Workplace Bullying: A Real Issue That Needs a Real Solution

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Tigertown is a pushing, demanding, and stifling workplace. The hours are long, the management is predatory, the employees are solitary, and there is little community — definitely no mentors, and no time for fun or collegial bonding. Tigertown is an incubator for an insidiously growing problem: workplace bullying.

Although school-based bullying in children and youth has achieved much attention over the years, adults bully all the time and in surprising places. Universities, hospitals, schools, corporations, and even the police force are all settings where the real, common, and shockingly increasing problem of workplace bullying is occurring.

A new report by the Conference Board of Canada called Workplace Bullying Primer: What Is It and How to Deal With It describes the growing problem of workplace bullying.

As expected, the most common type of workplace bullying is “top-down” bullying where a superior bullies an employee. However, lateral (peer to peer) and bottom up (employee bullies superior) can certainly also occur. Perhaps one surprising (or not so surprising) finding is that the major means of workplace bullying is email. Email is ubiquitous but it can be a feeding ground for nastiness. Bosses can send demanding emails to their subordinates late at night, colleagues can “forget to CC” and exclude each other from important communication, and worse of all rumours and innuendo can spread behind the anonymity of a computer screen.

Jack and Jill both work at Jellyfish labs where the management style is spineless — lacking rules or expectations about workplace behaviour. Jack and Jill are both bullies but they operate differently. Jane spreads rumours with the intention to corrode away at other’s character and reputation. Jack bullies by constantly criticizing the work of others as being sloppy, boring, and generally unintelligent.

Although numerous studies have shown no difference in rates of bullying towards men and women, there are still key difference in how men and women bully and the impact they both feel. (Some studies do show women are more likely to be bullied in the workplace, especially by a man.) When it comes to forms of bullying, women more often appear to rely on social manipulation, i.e. strategies affecting communication, social relationships and social reputation.

Men’s bullying behaviours are primarily directed at the work of victims. Men will independently bully other men or women or bully as part of a group. Whereas, women may independently bully other women but not men — women tend only to bully men via a group setting. Women are more often bullied by colleagues than men. Men are more often bullied by supervisors and line-managers.

As a psychiatrist and addiction specialist, I see the effects of all types of workplace bullying on all types of people in my own practice. Many of us spend a lot of time at work and our work is often intimately connected to our identity, self-esteem, and mental health. I’ve seen highly intelligent, high functioning, strong-willed, passionate employees succumb to the pressures of workplace bullying. Common outcomes include stress, mental health issues, disability leave, absenteeism, employee turnover, reduced productivity, reduced job satisfaction, and at times soaring legal expenses.

The problem is real. And so is the solution. In general, there are three different types of workplace environments. On one end of the extreme is the authoritarian Tiger workplace. Like Tigertown, these environments are predatory, aggressive, isolating, stifling, and lack a sense of community. On the other end of the extreme is the permissive Jellyfish workplace. Like Jellyfish labs, these environments may initially seem fun and easy, but because of a lack or rules and expectations, problems such as bullying can quickly arise. The balance between these extremes is the authoritative Dolphin workplace.

The Dolphin Workplace is an authoritative yet collaborative workplace built on a balance of clear rules and expectations, while valuing the individual and their autonomy. Dolphin managers develop a community of support for their employees, they are curious — not judgmental, and prioritize effective communication and problem solving. Dolphin workplaces are firm about their no-bullying policies but they are flexible and work with their employees to find respectful, compassionate solutions.

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