The office bully


Today’s economic climate seems to be contributing to a rise in workplace bullying, writes JUNE SHANNON

“I still have a lot of problems . . . very low self-esteem, dread of meeting people or dealing with people . . . unable to sleep . . . it really does affect you . . . you feel kind of broken. You are damaged now and feel that people will detect that in you.”

THIS IS one person’s experience of workplace bullying and the extremely damaging effect it has had on their mental and emotional health.

While we are all aware of how destructive bullying among children in the schoolyard can be, adult bullying – which can also have a detrimental and long-lasting impact on victims – is a more hidden problem.

A 2007 ESRI survey on workplace bullying defines it as “repeated inappropriate behaviour, direct or indirect, whether verbal, physical or otherwise, conducted by one or more persons against another or others, at the place of work and/or in the course of employment, which could reasonably be regarded as undermining the individual’s right to dignity at work”.

According to the Health and Safety Authority, examples of behaviour that may constitute workplace bullying include: purposely undermining someone, targeting someone for special negative treatment, social exclusion or isolation, intimidation, aggressive or obscene language and repeated requests for the completion of tasks with impossible deadlines or the completion of impossible tasks.

The ESRI survey recorded the experiences of more than 3,500 adults. Of those, 7.9 per cent said they had experienced bullying at work in the previous six months. The report also found that more than 15 per cent of people had been forced to leave their job as a direct result of bullying.

Of those who reported being bullied, approximately one in five had taken sick leave as a direct result and one in 10 said it had had “a very significant detrimental effect on their lives”.

According to the ESRI, “victims of bullying may suffer detrimental health effects, for example, stress, depression and anxiety. Organisations may experience higher staff turnover and absenteeism as consequences of bullying, as well as possibly facing legal costs.”

The survey suggested that workers are at greater risk of being bullied in organisations that are undergoing change.

With the pressures of today’s economic environment resulting in rising unemployment, and staff cutbacks forcing decreasing numbers of employees to take on increasing workloads, it is a time of huge change and stress for employers and employees alike. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that incidents of bullying in the workplace are increasing as a result.

Prof Jim Lucey, medical director of St Patrick’s University Hospital in Dublin, said workplace bullying was becoming more of a feature when patients presented for treatment.

“It does seem that people are being asked . . . to do more, and they are being asked to do more for less. On some occasions this is managed well, but on other occasions it doesn’t appear to be managed well and a sense of unfairness contributes to one of the consequences of bullying, which is an exacerbation of the journey towards burnout,” he said.

However, Lucey said that, apart from stresses due to the recession or changing work practices, plain ordinary bullying in the workplace hasn’t gone away.

“Bullies are often people who have been bullied, and they operate by putting pressure and making unreasonable demands on others,” he said.

“It is harassment to bully. It isn’t acceptable social behaviour in terms of management and helping people to get the best out of the resources in these challenging times. It is not something we should tolerate.”

Lucey said bullying could be a factor in a number of stress-related mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.

Rhona Murphy, head of employment law services at the employers’ association Ibec, said it was important for organisations to be proactive in putting policies and procedures in place to deal with workplace bullying.

Being proactive in this area, she said, would benefit organisations.

“Individuals will feel a level of trust in the organisation if an issue arises. But also from an employment liability perspective, [it] will stand to the employer in the event that legal proceedings are issued at some stage.”

She said that, in addition to the enormous human cost, bullying could mean significant economic costs for a business: damages in cases where bullying or harassment is alleged to have led to psychological injury or illness can reach six-figure sums.

Gerard McMahon provides a workplace advisory service for Bully4u, an anti-bullying organisation that provides services and support for those dealing with bullying in schools and the workplace.

McMahon said he believed the recession had led to an increase in workplace bullying.

However, he added that this would be difficult to prove statistically, as there was also an increasing reluctance among workers to report bullying for fear of losing their jobs at a time when employment was scarce.

He said it was important for people experiencing workplace bullying to know that they were not alone.

Support and information is available at, The Equality Authority at and the Health and Safety Authority at

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