Workplace bullying can cause real harm

By Val Leveson

Tough demands differ from an intention to distress and belittle.

Two basic types of bullies are the inept, needing help, and the psychopath.
Two basic types of bullies are the inept, needing help, and the psychopath.

Workplace bullying is harmful and someone who is being bullied should not accept it as something "normal" that they have to put up with - it can cause incredible stress and health problems, says Hadyn Olsen, manager of Wave (Workplaces Against Violence in Employment).

Sometimes it's difficult to know that what's happening is bullying rather than difficult behaviour or a normally tough boss being tough. Olsen says it's bullying when the criticism/behaviour is unwarranted and outside what's normal or necessary. If it's significant enough it can be extremely detrimental to the bullied person. Often it can be seen through patterns of behaviour rather than one event.

Dr Jonathan Moy of Careerology ( says there are legal definitions of workplace bullying and there is a spectrum of behaviour ranging from mild assertiveness to outright bullying.

"But generally bullying can be differentiated from expectations of a demanding manager/co-worker in that the repeated demands or actions of the manager/co-worker are intended to exert dominance over others with the intention to cause feelings of intimidation and distress.

"You can gauge this yourself by identifying whether the bully has been repeatedly treating you in a way that you think they are intentionally trying to make you feel scared or belittled."

Moy says that workplace bullying can have severe impacts on an individual's physical and psychological health.

Psychological symptoms from bullying may be subtle early on and include increased worrying and anxiety, hypervigilance or loss of concentration and may lead on to further symptoms like panic attacks and/or low mood.

He says that with long-term bullying, there may be worsening self-doubt, loss of self-confidence and depression or even ideas of suicide.

"Some severe cases of clinical depression and PTSD can be triggered by workplace bullying. The victim often feels isolated from co-workers and develops conflicted thoughts of not wanting to go to work competing against thoughts that not going to work will just affirm the bully's actions.

"Physical symptoms can be wide-ranging from headaches, low energy or fatigue through to muscular aches or peptic ulcers."

He makes the point that there are ongoing costs to the organisation as well such as reduced staff morale, absenteeism, reduced efficiency, and possible compensation claims.

Olsen says the employer has a duty of care to maintain a safe workplace. He says there are different types of workplace bullies - those lacking social skills who want help themselves, and those who are psychopathic and enjoy causing hurt.

He suggests it's important to know what type of bully yours is in order to know how to deal with it. Some bullies respond when spoken to, while others see being spoken to one on one as some sort of victory and an opportunity to make things even worse for their target.

Workplace bullies are often extremely able at "managing up" - making management think that they're wonderful. They isolate the employee who's targeted to such an extent that that person sometimes finds he or she has little support in the workplace.

Moy advises that employees who are bullied should first get moral support by talking to someone.

He says next, make records of each incident of bullying noting the time, place and events. "It is vitally important to then report the bullying to your employer."

If you are uncomfortable with confronting your employer directly, speak to a union representative or occupational safety and health officer or talk to the Department of Labour (0800 20 9020) or your local Community Law Centre, he says.

If you develop on-going psychological or physical symptoms it is worthwhile seeing your doctor.

Olsen says that bullying affects self esteem and often targets blame themselves. Bullies are good at exploiting that - "it's about power and manipulation".

He also suggests documenting everything. "Make a call on how supportive management is - good management will help resolve things, and a formal complaint could help - but leaving could be the best option if there's a bullying culture in the organisation."

- NZ Herald

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