Bullying at work grinds victims down and makes them an ‘easy target’ for further abuse, according to a new study.
The research, published in Anxiety, Stress & Coping: An International Journal, reveals a ‘spiral of abuse’ in which the victims of bullying become anxious, leaving them less able to stand up for themselves and more vulnerable to further harassment.
“We found that being exposed to workplace bullying leads to deteriorated mental health and decreased well-being,” said lead researcher Dr. Ana Sanz Vergel, a professor in the Norwich Business School at the University of East Anglia. “But at the same time, showing anxious behavior puts the victim in a weak position and makes them an easy target – leading to a spiral of abuse.”
According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), on-the-job bullying is defined as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons by one or more perpetrators” that is considered threatening, offensive or humiliating, or otherwise interferes with the victim’s ability to work.
As social media and online interactions are increasingly integrated into the workplace, the nature of bullying is changing (think cyberbullying) and appears to be on the rise. While estimates vary, one recent study found that a staggering 96 percent of American employees experience bullying in the workplace.
Psychological impact of workplace bullying is ‘much more complex than expected’
Past research has shown that workplace bullying can lead to significant physical and mental health problems, including stress and anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, phobias, sleep disturbances, musculoskeletal and digestive problems, migraine headaches, and cardiovascular disease. Bullying can also contribute to poor concentration, decreased productivity, and burnout.
Drawing on those findings, Dr. Sanz Vergel’s team wanted to see whether deteriorated health could make the employee an easy target for bullying. “For example,” she said, “the victim may have less energy to respond to difficult situations and therefore receive less support from colleagues or supervisors.”
For the study, the researchers interviewed 348 employees about their experiences of bullying in the workplace. Participants were also assessed for anxiety and overall well-being. The results showed that the adverse psychological effects of bullying can contribute to further victimization, which the researchers say points to the need to develop better strategies to help victims cope.
“This study shows that the relationship between workplace bullying and the psychological impact on victims is much more complex than expected,” said Dr. Sanz Vergel. “We are by no means victim-blaming here. Clearly employers need to have strong policies against workplace bullying. But training programs to help victims learn coping mechanisms could help to break the vicious cycle.”
How to deal with workplace bullying
So what can you do if you are the target of a workplace bully? First and foremost, don’t ignore the feeling that you’re being bullied. If you feel singled out unfairly, or as if you’re picked on a disproportionate amount, it can be tempting to come up with excuses. “Everyone gets treated this way,” or “I deserve it” are common guilt trips that bullies help to lay on you. Don’t fall into a trap of self-loathing if you feel you’re being bullied. Form a plan to stop the bullying and reclaim your workplace.
The WBI recommends several courses of action for dealing with a bully. First, research state and federal legal options — discrimination plays a role in a quarter of bullying cases, which means that legal recourse is possible. It may be helpful to speak to an attorney in this situation. Additionally, identifying any internal policies (harassment, violence, respect) that your bully has violated will give your claims even more weight.
After you’ve assessed the situation and researched your options, the WBI encourages employees to compel employer responsibility for on-the-job safety. You aren’t responsible for being bullied; rather, your employer is responsible for providing a safe workplace. Making the bottom-line business case for stopping the bully can also be powerful — for instance, by pointing out the extensive costs incurred by employing a bully. Showing that the bully’s actions are harming productivity and profit could go a long way. Additionally, learning effective conflict resolution skills may help you gain the upper-hand if you find yourself being bullied at work.
Most importantly, be sure to put your own health and mental health first. That may involve seeing a therapist, taking a few days off work, or even quitting your job if it’s seriously harming your health.