The Cost of Workplace Bullying: What It Is and What We Can Do About It

Bullying in the workplace? Isn’t bullying reserved for school children? While bullying may be most prevalent in schools, it, unfortunately, persists through all stages of life. Workplace bullying is often swept under the rug as being normal or out of intimidation. This leads to many victims feeling ashamed and guilty about bringing it up to their peers, supervisors, or the HR department. This leads to a myriad of consequences on both the personal and corporate levels.


Workplace bullying defined

When we think of bullying, we often revert to an elementary example of a kid picking on another kid in school. However, workplace bullying is defined as the persistent acts of aggression one experiences by their co-workers and/or supervisors. These acts of aggression can be direct and apparent (e.g. intimidation or threats) or inconspicuous and subtle (e.g. unreasonable workloads or ignoring the person) (León-Pérez et al., 2021; Liu et al., 2020; Attell et al., 2017; Dollard et al., 2017; Leach et al., 2017; Magee et al., 2017). 

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The rates of workplace bullying vary greatly due to victims feeling embarrassed or hesitant to come forward. However, from what data has been collected on the matter, workplace bullying appears to be quite relevant. Around 14.6% of people report having experienced some form of workplace bullying within the last 6 months (Magee et al., 2017). While approximately 46.4% of people have experienced some form of workplace bullying at one point in their careers (Leach et al., 2017).


Additionally, workplace bullying is made worse with a lack of inclusion. Only within the past few years has the workplace bullying of marginalized workers been studied seriously. One analysis revealed that 57% of Hispanic/Latinx workers, 54% of African American workers, and 53% of Asian workers reported experiences of workplace bullying (Attell et al., 2017). As more diverse workplaces increase, so does the prevalence of bullying and discrimination. 

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The prevalence of workplace bullying varies from profession to profession. In a survey by León-Pérez and colleagues (2021), 33% of healthcare workers reported feeling “bullied” at work and 11.7% of workers in non-healthcare professions felt they were currently being or had been bullied at work. While the survey did not encompass all professions, it offered insight into the undiscussed issue of workplace bullying.


If workplace bullying is such a widespread problem, why do we not hear more of it? As mentioned previously, many victims feel ashamed to come forward or they may have been coerced into staying silent. Unfortunately, those who do come forward and report the incident to their supervisor are often met with inaction. An estimated 44% of reported workplace bullying incidents were reported, but no action was ever taken up by the supervisor(s) or employer (Attell et al., 2017).


Workplace bullying and the issue of employee silence

As mentioned above, many victims of workplace bullying may feel threatened to speak up. Perhaps the perpetrator holds power and status above the victim and threatens to jeopardize their job if they report the incident or the victim fears they will be ostracized by their co-workers and supervisors at work. In any situation, employee silence is the intentional withholding of information out of fear of repercussions (Lam & Xu, 2019). Employee silence is not black and white research has revealed different typologies of employee silence (Chou & Chang, 2020; Lam & Xu, 2019).

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1. The defensive silence

This may be the type of silence people typically think of when they hear employee silence. Essentially, defensive silence is a coping mechanism for victims to “protect” themselves from their perpetrator(s). This type of silence is typically used when the bully is overt in their abusive behaviors and uses their power to “control” their victims. This creates a power imbalance between the perpetrator(s) and the victim(s) which only facilitates this abusive behavior (Kwan et al., 2020; Lam & Xu, 2019).


2. The acquiescent silence

This type of silence arises when employees believe they have no significant impact, power, or voice. While defensive silence is a coping mechanism more commonly used for blatant bullying, acquiescent silence is typically in response to more covert bullying. Such as constant undermining, talking behind one’s back, ignoring one’s ideas, etc… While this subtle bullying is harder to detect, it is just as detrimental as conspicuous bullying (Lam & Xu, 2019; Magee et al., 2017).


3. The unsolicited, predetermined employee silence

A fancy way to describe someone who decides to remain silent regardless of the situation. This stems from the individual’s personality, however, the presence of a domineering bully and the fear of the possible consequences of speaking up subdues the victim’s voice even more. Even if the awareness of workplace bullying is brought up in a safe space, the victim may be disinclined to speak up about their experiences (Chou & Chang, 2020).

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4. The unsolicited, issue-based employee silence

Much like unsolicited predetermined employee silence, unsolicited issue-based employee silence is the decision to remain silent when an issue is brought to light. However, unsolicited issue-based employee silence is decided in the moment and changes depending on the situation. For example, a bullying victim may feel disclose their experiences in situations where they do not perceive a threat, but they may remain silent in situations where there could be a backlash. Essentially, it is picking and choosing when to be silent based on the individual’s assessment of the situation (Chou & Chang, 2020).


5. The solicited, target-based employee silence

Similar to the unsolicited predetermined employee silence, however, solicited target-based employee silence is focused more on the social aspect. For example, withholding information or one’s opinions to maintain or improve a relationship. This is particularly common when the bully holds some kind of power or status over the victim. Many victims will remain silent about their bullying if their bully is a supervisor, someone to who they feel indebted, or anyone they “need” to have a positive relationship with (Chou & Chang, 2020).


Unfortunately, employee silence is exasperated by domineering leaders and toxic workplaces. Fearful of losing their jobs, ostracization, and negative repercussions, many victims believe it is more beneficial to stay silent. Not only does staying silent about workplace bullying allow it to persist, but it can also cultivate more serious issues such as anxiety, depression, and chronic stress. Additionally, employee silence creates issues on the organizational level such as decreased job satisfaction and greater turnover rates (Liu et al., 2020).

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The consequences of workplace bullying

It is well-known that bullying, at any point in life and in any situation, has serious repercussions. Whether it be on the personal level or the organizational level, workplace bullying poses several detrimental issues. While many elements of workplace bullying are similar, if not the same, to that of bullying in schools, several aspects are particular to workplace bullying.


1.  Workplace bullying incites knowledge hiding

Many of us have most likely experienced this but did not know how to label it. Knowledge hiding is the deliberate act of withholding information from peers or co-workers to gain some “advantage” (Yao et al., 2020). Whether the bully withholds knowledge from their co-workers for personal gain or to minimize the victim, this can be extremely detrimental to the victim’s job performance and innovation. 


2. Bullying in the workplace can lead to emotional exhaustion

Emotional exhaustion is common when one is in a stressful and/or high-pressure environment. That being said, bullying only exacerbates this emotional distress. Emotional exhaustion can lead to job burnout, overworking, decreased involvement, and job dissatisfaction. Interestingly, people suffering from emotional exhaustion caused by bullying are more likely to utilize knowledge hiding behaviors (Yao et al., 2020).

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3. Workplace bullying can damage mental health

As discussed earlier, workplace bullying can produce significant repercussions to the victim’s mental health. Workplace bullying can lead to emotional exhaustion, burnout, and decreased job satisfaction. Additionally, bullying can lead to more dire mental disorders such as depression, chronic stress, and anxiety (Anasori et al., 2020).


Workplace bullying is neither a new nor uncommon problem. And unfortunately, it often gets swept under the rug. The consequences are anything but flippant. A number of companies have implemented anonymous report systems for workplace bullying (e.g. anonymous calls reporting the incidents). In addition to the anonymous procedures, many organizations have incorporated workplace bullying seminars and training sessions into their operations. Despite all these efforts, the issue of workplace bullying prevails and remains a pressing matter. 

How coaching apps can help

Whether you are a victim of workplace bullying, a witness to it, or simply feeling anxious and stressed over work, LIFE Intelligence may be able to help. The LIFE app is a pocket coach and supporter to help you navigate all avenues of life such as career, well-being, and relationships. A holistic program consisting of 9 topics, or Missions, LIFE Intelligence covers issues ranging from having hard conversations to building self-confidence.


Unsure how to resolve a conflict with a co-worker? Missions 8.1-8.4 can help you resolve the conflict in a productive and healthy manner. Feeling stressed and experiencing low self-esteem? Then turn to Missions 6.1-6.7 to learn how to cope with stress, build a support system, and improve self-esteem. Maybe you are a supervisor or team leader that wants to create a safe and inclusive environment for their employees. Missions 9.1-9.4 can help you achieve that with everything you need to know about leadership and team communication. Whatever your needs may be, LIFE Intelligence is here to help.

Mason Low
February 20, 2021

References

Anasori, E., Bayighomog, S. W., & Tanova, C. (2020). Workplace bullying, psychological distress, resilience, mindfulness, and emotional exhaustion. The Service Industries Journal, 40(1-2), 65-89.

Attell, B. K., Brown, K. K., & Treiber, L. A. (2017). Workplace bullying, perceived job stressors, and psychological distress: Gender and race differences in the stress process. Social science research, 65, 210-221.

Chou, S. Y., & Chang, T. (2020). Employee Silence and Silence Antecedents: A Theoretical Classification. International Journal of Business Communication, 57(3), 401–426.

Dollard, M. F., Dormann, C., Tuckey, M. R., & Escartín, J. (2017). Psychosocial safety climate (PSC) and enacted PSC for workplace bullying and psychological health problem reduction. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 26(6), 844–857.

Kwan, S. S. M., Tuckey, M. R., & Dollard, M. F. (2020). The Malaysian Workplace Bullying Index (MWBI): A new measure of workplace bullying in Eastern countries. PLoS one, 15(1), e0223235.

Lam, L. W., & Xu, A. J. (2019). Power imbalance and employee silence: The role of abusive leadership, power distance orientation, and perceived organisational politics. Applied psychology, 68(3), 513-546.

Leach, L. S., Poyser, C., & Butterworth, P. (2017). Workplace bullying and the association with suicidal ideation/thoughts and behaviour: a systematic review. Occupational and environmental medicine, 74(1), 72–79.

León-Pérez, J. M., Escartín, J., & Giorgi, G. (2021). The presence of workplace bullying and harassment worldwide. Concepts, Approaches and Methods, 55-86.

Liu, X., Yang, S., & Yao, Z. (2020). Silent Counterattack: The Impact of Workplace Bullying on Employee Silence. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 572236.

Magee, C., Gordon, R., Robinson, L., Caputi, P., & Oades, L. (2017). Workplace bullying and absenteeism: The mediating roles of poor health and work engagement. Human Resource Management Journal, 27(3), 319-334.
Yao, Zhu, Zhang, Xianchun, Luo, Jinlian, & Huang, Hui. (2020). Offense is the best defense: the impact of workplace bullying on knowledge hiding.Journal of Knowledge Management, 24(3), 675–695.

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