What is Workplace Bullying?

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), 35 percent of the U.S. workforce reports being bullied at work.

The stress of workplace bullying can take a major toll on the victim. Not only does bullying create significant mental health issues but it can also manifest in physical consequences as well.

But what exactly is workplace bullying? How can you be sure that you are being bullied in the first place? What's the difference between a demanding boss or manager and one who harasses or perpetuates an unhealthy work culture?

Workplace Bullying Defined

Workplace bullying involves one person, or a group of people, in the workplace who targets another person with unreasonable or intimidating treatment.

Targets tend to be independent and refuse to take on a subservient role. They may be better-liked, more sociable, and non-confrontational. By the unfortunate factor of seemingly posing a threat, the target is singled out by the bully. Since the victim is not likely to be confrontational, the bully knows that he or she can get away with the behavior.

But for the victim of the workplace bullying, the emotional and physical toll is huge. According to one WBI survey, 45 percent of targeted employees reported stress-related health issues.

What Are Examples of Workplace Bullying?

Bullying can be the result of an individual or of a company culture that allows or even encourages this kind of negative behavior.

Usually, the bully is a person in a position of authority (a manager or supervisor) who feels threatened by the victim. But the bullying can also come from a co-worker who feels insecure or is immature.

Bullies tend to be male (60 percent) and typically bosses (72 percent). But women in the workplace can be bullies, too. Women typically bully other women; men tend to bully other men.

Perhaps the saddest statistic of all: 62 percent of employers ignore workplace bullying.

Workplace bullying can take various forms, including:

  • shouting or swearing at an employee
  • verbal abuse targeted at an employee
  • being singled out for unjustified criticism or blame
  • being excluded; social isolation
  • excessive micro-managing or being given unrealistic deadlines
  • having your work or contributions purposefully ignored
  • language or actions that embarrass or humiliate
  • practical jokes, especially repeatedly-occurring to the same person

There are also actions and behaviors, which may seem like bullying but actually are not considered to be bullying. Or else, they cross the line into harassment, which is considered illegal.

For instance, negative comments or actions that are based on a person's gender, ethnicity, religion, or other legally protected status are considered harassment. Unlike bullying, harassment is illegal in the United States and gives the victim legal rights to stop the behavior.

A "tough" boss or manager is not necessarily a bully by virtue of being demanding. If your boss holds high expectations while being respectful and fair — without exhibiting any harmful behaviors — then he or she may not be considered a bully. Workplace bullying involves abuse or misuse of power that results in feelings of defenselessness in the victim.

If, however, you feel that you are suffering the harmful effects of workplace bullying, seek help from a doctor or counselor right away. Particularly if the bullying is ongoing, a career advisor may be able to help you plan a job or career change.

How Workplace Bullying Affects Your Body

In a WBI online survey, The Toll of Workplace Bullying on Employee Health, 71 percent of the 516 respondents reported having been treated by a doctor for work-related health symptoms; 63 percent reported seeing a mental health professional.

Of the top health-related symptoms, many included physical as well as mental health-related issues, including:

  • high blood pressure
  • heart palpitations
  • heart attack
  • fibromyalgia
  • overwhelming anxiety and/or panic attacks
  • sleep disruption
  • loss of concentration/memory
  • migraine and tension headaches
  • uncontrollable mood swings
  • posttraumatic stress disorder
  • eating disorder (diagnosed by a mental health professional)
  • irritable bowel syndrome (Crohn's disease)

Nearly half of the people (49 percent) being bullied reported being diagnosed with clinical depression.

Additional physical signs of workplace-induced stress can include:

  • nausea
  • tremors (lips, hands)
  • feeling uncoordinated
  • chills
  • excessive sweating
  • diarrhea
  • rapid heartbeat
  • rapid breathing
  • chest pain
  • uncontrollable crying

How Workplace Bullying Affects the Company

Some companies have established zero-tolerance policies toward workplace bullying. Companies with good anti-bullying policies usually hold meetings to educate employees about workplace bullying, how to report it, and the consequences for bullying in the workplace.

If an employee is being bullied, he or she needs to document the bullying and present the problem to the proper person (usually a human resources director or manager).

But if left unresolved, workplace bullying can have major negative impacts on the company as well as to employee health.

Some potential effects include:

  • High turnover. An expensive cost for companies, since they must invest in hiring and training new employees only to lose them soon after, possibly to a competitor.
  • Low productivity. In a bullying environment, employees will not be motivated to do their best and often take sick days due to stress-related illnesses.
  • Lost innovations. A bullying boss is more interested in attacking and victimizing rather than advancing the company. As a result, employees become less likely to generate new ideas.
  • Difficulty hiring. Quality employees won't stick around as word gets out that the company has a hostile work environment.

Bullying is not considered illegal in the United States. Behavior is considered illegal if it involves harassment based on race/color, religion, national origin, sex, age (over 40), marital status, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, or veteran/military status.

Learn more about workplace bullying and how to protect your mental and physical well-being.

Source: Namie G. The WBI Website 2012 Instant Poll D - Impact of Workplace Bullying on Individuals' Health. Workplace Bullying Institute. 2012.