Reports of workplace bullying have been high in Ireland - it’s time employers do something

Ireland has been found to have one of the highest rates of workplace bullying in the developed world.

By Sarah O’Neill Spectrum.Life

IN 2014, IRELAND was named the 7th worst country in Europe for workplace bullying, while in 2018, a study found that two in five people experienced bullying in their work environment.

In Ireland, all employers are legally obliged to prevent harassment or bullying at work under the Employment Equality Act 1998, and, as a result, many workplaces have strict policies in place to combat the issue.

But even so, many companies aren’t sufficiently equipped with the skills needed to deal with this prevalent problem.

As the stats show, policies aren’t enough to stamp out workplace bullying, especially when competitive culture is rife in the Irish workforce.

Research shows that bullying is not confined to particular sectors or demographic. It is often seen in work environments where an organisation allows or encourages positional game playing and where employees are pitted against each other.

Companies with reward strategies can also, sometimes inadvertently, promote inappropriate workplace behaviour including bullying – for example if employees are evaluated based on group performance, low performing team members may become the target of criticism and frustration, meanwhile supervisors with high performing subordinates may become bullies to those they perceived as a threat.

This kind of work culture can not only breed hostility between co-workers, but it can also
intensify stress and anxiety among staff and create an environment in which inappropriate workplace behaviour including bullying can thrive.

Putting aside the egregious impact it has on the target, bullying is bad for business. It causes high levels of absenteeism and employee turnover, which in turn leads to increased recruitment and retraining costs.

It decreases engagement, damages the company’s image and can end up in lawsuits and legal costs.

What constitutes workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying often manifests itself in two ways, directly or indirectly.

Direct bullying can be anything from verbal threats to acts of violence or public humiliation and while awful to endure, it is easily identified and, in theory, easier for HR managers or company owners to address.

Indirect bullying is a lot more common in the Irish workforce and is harder not only to identify, but to prove and therefor eradicate.

Typically, this type of bullying sees the target deliberately excluded from work meetings, projects and work-based social occasions. It is often subtle and can easily go unnoticed by the employer, or indeed other employees.

If the bullying is done by a superior, the target may see their workloads increase significantly or they may be forced to perform tasks that are below their station in a bid to humiliate and shake their confidence.

Both types of bullying can have a detrimental effect on the mental health of the target, leading to increased levels of stress and mental health distress which can manifest as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress and even substance abuse.

It can create a toxic work environment in which bystanders may feel insecure, threatened or unable to speak out. Past research has proven that most people who feel they are in an
unhelpful or hostile work environment prefer to work alone rather than in teams, which hampers productivity.

Research has also found that those who are bullied at work may also act badly as a result,
causing a ripple effect through the workforce. It is important, therefore, that employers provide safe and effective mechanisms for employees to report misbehaviour in the workplace.

It is not enough to have HR policies and strategies in place, you must also look at how these policies are applied and how employees engage around these issues. Do they seek counsel from HR or a line manager, and how consistent is the application across the company? 

Wellness programmes, when incorporated alongside appropriate HR policies and processes, can help significantly decrease the risk of bullying at work.

By engaging in a multifaceted approach, an employer can combat the factors that give rise to bullying and essentially address the root of the issue.

Dr Sarah O’Neill is a chartered psychologist and director at Spectrum. Life.

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