No one can "shrug off" bullying at work

February 26, 2018 - 06:20

A new study punctures the myth that certain people have strong enough mental armour to emerge unscathed from bullying on the job.

When adults bully there is a strong risk their victims will suffer anxiety or depression. But can some people tackle bullying better than others? A group of researchers have tried to find out. (Illustrative photo: NTB Scanpix)

Earlier research has estimated that some 135,000 Norwegian men and women have suicidal thoughts because they are bullied at work. The Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation wrote about this in 2015.

Some assert that the impact of bullying depends more on how one tackles such attacks than how one actually feels them.

Put otherwise – are some people more robust than others and thus can tackle a bullying situation better?

Researchers at Norway’s National Institute of Occupational Health (STAMI) and the University of Bergen were eager to find out.

They contacted 739 Norwegian employees aged 18 to 60 who had been subjected to bullying at work in the past six months. These were asked to answer a questionnaire.

No differences

As a point of departure, the researchers assumed there are wide variations in the populace in this respect. More to the point, that some can handle affronts and harassment at the workplace better than others.

They did find that persons who claimed they could defend themselves were less impacted by health problems such as anxiety than persons who admitted they could not.

But this protective layer only worked to a certain degree. When bullying intensity increased, those who considered themselves robust contracted comparable symptoms of anxiety as their less robust colleagues.

Stop it, no matter what!

Morten Birkeland Nielsen is the first author of the study. He thinks an important lesson from the study is that organisations and employers must never fail to take action in a bullying case in belief that the victim is a ‘strong and robust’ person who can handle the harassment on his or her own.

ScienceNordic’s partner forskning.no has previously written that persecution, social isolation or other forms of abuse at the workplace are not only mentally detrimental – they also cause physical stress. The effect can akin to post-traumatic stress.

Nielsen writes on the STAMI web page that at any given time, about five percent of Norwegian employees experience being bullied at work. In addition, nearly 14 percent are subjected to repeated offensive and harassing activities without actually defining it as bullying.

Six ways colleagues react

A Danish study covered in an article in Videnskab.dk in 2016 mentions why we might fail to react in response to witnessing a bullying situation.

There are six types of ways that colleagues react when they witness bullying at work, according to the Danish researchers.

1. Architect
You are the one who starts the bullying, for instance by inviting all your colleagues home for beers on Friday, except for Liv, who you don’t like.

2. Assistant
You help the architect by agreeing that Liv should be excluded and that this is nothing to regret.

3. Passive person
You decline the offer because you think it odd that Liv isn’t invited, but you don’t tell any of the others how you feel.

4. Sympathetic person
You feel sorry for Liv because she has been excluded, so you take her aside and say you think the others are going too far. You express sympathy for her anger or dejection. Yet you say nothing to the architect or the assistant.

5. Defender
You are livid with anger about the way Liv is being so poorly treated and you immediately call out the architect for attrocious behaviour, while Liv stands in the background, listening.

6. Arbitrator
You cannot tolerate the way Liv is being ostracised. When you hear the architect and the assistant have plans for beers on Friday without her, you go to them and tell them they are doing the wrong thing. You also say that you think they should all talk things out and try to settle their differences and try to release the tension.

How do you react when your colleagues are bullied? Perhaps you find yourself reacting in one of the six ways.

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Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no.

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Translated by
Glenn Ostling

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