Bullying doesn’t just stalk playgrounds, ruining many a child’s school years. It also haunts workplaces, tearing apart teams and wrecking productivity. And by some measures it’s on the rise.
The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) reviewed a raft of research, and found reports of workplace bullying in representative surveys are increasing. In 2004, 8% of managers said they’d had grievances raised with them in the previous year, according to one, the Workplace Employment Relations Study. In 2011 that had risen to 11%.
It’s not clear if that upward trend has continued in recent years. Acas said it has received around 20,000 calls to its helpline in the last year, a figure that has stayed pretty much steady since 2010 (when it started collecting data).
It also pointed out the increase in reported bullying may be down to what is considered acceptable behaviour changing or people simply becoming more willing to speak out. Either way, it’s clearly a problem that can’t be ignored.
People who suffer bullying can experience a range of health problems, both psychological and physical. And those in turn feed back to organisations, from absenteeism and high employee turnover to lost productivity and the financial and reputational costs of court cases. Although a ballpark figure, given bullying is both nebulous and underreported, academics estimated the cost to the UK economy at £17.7bn in 2007.
The problem is higher in the public than the private and third sector (especially bullying by members of the public). Particularly at-risk groups include public sector ethnic minority workers, women in traditionally male-dominated jobs, health care workers, workers who are disabled or have long-term health issues and LGBT people.
The ACAS report also pointed out a lot of bullying is fostered or permitted by an organsiation’s culture. Stressful work, job insecurity, institutional imbalances, self-interest and conflict can all play a part. Middle managers caught between a rock and a hard place can be perpretators of one of the oldest stereotypes (albeit one that is often sadly true): the victim-turned-bully.
Unsurprisingly, autocratic leadership correlates with bullying cultures. But laissez faire leadership can actually be worse, as passive managers that don’t deal with conflict can allow harassment to go unchecked.
If that all sounds pretty depressing, take heart from research that shows many victims don’t actually want to leave their job – they just want bullying to stop. It may not be easy or straightforward, but empathetic, active management at all levels can go a long way.