expected, people who are the targets of bullies are not necessarily weaklings, rather bullying is directed at people with all types of personalities at all different levels in organisations.

Who are the bullies? The “need to control” seems to be what primarily motivates and drives the bully. CareerBuilder undertook a study and found that 46% of employees were bullied by their peers, 45% by their managers and 25% by even more senior staff; on rare occasions the bullies were junior to the employees being bullied.

Quoting the Workplace Bullying Institute, and as might be expected, the physical and mental health consequences of being bullied at work manifest as a myriad of symptoms amongst which are anxiety and panic attacks, severe mood swings, sleeplessness, migraine headaches, ulcers, clinical depression, relapse of previously controlled addictions, and in some instances even post- traumatic stress disorder.

The Institute defines bullying at work as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of a person by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is: threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, or work interference or sabotage which prevents work from getting done, or verbal abuse.”

Research across 19 industries in New Zealand indicate that about 16 per cent of employees are being bullied, while research done by the University of South Australia suggests that there is little difference in rates of bullying across different occupations.

A collaborative study undertaken by various New Zealand Universities and the University of London concerning stress and bullying in New Zealand workplaces found that managers routinely underestimated stress amongst staff, believing it occurred infrequently. Bullying was relatively widespread across particularly the health and education sectors but that certain ‘hotspots” existed within hospitality, and there especially in the kitchen area.

The study found that bullying also negatively impacts those who witness it, and results in them having “a more negative experience of work”. Witnesses to bullying “perceived leadership as more laissez-faire and less constructive, and perceived lower levels of supervisor and colleague support, and that

organisational policies against bullying were less effective. They reported higher stress (GHQ), poorer emotional wellbeing, worse (self-rated) performance, lower affective commitment to the organisation and a greater intention of leaving”.

Bullying is perceived by the body as a threat. The threat immediately sets in train the release of adrenaline and of the stress hormone, cortisol. Adrenaline makes the heart pound and increases the oxygen flowing into the major muscles thus priming the individual for fight or flight. Experiencing on-going bullying at work will inevitably result in declining performance and health and low morale and disengagement.

For organisations to remain competitive, yet to not fall prey to stress-related claims by staff, it is critical for businesses who value their employees and who place staff- retention high on the workplace map, to be alert to bullying and to deal with it immediately and effectively. One of the things that should be put in place in every work environment is best practice guidelines for management for dealing with workplace bullying.

To facilitate this, employers should not delay in seeking and getting the necessary appropriate assistance and advice.