It really can be a difficult problem for HR to separate what one person considers banter and another sees as bullying. In the modern workplace, the lines aren’t as black and white as they once were. With many people seeing the problem layered in context rather than being nasty on purpose. However, bullying can ruin people’s lives, making it even harder to get out of bed and go to work in the morning. But what can you do if you feel like you are being bullied at work?
When a mix of people from different backgrounds, with varying personalities, attitudes, values and beliefs come together in a workplace context, working together isn’t always easy. After all, we choose our friends but not our colleagues. Some people are naturally brash, or assertive, while others are introvert and more sensitive. What humours one employee may hurt another, and what constitutes as ‘acceptable behaviour’ can blur the lines.
Recognising when ‘banter’ becomes ‘bullying’ is difficult, because the definition of bullying may differ from person to person. And, worryingly, bullying can be a deceitful, subtle act, where the victim of bullying may not even be aware it is happening to them. Whether you’re feeling bullied, or have witnessed bullying behaviour in your workplace, the health and wellbeing experts at charity Ben provide their tips on recognising cases where you may be being bullied and offer advice with handling it.
A workplace epidemic
The truth is, bullying isn’t confined to the school playground – it’s a workplace epidemic that can happen at any level. A survey by the TUC revealed that nearly a third of people have been bullied at work, with women experiencing it more than men. The typical age is 40 – 59, where 34 per cent of employees are affected. Fortunately, research by charity Ben reveals that over half (51%) of managers recognise bullying as a ‘very important’ issue to address.
What is bullying?
Acas defines workplace bullying as “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the person being bullied”. Bullying is a deliberate, harmful and repetitive act rooted in a power imbalance. Behaviour can include name-calling, purposely being ignored or excluded, constant criticism and rumour-spreading. This can escalate to aggressive behaviours like shouting, intimidation and even of a threatening nature.
Alarmingly, according to ACAS, in nearly three-quarters of cases, bullying is inflicted by a manager. This can involve abusing a position of power to undermine employees, like making threats about job security, overloading workload or blocking progress.
Knowing the difference
Feeling like the butt of a joke, being excluded or being on the receiving end of a colleague’s anger can all be upsetting. But if an incident takes place in isolation, it’s not necessarily classed as ‘bullying’. To be bullied is to repeatedly suffer at the hands of someone wanting power or control.
In friendships or a one-off scenario, two people can tease or make jokes about one another in a good-natured way. If this isn’t the case, and the teasing is coming from one person, repetitively, that this could be classed as bullying. Equally, a heated conversation may escalate into aggression when personalities clash or when human nature and the desire to be right come into play. In that scenario, there may be an ‘aggressor’ and a ‘victim’. If the hostile behaviour is a one-off and doesn’t continue, this is likely to be the inability to manage anger or emotions in that given situation or incidence.
Feeling bullied can be detrimental to mental health, lowering self-esteem, morale and productivity. Bullying can induce stress and, if undisclosed, escalate into more serious mental health issues like anxiety and depression.
If you’re suffering, remind yourself that bullying behaviour says more about your aggressor than it does about you. They could be experiencing personal issues or difficulties themselves, impacting on their emotions and subsequent behaviours, channelling their anger, resentment and emotions towards you. This could be someone behaving completely ‘out of character’.
If you believe that you are being bullied here are some tips to help you to deal with it:
1. Get to know your company’s policy on behaviour in the workplace. Or, if you’re a manager, ensure your workplace policy is implemented. Find out all the details you can, including the processes and steps your organisation should take to help you
2. Start informally. If you feel safe to do so, the best thing you can do is to first talk to the person who is bullying you by explaining how their behaviour is making you feel. In some cases, they may be unaware of how their behaviour is affecting you
3. Be prepared to disclose the situation to your manager or HR. You might not feel comfortable approaching the person who is bullying you, so it’s important to inform people who can genuinely help you and ensure they are aware. Whether it’s management, HR or a trade union, they’ll be able to take steps on your behalf to help resolve the issue
4. Keep a diary. This will chart a pattern over time that can be used as evidence. Note down the date, time, place, who was involved, what happened and if there were any witnesses. Keep any emails, screenshots or social media posts. Cyberbullying is as damaging as physical bullying
5. Talk to someone you trust. While they might not be able to solve the problem, a trusted friend, family member or colleague will ensure you don’t feel alone during a stressful situation. Otherwise, seek an impartial advisor like a counsellor
6. Lodge an official grievance if you feel the problem hasn’t been resolved and the bullying continues. Your employee handbook will detail this process
Don’t suffer in silence or let your bully win. Seek help and speak out today. Work should be a safe place that has a positive influence on your wellbeing. You have every right to work in a job you can enjoy and thrive in.