Workplace bullying is a health hazard

Everyone has a role to play in eliminating workplace bullying

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What's a bully?

Dealing with a bully

If you've been or are being bullied

It's all in the language

Related links

Workplace bullying is an occupational health and safety hazard that must be prevented and managed with the same commitment as any other workplace hazard.

Bullying comes with quite a hefty price tag. Along with the tangible costs - high staff turnover, and absenteeism - it escalates stress levels while lowering productivity and staff morale.

The good news is that bullying can be prevented. If it's already in progress, bullying can be stopped.

"Bullying in the workplace can only be stopped by ensuring all staff knows what bullying behaviour looks like, the effects on staff and how to prevent or deal with the issue when it occurs," says Diane Gantzel, Director of Occupational and Environmental Safety and Health for the Winnipeg Health Region.

Bullying is possible to prevent and manage. All members of the organization are responsible to eliminate this hazard; not just people who are targets of bullying behaviour, but also those who witness bullying of their co-workers.

At the 2010 Manitoba Safe Healthcare Conference, Janet Schmidt, a Mediation and Conflict Management Specialist with Mediation Services, shared the following information about bullying in the workplace.

"All of us need to deal with this," says Schmidt. "Every single one of us can make a huge difference in stopping disrespectful behaviour at work."

What's a bully?

A bully is a person whose behaviour is . . .

  • persistent
  • offensive
  • abusive
  • intimidating
  • insulting
  • abuses power

which makes the recipient (or target) feel . . .

  • upset
  • threatened
  • humiliated
  • vulnerable

"Everyone is allowed to make a mistake. If you do it repeatedly, however, it moves this behaviour from the category of inappropriate behaviour to bullying," says Schmidt.

A bully is not . . .

  • a demanding boss
  • having normal conflict with a co-worker
  • someone with whom you poorly communicate
  • an assertive/directive person

Levels of Bully

Level 1 : Indirect, moderately aggressive. Denied your existence, failed to support.

Level 2: Direct, escalating aggressions. Put you down, used demeaning non-verbals, undermined your ability to work.

Level 3: Direct, severely aggressive. Damaged your reputation, verbally or physically abusive.

Who are the bullies?

There are five general categories of bullies:

  1. Chronic - are often the most problematic bullies.
  2. Opportunistic - the person who is competitive, wants the next promotion.
  3. Accidental - the person who is unaware of the impact their behaviour has on others.
  4. Substance Abusers - the person whose behaviour is impacted by drug and/or alcohol use or abuse.
  5. The persecutor - often someone who has experienced abuse or neglect that is the source of unresolved shame.

True bullies may actually require a little compassion according to Schmidt. "What I invariably discover is there has been deep psychological harm in the first 10 years of a bully's life. Bullies are wounded souls who desperately need help so they don't pass on the violence that has been done to them to other people. Are they responsible for their actions? As adults, absolutely."

Dealing with a bully

Here are suggestions to help address bullying in the workplace:

  1. Tell someone about it. The first logical person is your supervisor or manager.
  2. If your supervisor or manager is bullying, contact Human Resources or Occupational and Environmental Safety and Health to bring the matter to someone's attention.
  3. Honestly and directly challenge the specific behaviour and the impact of the behaviour. Do not use labels or exaggerations. For example: "When you tell me I'm a snivelling ankle biter, I feel attacked. It makes me wary to approach you when I need to talk to you about something work related."
  4. Show respect for the person. This doesn't mean respecting their behaviour. It means respecting they also deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
  5. Avoid suggestions to give it back. Mean behaviour that hurts someone is never something to aspire to.
  6. Address the issue. Ignoring or denying the situation will not make them go away or improve. Thoughtful action is required.
  7. Present with confidence. A person who owns their power and speaks up for themselves is typically an unlikely target for workplace bullying.
  8. Choose your company wisely. If people ignore or support a bully's behaviour, choose to spend time with other people.

If you've been or are being bullied

The most important thing to remember, says Schmidt, is that a bully's bad behaviour is about them. "You don't have to own it," she says.

Self care is essential during or following a period of heightened stress. Here are things to keep in mind:

  • Eat regularly. Try to eat healthy but at least eat regularly.
  • Get moving daily. A walk can help clear your mind and energize you.
  • Talk to friends and family that support you.
  • Avoid isolating yourself.
  • Stay connected with friends and positive things in your life.
  • Use humour to keep things in perspective.
  • Journal about what you're thinking and feeling.

It's all in the language

"Generally, the term 'bully' does harm to the people you use it on. It complicates their ability to change. Most people believe if I'm hurting you, tell me and let me change my behaviour. I don't wake up in the morning to cause suffering. At the same time, I know that sometimes I have a bad day and that sometimes I do things unintentionally that harm others." says Schmidt. "There are respectful, creative ways of dealing with these moments that send clear messages."

Here are a few things you may want to consider saying if you or your co-workers are confronted with a bully:

  • "It makes me uncomfortable to hear the way you speak to so and so. Is there a more respectful way you could address them?"
  • "Please don't talk to me that way. I have always treated you with professional courtesy. I'm willing to talk about how this document could be improved but I need you to tell me what I could do to improve the document."
  • "Insulting people's intelligence is not going to get your point across. If you have an issue with that person's work, perhaps you can provide some concrete feedback so she can learn something and improve or fix the situation."
  • "I'm not prepared to continue this conversation if you continue to speak loudly at me. I'd be happy to pick up what we're discussing in a normal tone of voice."
  • "I can see you're very angry. Perhaps it might be a good idea for you to take a few minutes before we continue discussing this further."

Tips for communicating with a bully . . .

  • Let them know what they are doing that is problematic, be specific (no generalizations).
  • Let them know the impact of their behaviour on you.
  • Always treat them with respect.
  • Treat them how you would like to be treated if someone thought you were a bully. What would you want them to do? How would you want to be handled?

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