Workplace bullying: ‘Every incident has never left my head. I will never get over it’

Up to 9 per cent of workers in Ireland experience workplace bullying and it has a profound impact on victims

Bullying in the workplace is not being taken seriously enough, according to academics, legal experts and those who have been bullied while on the job. Studies suggest that the issue is serious in Ireland, with up to 9 per cent of workers reporting they experienced workplace bullying.

The problem is costing the economy a quarter of a billion euro per year in sick days and staff replacements, according to a study from NUI Galway. And, more importantly, bullying in the workplace is having a profound psychological impact on those who are facing a tormentor daily.

Numerous studies have shown that victims of bullying are more likely to experience mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. Bullying can even affect physical health. Those who experience workplace bullying are 1.6 times more likely to experience cardiac health issues, according to a 2018 study from Denmark.

The first port of call for those being bullied at work is to go through the company’s internal complaints mechanism. While most Irish companies should have an anti-bullying policy, there is little research into how these policies are being implemented on the ground. It is also very difficult and costly to get recourse through the courts according to legal academics, who say more needs to be done to enable people to take action against bullies and employers.

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Two women who were bullied in the workplace spoke to The Irish Times under the condition of anonymity about how bullying affected their life. Both say their workplaces did nothing to stop the bullying, and it began to spiral outside of the workplace, having long-lasting effects.

Loyal service

One woman who worked for a company loyally for numerous years told The Irish Times that bullying in her workplace took over her life. One of her superiors began targeting her. She says he shouted at her multiple times.

He also claimed she had a poor work performance, and intimidated her. “He was erratic, aggressive and temperamental . . . he would shout in my face. I would go to work with a knot in my stomach.”

She has experienced panic attacks, and has nightmares about returning to work. She claims that the workplace failed to protect her. She has been on sick leave for a few years, per the advice of the company doctor.

When you're an adult you can go to no one, it's a lonely place

She has also lodged grievances and gone through the company’s internal procedures, with which she is not satisfied. “The abuse and disrespect I’ve had over the years . . . he’s left me with shame about what happened. When bullying happens when you’re a child, you can go to your parents or teacher for help. When you’re an adult you can go to no one, it’s a lonely place.”

She says the bully in her workplace targeted different people, until they either quit or were moved to a different department. In all her working life, she has never encountered bullying before. “It’s tolerated in this workplace. Every one of the incidents have never left my head. They haunt you. I will never get over this.”

Mental health

Another woman who has also experienced bullying while at work says it severely affected her mental health. “It’s absolutely horrific. The effect it has on you is unbelievable.”

One of her superiors also targeted her. She said he shouted at her and belittled her numerous times. “I thought he was going to hit me. He was shouting into my face. It’s just dreadful. Nobody will listen to us, they say we have no witnesses, despite the fact I was coming out of work crying.”

She adds that most companies have anti-bullying policies, procedures and staff rule books. “They say if you have a grievance, you should do x y and z. All they are doing is ticking boxes. I have gone exactly by the rule book and nothing has been done.”

Her company doctor advised her that the workplace was contributing to her stress and she should not return to work until the situation resolves. “I have sat at home feeling horrible, feeling miserable, and I haven’t been able to bring a wage into the house, you start to think people would be better off without you . . . you start to think it’s all your fault.”

She adds that she is afraid to run errands and socialise in her locality because she is afraid she will run into the bully.

Research work

Two academics from NUI Galway have conducted research into the effects of workplace bullying. Dr Margaret Hodgins from the school of Health Science and Dr John Cullinan from the School of Business and Economics both said there is a serious issue in Ireland. "We conducted a national study in 2018, and we found that nine percent [of those surveyed experienced workplace bullying]," says Dr Hodgins.

People working in education, the public sector and the health and social care sector are more likely to experience bullying than those in the private sector.

Bullying is also more likely to occur when the organisation is going through change. Those in positions of power, such as supervisors or managers, are more likely to bully those below them. People with less power in society, such as women, those belonging to an ethnic minority and/or the LGBTQ community, experience bullying at higher rates.

Among people who are bullied, there is always a little subsection of people who were bullied very badly

It often takes people a while to realise they are being bullied. “There is often a type of shame associated with it,” says Dr Hodgins. “Among people who are bullied, there is always a little subsection of people who were bullied very badly. They can experience very high levels of trauma.”

There is also evidence to suggest bullying is linked to anxiety, stress, depression and lack of sleep. Many workplaces have anti-bullying policies, but it is very difficult to measure whether these are effectively implemented, according to Dr Hodgins. She says the development of anti-bullying aides or practitioners, who can come into an organisation and independently assess how the company deals with bullying, is key in changing the culture.

High costs

Dr John Cullinan, an economist by trade, estimates that workplace bullying is costing the Irish state a quarter of a billion per year. He has conducted research on work-related stress and bullying. “I was really surprised by how strong the relationship between them was. It has serious negative effects. Employees who reported that they had been bullied were considerably more likely to report that they were often or always stressed.”

This results in people being forced to take sick days, to get away from their tormentor. This unfairly affects the person who is being bullied, who may lose income as well as PAYE and PRSI contributions, according to Dr Cullinan. “In our study, we estimated around 1.7 million days are lost as a result of bullying . . . that’s a quarter of a billion euros per year.”

He is hopeful that by quantifying the cost of bullying, policymakers will do something about it. “There are serious costs to businesses as well . . . they will face the cost of a sickness absence, legal costs, HR costs.”

He says bystanders and witnesses to bullying can also be affected, and the business may suffer reputational damage and low morale if bullying is left unchecked.

Legal provision

Ursula Connolly, a law lecturer in NUI Galway, says there is no dedicated legal provision that gives workers subjected to workplace bullying an avenue for redress. However, there are a number of avenues which can be used to address it. "The existing laws on bullying in Ireland have significant shortcomings with limited options available to an affected worker," she said. Ms Connolly believes that subjecting an employee to the cost and stress of a civil court case is "highly unsatisfactory".

There is a code of practice on workplace bullying, which was jointly adopted by the Health and Safety Authority and the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) in September 2020.

This code defines bullying 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.”

Ms Connolly says this code outlines a procedure employers should follow when dealing with bullying, but it doesn’t confer any legal rights on to employees. Employers also don’t have to adopt the code. “This could be changed by amending the Safety, Health and Work Act 2005 to make adoption of the code mandatory.”

Another mechanism available to people who are bullied is found under the Industrial Relations Act 1969. “You can bring an action arguing a trade dispute, and you refer that to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC),” says Ms Connolly.

However, she says this industrial relations route is very informal. “An employer doesn’t have to comply with anything decided by the WRC in trade dispute actions, they don’t even have to appear. All the WRC can do is speak to whether there was a procedure or not, and whether that procedure was followed. They won’t make any findings on whether the bullying actually happened.”

No legal representation is required in the WRC. However, between June 2017 and July 2020, 84 percent of employers were legally represented in the WRC, but only 27 percent of workers were, according to a survey Ms Connolly conducted among a sample of cases. 33 percent of employers used a solicitor or barrister, while only 14 percent of workers had legal representation of this kind.

Another option available is to take a constructive dismissal claim under the Unfair Dismissals Acts. This can be taken if the employee left the workplace because it became so intolerable.

You'd have to show that the behaviour was so unreasonable you had no option but to walk out

These cases are heard before the WRC by an adjudication officer. The adjudication officers' decisions can be appealed in the Labour Court, if either party is not happy with its outcome. "This is a very difficult action for employees to take. You have to show you exhausted all the internal procedures," says Ms Connolly. "Even then, you'd have to show that the behaviour was so unreasonable you had no option but to walk out, that you've been effectively sacked by your employer through their behaviour."

It’s high risk due to the legal costs involved, and Ms Connolly says people who avail of this mechanism usually don’t get their job back because the relationship between them and their employer has already broken down.

Instead, compensation can be offered, a maximum of two year’s salary. You also must have worked for 52 weeks before taking a case.

According to a DCU study, bullying is cited in almost 35 per cent of these unfair dismissal cases, and men were more likely to be accused of being a bully. This study analysed 87 cases taken under the Unfair Dismissal Acts from September 2015 to May 2018. The research showed that just 46 per cent of organisations followed an anti-bullying procedure.

Roughly 40 per cent of cases were successful, with the claimant receiving an award, averaging at €12,757.95.

Most of the successful claimants worked in an organisation which did not follow any formal anti-bullying procedures.

A civil case can also be taken, whereby the victim can sue their employer for damages. “You can go before the mainstream courts, taking what is effectively a negligence action . . . a worker must prove that they were bullied, that the bullying caused an injury, and if the injury caused is psychological, that it meets the threshold of being a medically recognised psychiatric injury,” explains Ms Connolly.

In addition, the employer must have acted “unreasonably” by not preventing the bullying.

If these are proven, the person can be owed damages. However, Ms Connolly warns that going through the courts is costly. It can also be difficult to prove the bullying occurred, and even more tricky to prove it caused a psychiatric illness.

Another piece of legislation, the 2005 Safety, Health and Welfare Work Act, can also be linked to bullying. It says the employer has an obligation to prevent ‘any improper conduct or behaviour likely to put the safety, health or welfare at work’ of employees at risk.

According to Ms Connolly, the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) guide on the 2005 Act states that this section is intended to cover incidences of “violence, bullying or horseplay at work”.

The employer also has a duty to provide a safe place of work, a safe system of work and competent employees.

There is also an obligation to have a safety statement, detailing risks and steps taken to address them. The HSA advises that a policy on bullying should be included, but this is not specifically stated in the 2005 Act.

Ms Connolly says firing a bully is also difficult. First, the workplace’s anti-bullying procedure has to be followed. An investigation has to take place to find out whether the bullying happened, and depending on the bully’s contract, they could be disciplined in some way. They may be required to go on training or be moved to another unit. “It’s quite difficult to dismiss someone straight off,” says Ms Connolly. If the issue persisted, then dismissal could be considered.

The WRC can also investigate and mediate discrimination complaints involving the nine protected characteristics of the Employment Equality Acts, which are: gender, civil status, family status, sexual orientation, religion, age, disability, race and membership of the Travelling community.

“We are in the fortunate position of having a robust piece of legislation in the Equality Act which makes harassment on a protected ground actionable before the WRC,” says Ms Connolly.

However, this doesn’t apply to non-discriminatory harassment and bullying. “A relatively straightforward way to remedy this would be to introduce a similar provision for harassment or bullying that occurs regardless of its basis.

“Disputes could be adjudicated by the WRC avoiding the necessity to bring these cases before the courts.”

The Health and Safety Authority’s role:

Patricia Murray, an organisational psychologist and inspector from the Health and Safety Authority (HSA), says the HSA has a limited role when it comes to workplace bullying. "We only operate under health and safety legislation. "We say to employers that they have to have a safe system of work, you can't just ignore [bullying] and do nothing, you have to look at it in some sort of systematic way."

The HSA gives guidance to employers in relation to the definition of bullying.

They can also help employers develop anti-bullying policies and procedures, and give advice on how to investigate bullying complaints internally.

However, Ms Murray says the HSA cannot investigate bullying complaints. It can only use its statutory powers to ensure a suitable anti-bullying policy is in place, and that complaints are investigated in accordance with the policy. “That’s where there is a gap. There is room for an agency to have a more direct role, maybe an impartial state agency, to have a national remit to investigate bullying in workplaces.”

The workplace culture is also critical when it comes to preventing bullying in the first place. “In the really good companies, the culture doesn’t accept bullying, the culture is to treat each other well, things are nipped in the bud early,” she says.

The social norm decides how people behave, says Ms Murray. “If someone comes into a company where there is a good culture, they will behave better. They don’t want to be the odd one out. If you go into a company where everyone is treated badly, the good behaviour will soon extinguish.”