Witnesses to bullying in the workplace are victims too
THAT'S MEN:A colleague is bullied by a boss or by other colleagues: sneered at, shouted at, denigrated, given all the worst jobs to do. You are a witness to this. Who suffers most in this scenario?
The victim, we can all agree, is taking most of the pain, especially if we can see that he or she is falling apart in front of our eyes. But you and other witnesses may be suffering more than is generally realised, research from widely different parts of the globe suggests.
More than a few people, I suspect, dread returning to work each day because they know they will see colleagues being bullied and belittled.
Workplace bullying destroys the peace of mind of its victims, especially in organisations that are bad at dealing with bullies – and many, many organisations fall down in this regard.
Some bullying is done quietly and out of sight but a lot of the denigration and abuse is dished out in full view of colleagues.
A Finnish study found that men and women who witnessed bullying were just as likely to be prescribed psychiatric medication as those who were at the receiving end of the bullying.
It has long been established that people who witness serious accidents or acts of violence can themselves be traumatised by the experience.
Workplace bullying may not fall into the categories of serious accidents or acts of violence but it is, after all, meant to cause emotional pain to the victim. What the Finnish study shows is that the observers are by no means insulated from that pain.
Why should this be? Perhaps they have the fear of becoming victims themselves; perhaps watching psychological violence hurts in the same way that watching physical violence does; perhaps they experience shame because of their failure to intervene; or perhaps they feel helpless.
Whatever the reason, it seems to me that employers who focus solely on the interaction between the bully and the victim (too often hoping a little mediation will encourage the victim to drop the complaint) are missing the bigger picture, namely that bullying can spread a malaise through a department or company.
This is borne out by Canadian research among nurses that suggests people who witness bullying are more likely to leave their jobs than are the victims of bullying.
In my experience, victims can become demoralised and that state of mind makes it difficult for them to believe they could leave and get a better job, or at least a job with dignity, elsewhere – though leaving is the only healthy option available in many cases. Victims of bullying may also feel that the last thing they want is to allow a manager or a colleague to bully them out of their job. The witness to bullying has none of these constraints.
Indeed, the witness may have the added incentive, the researchers suggest, of feeling the workplace is especially unfair when others are targeted and they are not – a sort of survivor’s guilt.
Bullying is an important driver of high staff turnover, especially if other jobs are available.
Right now, alternative jobs can be hard to come by so getting out of a bullying workplace is harder than when an economy is thriving.
What this suggests to me is that people who might have moved on because of bullying are staying and becoming more demoralised, which is not good for them or for business.
See the Medical News Today website at bit.ly/bullyresearch
PADRAIG O'MORAIN(email@example.com) is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy