Bullying in the workplace

Are you being bullied at work?

By Rebecca Coxon in association with 'Be Your Own Boss'

For some people the word ‘bullying’ may spark distant and unpleasant memories from the school playground all those years ago, but for many the bullying continues or resurfaces into their working adult lives too.

Mental Healthy takes a look at the facts, figures and real life stories which show that bullying in the workplace is a very real and serious problem for many adults today.

Did you know that...

  • 1 in 10 workers had been bullied in the past six months
  • 1 in 4 workers had been bullied in the last five years
  • 47% of workers had witnessed bullying at work.
  • There is almost an equal number of men and women who have reported bullying

(According to a large UK study on bullying at work published in 2000 by the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) and supported by the TUC)

Katherine’s Story

Katherine Ross is a woman who knows exactly what it feels like to be a victim of workplace bullying.

‘Senior management had a habit of colluding together, and closing  ranks, the “mobbing effect” can take over and before long, bullying can cause an individual as was the case with me to feel utterly isolated and alone.’

Katherine was given a new position in the organisation she had worked with for 11years and found her new role demanding and with an increased workload. She soon recognised that she was not being given the support that she needed but rather became the office ‘scapegoat’. She explains how ‘it wasn’t long before I felt nitpicked in my work and constantly criticised over trivial minor issues.’

‘I found myself dreading going to work for fear of what it was I would be “accused of next.’

Katherine soon realised that the bullying was not just affecting her mental and psychological state but also affecting her physical health too.

‘My health deteriorated, and medication for my anxiety increased as a consequence of the untenable situation at work.’

She was prescribed antidepressant medication from her GP and recalls that as her confidence and self-esteem had reached rock bottom, ‘It was an ongoing struggle for my voice to be “heard”. It was a dark and difficult time.’

While Katherine did find comfort and assurance in one of her colleagues who relentlessly helped her fight her corner, it was sadly to no avail and Katherine ended up being dismissed from her 11 years of employment, after a 3 day disciplinary hearing.

Katherine is now starting to rebuild her life with the support of friends and her GP.

‘I feel that I have to speak out for the minority who are or feel they are bullied or marginalized at work. This is a serious issue that I feel is often overlooked and I would like to emphasise that the effects of the aftermath on my self esteem and confidence were devastating.'

As a result of her experiences, Katherine is now looking to start up a support group for those who have had similar problems with bullying in the workplace.

What is workplace bullying?

Bullying in the workplace...

  • Can be between two individuals or it may involve groups of people.
  • Might be obvious or it might be more subtle.
  • Includes any kind of abuse or violence whether it be physical or verbal
  • May be persistent or an isolated incident.
  • Can occur in written communications, by phone, email not just face-to-face actions.

How to identify a bully

Bullying includes abuse, physical or verbal violence, humiliation and undermining someone's confidence. You are probably being bullied if, for example, you are...

  • Being constantly picked on
  • Being humiliated in front of colleagues
  • Blamed for problems caused by others
  • Being set unreasonable/impossible deadlines or unmanageable workloads
  • Regularly threatened with losing your job
  • Unfairly passed over for promotion or denied training opportunities
  • Your views and opinions being ignored
  • Being shouted at or the target of spontaneous rage
  • Being regularly unfairly treated

Bullying vs harassment

According to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS)

’The difference between bullying and harassment is that harassment is unwanted conduct which is related to one of the following: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation. Harassment is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010.’

Therefore while harassment may include specific attacks on features of your identity such as your gender, race or sexuality, bullying does not have to be so specific and can manifest itself in many other ways.

The Recession: a catalyst for bullying

Lyn Witheridge, founder of the Andrea Adams Trust (a workplace bullying charity that was forced to close down in 2009 after 15 years due to a lack of funding) explains how the recession has caused a kickstart in workplace bullying:

"The recession has become a playground for many bullies who know they can get away with it. Under pressure, budgets have got to be met. Managers are bullying people as a way of forcing them out and getting costs down."

According to MacWilliam Associates (an organisation that deals with tutory training; advice and consultancy) experts have long seen this coming:

‘Academics have long warned of the link between economic conditions and bullying, with studies in

the 1980s and 1990s predicting that workplace competition and the threat of redundancy were

most likely to cause an increase.’

Recent press coverage has also raised awareness of the issue encouraging more employees to take advantage of what has been described as an ‘explosion’ of individual employment rights over recent years.

Bullying: Not just for kids

Bullying in school is a problem for many staff as well as pupils, according to a teachers' union survey.

According to BBC News, ‘The bullies are often other teachers who pick on their staffroom colleagues - with heads and senior staff alleged to be among the worst culprits.’

The survey, from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, says about a quarter of teachers have been bullied by another member of staff.

Bullied teachers:

50% say they were bullied by a senior member of staff

25% by pupils

23% by parents

The physical effects

Consequences of workplace Bullying

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) describes some of the symptoms that may occur as a result of being bullied including stress and ill-health:

  • Anxiety
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Ulcers
  • Sleeplessness
  • Skin rashes
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • High blood pressure
  • Tearfulness
  • Loss of self-confidence
  • Various illnesses of the organs such as the kidneys
  • Thoughts of suicide

But it’s not only the victimised individual who is negatively affected by bullying in the workplace; the productivity and efficiency of your work environment are also at risk if nothing is done about it.

According to TUC ‘bullying is recognised as a major cause of stress in the workplace and by law; stress must be dealt with in the same way as any other health and safety hazard.’

Employers who fail to tackle bullying can pay a high price:

  • in lost time – because staff are affected by stress and ill-health
  • lost incentive – because morale is low
  • reduced work output and quality of service

The legal position


Employers have a duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees - this means mental or physical wellbeing. If they do not do this they are breaching an individual’s contract of employment. It may also be a breach of sexual harassment and racial discrimination legislation as well as the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.
Employers and/or the bully may find themselves facing fines, work injury compensation claims and possibly a jail sentence.

What can be done about it?

  • Speak to the bully. A direct approach may seem like a scary option and the last thing you want to do when you feel bullied but sometimes it is all that is needed.  Bullies do not like being confronted, just make sure to be calm and polite and that way the bully has no way of retaliating.

Occasionally individuals may not realise that their behaviour comes across as patronising or belittling and being told that it is unacceptable is the easiest way to make them realise and put an end to it.

  • Tell a friend or work colleague. You may well find out you are not the only one who has suffered. It is important that you do not try to cope on your own.
  • Join a Union – And contact your union safety rep if there is one. Whatever you tell them will be in confidence and does not mean that a formal complaint will automatically be made. A safety rep will only give you the advice and support you want and need – they can even go with you to speak to the bully, or see them on your behalf.
  • Keep a diary. This will give a vital record of the nature of the bullying and when it occurred. It will be important when the bully is confronted. Many of the incidents may appear trivial in isolation so it is important to establish a pattern over a period of time.
  • Tell your manager or supervisor. If it is one of them who is bullying you, go and tell their manager. The more people that know, the more difficult it is for the bully to flourish.
  • Compensation. A bully in the workplace can have a massive effect on your career. Most people see work accident compensation as physical injuries; but your employer is also responsible for your mental health. Therefore if your employer fails to notice, or turns a blind eye to workplace bullying you are liable to make a claim. If you have been a victim of bullying in the workplace www.theaccidentsatworksite.com is a really helpful site that may be able to help you.

Relevant products


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