Current research into the health-related impact of bullying at work.
This paper addresses the current state of research concerning the psychological and physical effects that bullying within the work place can have on the victim, both its immediate impact and in the long term. The effectiveness of the research method of large scale surveys as a means of determining these findings will be considered.
A recurring issue that arises in the literature of bullying is that it is hard to define; it is a broad term that can be used for a continuum of cases, from a physical assualt to a verbal attack on a person’s character.
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Currently the UK has no legal definition for what constitutes as bullying due to this inability to formally characterise it. UNISON (2003) defines it as “..persistent unacceptable ‘offensive, intimidating, malicious, insulting or humiliating behaviour, abuse of power or authority which attempts to undermine an individual or group of employees and which may cause them to suffer stress’”. Bullying can be carried out by individuals or groups (mobbing) and can occur at almost every level within an organisation. A survey conducted by Hoel and Cooper (2000) found the phenomenon was prevalent regardless of the sex, ethnicity or superiority, they also recorded that 68.5% of instances of bullying extend over a year. The profile of the victim is largely determined by the bullies want of power and control (Kurth, Spiller & Travis, 2000), as such the victim will tend to have poor social and problem-solving skills (Cook et al., 2010), typically in lower superiority relative to the instigator.
The bullying itself can be both blatant deliberate or subconscious acts, typically in a way that the victim in unable to defend against (CIPD, 2005), removing any sense of control. In order to do this without the risks (e.g. criminal charges or a morality issue), abuse in a workplace is largely indirect (or social aggression) (Daniel, 2006) and within the rules of the organisation. This typically will involve spreading rumours, being highly critical of their work and character, overload of work responsibilities or verbal and physical harassment.
The role of power in the bully-victim relationship is best represented in what Fuller (2003) termed as “Rankism” whereby the bully exploits the disparity of their particular rank in a hierarchy; through the “superiority” within a company they reduce the risk of the victim reporting to a higher rank, leaving the victim feeling powerless and without options. This ability to abuse subordinates with impunity could explain its prevalence in supervisory roles, as reported by Namie & Namie (2000).
The abuse can have an immediate detrimental effect of offence and humiliation, but when repeated over a period of time this can lead to severe psychological distress (Einarsen, 2003; Daniel 2006; Vartia, 2001) including stress, damaged self-esteem and confidence, overarousal, anxiety issues, depression, and- in some cases even suicide, all of which can carry over from the work environment to the victims social life in general-. The range of symptoms varies vastly depending on the severity of the attacks, the frequency and the duration it extends over unresolved. Stress is the biggest cause of sickness in the UK and workplace bullying contributes up to 50% of the total figures (Daniel, 2006). Einarsen (2003) found that mental health was beyond the threshold level where people would need to seek psychiatric consultation. Victims can develop somatic symptoms such as sleeping disorders or lowered resistance, leading to physical illnesses and a range of disorders (Sansone & Sansone, 2008). The research from the CIPD (the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) suggests that initially the victim will be unaware of the bullying and will interpret it as a professional standard, as such they will consider it a failing on their part, over time as the initial assaults are reinforced the victim can become exhausted, incapable of defending themselves and demoralised, their initial means of coping have been ineffective and it becomes a problem-solving issue. If the victim perceives the situation as their fault they can develop anxiety in performing their jobs; Turney (2003) cites a case where a lawyer was criticised so consistently that he lost confidence in performing simple tasks like writing letters.
These findings however still have to account for the fact that some of the traits of bullying victims might themselves be pre-morbid, this is a major problem with large surveys: the level of vulnerability and sensitivity before and after cannot be made distinct; Coyne et al. (2000) raises the question as to what traits associated to the effects of bullying are in fact pre-existing traits that are targeted by the bully. Einarsen (2003) gives the example of re-experiencing the event(s) as something that could be directly linked to a symptom of bullying, but a quality like a negative attitude has been found to be part of the profile of a “typical” victim (Cook et al., 2010). If there is such a thing as a predisposed victim, their inclusion could distort the outcome of the research in determining the true effects of bullying.
In a culture where people identify themselves by their jobs, when their inferiority in this is brought into question, it naturally carries over to their identity, leading to low self-esteem; in some cases resulting in abandoning the idea of finding employment again (CIPD, 2005).
Surveys have shown that some common coping reactions are regression to substance abuse, eating disorders, social isolation and internalisation tactics (Sansone & Sansone, 2008; CIPD, 2005; Daniel, 2006); Einsarsen sees it as their perception of their environment becoming that of hostility where simple tasks can become acts of self-recrimination. Daniel (2006) reports that roughly 25% of the victims leave their jobs as a result of the bullying without even reporting the incident.
There exists no model that can fully explain the complex mechanism by which bullying induces the varied symptoms. Mark & Smith (2008) reviewed the twelve most significant models of how work related stress could produce its symptoms: none of them can be deemed satisfactory in reproducing the true statistics- considering the range of symptoms, the variation in the sector, variation of profiles, and the diverse nature of the human psyche, this is not unexpected.
The current level of understanding of bullying and its effects of the victim is in a state of arrested development- it is possible to predict how being bullied will create a stressful state of mind, but the variation in possible characters and their ability to cope with abuse makes the mechanism of symptom production hugely complex. It is possible to predict a victim based on a profile as Coyne et al. (2000) suggests, but the relationship between duration, severity, frequency of the abuse and the development of psychological responses means the impact on the health of the victim is highly unpredictable.
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