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Thom Dennis

Serenity in Leadership Ltd


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Bullying at work on the rise as stress levels soar

How can L&D help when financial pressure and stress are increasing instances of workplace bullying?
lonely person casting a shadow

Workplace bullying is on the rise and when you consider that one in four people – that is a quarter of the UK working population – have encountered some form of antagonistic behaviour from other colleagues, it shows that issues are still not being addressed. 

Instances of bullying are becoming more common since the Covid-19 pandemic according to research by Fox & Partners which revealed that there has been a 44% increase in bullying claims between March 2021 and March 2022.

The unfortunate truth is that bullying tends to happen when no one else is around

Stress has a huge part to play in this increase. We know that there is a direct link and as the national and global socio-economic pressures worsen, so too will these types of behaviours.

How do you assess bullying in the workplace?

Calculating the extent of bullying in an organisation is still very challenging. Whilst harassment is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010, bullying is not. There is also no legal definition, it’s about perception. 

The onus is on targets to prove what is happening and to collect evidence thereby reliving it again and again, but the unfortunate truth is that bullying tends to happen when no one else is around and it is hard to identify a pattern of this kind of behaviour because a bully may choose to attack at different times and places. This makes it challenging for the target to pinpoint the bullying.

They may feel that it is pointless and risky to raise the matter, resulting in them gradually losing all confidence and their mental health suffering. Most targets of bullying don’t recognise it as that, however, thousands of employees each year turn their back on their employers and move to pastures new that feel safer, whilst still carrying the burden of needing to recover and regain confidence.  

But we know two things. Bullying at work is often a symptom of outdated hierarchical processes causing abuse or misuse of power. Trying to keep control in a VUCA world full of stress and pressure is lending itself to a command and control management style whereby exerting overbearing and manipulative behaviours is the go-to. 

Secondly, organisations that actively create a safe culture can break free from systemic bullying. A safe culture breeds trust and respect which removes the fear of voicing thoughts and feelings – this is a culture which enables and encourages inclusion. Even if the best way to deal with bullying is to change workplace culture there is still a problem. Workplace culture is usually set by the people at the top and bullying often stems from those very same people.  

So, what are the solutions?

1. Don’t stand by and watch

We need managers who are sufficiently in touch with their people, who want to see and understand what is happening and not conceal themselves in wilful blindness. The system is usually biased against the target. Words that the bullying will stop aren’t enough. The acid test is whether the bullying stops as a result of any action taken. Denying there is a problem means we are propagating and supporting it and causing trauma in the process.  

Culturally intelligent organisations have greater levels of trust and tolerance

2. Do your processes and protocol work?

Bullying-free businesses regularly check if their protocol is fit for purpose including safe reporting systems, mediation, and formal grievance processes but these very processes may be token or even be contributing to the issue. Most targets look for support outside their company as they don’t trust the processes that are there to help them. Is HR there to protect the company or the target? If you don’t feel the HR team has your back then raising issues can feel pointless and risky.

Are complaints actively investigated in every business? Or have the leaders already made up their minds before the process has even started? During research in one industry, 100% of women I talked to said they would not use the reporting system for harassment because: ‘When you become the whistle-blower the system tends to spit you out because you are making waves and it’s easier to blame the victim than address the core issue’. 

3. Nurture a culturally aware workplace

Culturally intelligent organisations have greater levels of trust and tolerance. They enjoy the benefits of better productivity, recruitment and performance, and less talent loss, bias and conflict.

4. Ensure power is equally divided

Senior management empowering junior workers means having to put their egos to one side. Employees can thrive by moving away from excessive hierarchy and distributing power throughout the organisation. In the oil and gas industry where safety is a core value, even the most junior person is empowered to call out the most senior person when it comes to issues of safety. It takes a lot of effort, work, consolidation and driving the message to get to that place.

5. Leaders display emotional intelligence

Preparing managers better for the emotional work of being someone’s boss and teammate requires a fundamental shift in what we want and expect from our working lives and relationships and a real understanding of the importance of mental health. We need far more training in this. Saying to someone who is being bullied, “Oh you know what he’s like … he doesn’t mean it,” minimises the act and that doubles the trauma. 

6. Do away with power games

Stephen Karpman’s Drama Triangle models the dysfunction of social interactions and power games and ineffective responses to conflict between the roles of a rescuer, persecutor and victim.

In the workplace when a target tells the aggressor that they feel bullied, the bully sometimes denies it and then turns it around so they become the victim by saying they are being unfairly accused. What is needed are the skills to help one of them not play the role and to break the triangle, not becoming the rescuer in the process. 

7. Encourage others to speak out

Things can get heated but if problems are openly addressed and respectful communication is welcomed, this breeds trust which takes out some of the fear. 

Having a mindset of abundance rather than poverty will help attract the right people

8. Avoid tokenism

Sexual orientation, ethnicity, age, and gender discrimination are often components of bullying. Not wanting to be around people who don’t look like us no longer has a place in the workplace. Integration, inclusion, respect, equality and diversity must be at the heart of any business looking to reduce bullying and harassment. 

9. Be a place of safety for your people

Having a mindset of abundance rather than poverty will help attract the right people, those who believe in values and purpose. 

Interested in this topic? Read Dealing with the devil: The insidious nature of passive aggression.

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