February 7th, 2013
Workplace bullying without consequences is not bullying
WBI introduced the British term “Workplace Bullying” to the U.S. back in 1997. We sometimes cringe when we see the bullying or bully terms tossed around glibly when people really mean to say “mean.” Bullying is so much more.
WBI defines workplace bullying as repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms:
- Verbal abuse
- Offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating
- Work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done
The public may focus on the acts themselves, for example, verbal abuse. The most popular measure of bullying used by academic researchers is called the Negative Acts Questionnaire. Most consider verbal abuse unilaterally delivered to be sufficient to call the act bullying and the actor a bully. But we have a contrarian view.
We believe acts alone do not constitute bullying. Some recipients of what we all would agree was verbal abuse are not negatively affected. They genuinely are not offended, hurt or damaged in any way. Individual differences in sensitivity and socialization can account for the very real result.
Bullying requires both a committed act (actually acts done on a chronic basis) AND a negative effect on the recipient, the target. Neither act nor harm alone defines bullying. Without tangible impact, when there is no harm, there is no foul. Caveat: The onset of harm may be delayed as is PTSD. The absence of immediate harm followed by a latent effect is still harm. If no harm ever manifests itself, then we can say the person was not harmed and, therefore, not bullied.
Tangible harm comes in at least four varieties.
1) Stress-related physical health harm. Studies by international researchers clearly document evidence that bullying, a personalized assault that acts as an overwhelming stressor, triggers the human stress response, which in turn, affects several human biological systems. Essentially body’s response to stress is widespread. Cardiovascular damage is the most noticeable, spanning hypertension to cardiac failure. The gastrointestinal, immunological and auto-immune systems are affected, too. New neuroscience studies confirm how brain regions atrophy when stress is unrelenting and flood the brain with stress hormones. Those changes, in turn, affect behavior such as memory and decision making. Nobel Prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn showed that stress accelerates aging by affecting DNA cellular replication rates.
2) Emotional or psychological health harm. This is the category most recognized as the effect of bullying. In fact, our favorite synonym for bullying is psychological violence. By our definition, bullying is abusive, not trivial. Abuse fosters anxiety, clinical depression and, often, posttraumatic stress (PTSD). A 2012 WBI study confirms the psychological impact. Another important effect in this category is the need to re-define oneself after a traumatizing long fight against bullying. Belief in one’s competency has been shattered. The lies told about targets can lead to undeserved self-blame. All of that negativity must be reversed to move past the experience. Some people do better than others. Driven to despair, bullied targets can choose suicide (29% considered it; 16% actually have a plan). Thus, bullying tests targets’ psychological strength and resiliency.
3) Harm to social status. Humans are social animals. One of the cruelest tactics used by work groups to bully their target is to ostracize, socially exclude, the person. Loss of social standing threatens the individual’s identity, and as neuroscience studies show, triggers physical pain symptoms. Even a bullied worker not targeted by coworkers is shunned and treated like a pariah because others fear that association with him or her makes them the next target. A consequence of nearly all bullying scenarios is the isolation of targets. Isolation makes it harder to cope with stress at a time when the person’s tolerance for stress is tested. Shunning exacerbates the stress of bullying. When family and friends tire, targets suffer the most.
4) Economic harm. Simply being targeted spells potential economic disaster. According to a 2012 WBI large-sample study, an alarming 77% of targets lose their jobs: 28% quit, 25% terminated involuntarily, 25% forced out by constructive discharge. In a 2011 WBI study, we asked bullied targets if they found a job after displacement from bullying. A quarter of those bullied never replaced their lost jobs. For those who found a job, 53% earned less money in their post-bullying position.
Each of these harm categories is tangible and measurable. If any or all are suffered by a bullied target, then it’s easy to infer that bullying has occurred. Search for the source of the stress, the stressor. Stressors will be some combination of an individual acting badly and the less visible, but greatly influential, work environment and work conditions that make the bullying possible.
When you see the extent of suffering that we hear about each day at WBI and capture in our surveys, it is hard to imagine how anyone can not want workplace bullying to stop. Yet, employers sit passively waiting for laws to compel them to act. Doing nothing is heartless.
Tags: economic harm, Gary Namie, health harm, occupational health, workplace bullying, workplace bullying definition
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on Thursday, February 7th, 2013 at 4:00 am and is filed under Bullying & Health, Tutorials About Bullying, WBI Education, WBI Surveys & Studies.
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