Workplace bullying – top tips to address it as an employer, and what employees can do to look after themselves

Workplace bullying is a big issue, and seems to be on the rise. Research in 2021 from the Workplace Bullying Institute found that 30% have direct experience of being bullied, rising to 43.2% for those doing remote work. Bullying in the workplace is intolerable, and employers need to do all they can to not just discourage bullying but tackle it, and fast.

There are multiple tactics used in bullying behavior which include dismissing or ignoring views and opinions; not sharing information which can affect a worker’s performance; excessive workloads and unreasonable deadlines; verbal abuse; making threats; social isolation: blocking training or promotion opportunities; emotional abuse; sexual harassment; workplace violence; discrimination on the basis of a protected characteristic such as sexual orientation; physical abuse; undermining or humiliating staff; or spreading rumours. 

Power dynamics and a power imbalance within an organisation can impact workers’ willingness to speak up, fearing retaliation from leadership. Workplace bullying is not confined to within peers, and sometimes the workplace bully can be a senior leader.

Impact of bullying in the workplace

Employee health and wellbeing

Victims of workplace bullying may experience mental health issues like depression, panic attacks, anxiety, and stress. This can lead to physical health problems, decreased job satisfaction, and lower self-esteem. Smriti Joshi, Chief Psychologist at Wysa says “Toxic work culture can push even the most resilient individuals to the edge, lead to demotivation and lowered productivity, self-doubt, unhealthy competition and conflicts amongst employees. I have worked with individuals at the verge of giving up on themselves or on their life because of suffocating toxic workspaces, or experiencing severe depression and anxiety impacting other aspects of their life as well.”

Any industry that has high workload demands, long hours, lack of control over one’s workload, work environment and lack of support with workload and one’s mental wellbeing, lack of resources needed to perform well at work can all contribute to bullying.

The overwhelming pressure to keep working at all costs, even when being bullied, can take its toll. Stress, anxiety and worry can all take over. In our report All Worked Up we found that 1 in 3 employees are experiencing anxiety and depression at levels that warrant further investigation. And the Wysa Employee Mental Health Report, where we examined the data from over 150,000 conversations that 11,300 employees across 60 countries had with Wysa, showed worrying trends. Over 33% of employees globally reported feeling ‘not okay’ at the start of the workday– and this number kept going up throughout the workday, reaching its peak at 40% towards the end of the workday. All in all, 75% employees reported low to moderate energy on average throughout the day

Organizational productivity

Bullying affects the workplace environment, leading to decreased productivity, increased absenteeism, and high employee turnover. When people are struggling and fearful of saying something, their work quality will be impacted. Far from being helpful, a toxic workplace where bullying is rife, will lead to persistently low productivity or presenteeism.

Workplace culture

Persistent bullying can create a toxic work environment, affecting team dynamics and employee morale. Being in a toxic workplace where workplace bullying takes place can lead to a detrimental impact on an individual’s self confidence and self esteem that they could continue to doubt their own feelings and thoughts about their experiences and about what their fellow colleagues may be experiencing at their workplace and they may continue to feel bad about it, build resentment, but never speak up. This means the bullying is never addressed.

Undue pressure from what has become called a ‘hustle culture’ can trigger workplace bullying. While the idea of working hard to achieve success is not inherently negative, hustle culture has been criticised for promoting an unhealthy work-life balance, leading to stress, burnout, and mental health issues. Managers may feel they have to push people to achieve, and use multiple tactics to do so, such as impossible deadlines – which can end up presenting themselves as bullying in the workplace. 

Tackling workplace bullying

Create a policy

Employers should establish clear anti-bullying policies, and conduct regular training to educate employees about these policies and the importance of a respectful workplace. Having a clear commitment and zero tolerance approach to bullying is essential, but so is acting on it. It’s not enough to just say that it’s not appropriate.

A good policy should demonstrate a clear commitment that abusive conduct and bullying will not be tolerated, complaints will be taken seriously, and the employer will tackle bullying. All staff have a right to be treated with dignity and respect, and this should be spelled out. Clearly spell out steps that will be taken to both tackle bullying, and reduce factors that contribute to it, such as toxic work environment, poor organizational cultures and bad management practices. Make it evident that there are specific duties that managers and senior leaders have to prevent or eliminate bullying, and outline what these are. And finally direct people to the right place, whether this is someone in the organization who has it in their remit to support individuals, human resources, upper management, or trade unions. All of this should be available in an employee handbook.

Conduct training for all employees on what a safe and respectful working environment looks like, and how to spot the signs of both subtle workplace bullying and more evident bullying, to ensure that no one in the organization believes it is the right thing to do. 

As the Harvard Business Review reported “W. Edwards Deming wrote that 94% of issues in the workplace are systemic, and only 6% attributable to individual-level, idiosyncratic factors.” This is why addressing workplace bullying requires a systemic approach in order to tackle it.

Monitoring and evaluating

There are lots of ways that you can monitor if your work environment is a toxic one and get a broad understanding if bullying behaviors are common. Take a snapshot of employee mental health using our Barometer. Higher levels of anxiety or depression may indicate that something is wrong. Physical symptoms such as high blood pressure, chronic pain or headaches, indicated by an increase in sick leave  can be a sign of workplace problems. You may also see productivity wane, poor performance or note that deadlines and workloads just can’t be met, which is a sign that they are unreasonable.

Once you know that there is an issue, commit to making changes to workplace practices to help address any bullying situations. Put in place established rules to ensure that a hostile work environment and workplace bullying can be immediately tackled. React quickly and with practical solutions that help create a better workplace. 

As Smriti explains “One reason that is triggering reluctance to speak about toxic work culture during times of economic uncertainty is cost cutting measures that lead to withdrawal of resources allocated for employee wellbeing or other employee benefits. This can make an employee feel unsupported and with no avenues to talk about their feelings and experiences.”

This is why it is essential to measure and monitor the levels of poor mental health in your organization, and the effectiveness of your EAP. This can help ensure that employee wellness resources are maintained, even during difficult financial times.

Encouraging open communication

Creating an environment where employees feel safe to report bullying without fear of retaliation is crucial. Employers should have clear channels for reporting and addressing such issues and these should be made obvious to everyone. A psychologically safe workplace is one where people feel safe to speak up and get support with no repercussions, and is essential for a healthy workplace. Opening up can mean that intervention happens at an early stage, helping to mitigate any long term impacts.

Smriti says: “Employees are afraid to speak up in a toxic work environment as they mainly worry about potential negative consequences, such as being overlooked for promotions, facing disciplinary action, or even losing their jobs. It could also trigger bullying or more harassment from those responsible for the toxicity in the culture and also make them feel isolated and discriminated against.”

This involves creating a robust process around reporting of malpractices, harassment or bullying at work place that ensures safety and confidentiality for those who report these experiences. There should be policies around protecting whistle-blowers as well. Building trust, providing support systems, and cultivating an inclusive and respectful work culture are crucial steps toward empowering workers to speak out against bullying and toxicity. Constantly reminding people that adult bullies are not right and personal attacks are not something your workplace will allow helps ensure that bullying is tackled in a positive way.

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs):

EAPs often provide access to counseling services where employees can seek professional help for the emotional impacts of bullying. This allows victims to discuss their experiences in a safe environment and receive professional guidance on coping strategies and ways to address the situation.

They often offer resources and support for managing work-life balance, reducing stress, and improving overall well-being. In cases where bullying has legal or financial repercussions, EAPs can provide guidance and assistance.

It can be hard to speak up without someone on your side, and EAPs often provide mediation services, which can help resolve conflicts between employees, including situations involving bullying. This neutral ground can facilitate a constructive dialogue and lead to mutually agreeable solutions.

Some EAPs can conduct training sessions for all employees, including management, to raise awareness about workplace bullying, its impact, and how to prevent it. This can help in creating a more respectful and inclusive workplace culture where workplace bullying is not the norm.

Use digital health tools

Wysa, can offer immediate support to employees experiencing stress or anxiety due to bullying. It provides a confidential space for them to express their feelings. Wysa can help employees develop coping skills through its cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) based techniques and mindfulness exercises. Regular use of Wysa can help employees track their mental health, identifying patterns or triggers related to workplace bullying. Because it is always available and always accessible – and anonymous – employees feel comfortable using it and expressing how they feel, and can get support in the moment when bullying behavior is occuring.

Using data analytics and feedback, employers should regularly assess the effectiveness of their anti-bullying strategies and make necessary adjustments. This includes regular employee surveys, feedback mechanisms, and wellness programs.

What if you are being bullied?

If you are an employee being affected by workplace bullying, here are Smriti’s top tips for what to do about it and how to manage your mental and physical health in the meantime.

  • Working in a toxic work environment can lead to poor outcomes for both physical and mental health and it can take a lot of courage to just acknowledge that what you are going through is not your fault but due to toxicity in the work culture and presence of toxic individuals. If you find yourself in a toxic work environment, it’s important to prioritize your wellbeing and take steps to address the situation at hand before it brings you down physically and mentally.
  • Do seek support as it’s very hard to survive in a toxic workplace where bullying is rife. Talk to trusted colleagues or mentors and if there is none, try and share with your partner or friends outside of work place for validation and support. Consider speaking with a mental health professional for emotional support and guidance to deal with any traumatic experiences you may have had and also to learn ways to build resilience and build better boundaries for self.  Reach out to trusted colleagues, friends, or mentors who can provide emotional support and guidance. 
  • Try to learn more about company policies on harassment, bullying, discrimination and unprofessional conduct. You should know who to report to in case you or another colleague is being harassed or manipulated. Document incidents in as much detail as possible with dates, email trails, specific examples to help you feel confident while speaking up for yourself. Knowing your rights and policies will empower you and help you speak for yourself and also be a whistleblower and also find a solution as well. This will help when you make a formal complaint about the bullying behavior.
  • Often when we feel attacked, discriminated against or subjected to unfair practices we experience a lot of difficult emotions that can trigger us to respond immediately, without thinking that can escalate matters further. Do not respond impulsively. Whatever you feel is valid but it’s best to address these matters with a calm composed mind, so it reflects that you as an employee are still adhering to company policies around reporting and escalations and don’t give the aggressor more “content” to use against you.
  • It’s important to seek support, share about what you’re going through with a trusted colleague and do not isolate yourself if you are being bullied in the workplace. It will help you feel supported, heard and validated. and be able to hear third person perspectives on your concerns and how to deal with these scenarios better. Speak to co-workers if you feel comfortable, and find a reasonable person to talk things through, so you do not feel alone. 
  • When in stress one can often neglect one’s needs as the entire focus is on preventing further negative experiences and dealing with a toxic workplace. Work is just one aspect of one’s life and does not define you so do not stop engaging with other aspects of your life that help you get a sense of joy, achievement and contentment. Prioritise self care and practice ways to relax and manage stress.   
  • Don’t give in too soon and believe that nothing can change and that there’s no hope for you or things will not get resolved. Sometimes these things can take time and if it seems like it’s taking too long or impacting your mental health, seek professional support to be able to navigate through toxic scenarios at work.
  • Do not stay at a toxic workplace for too long if you notice all efforts and guidance from professionals going in vain and toxicity at work place impacting your physical and mental health. Nothing is more precious than your sanity and sense of wellbeing and there may be better opportunities awaiting outside of this toxic workplace. If bullying continues and bad behavior is not being addressed, it’s time to walk away.
  • It’s really important as an individual that we set boundaries when it comes to workplace and hustle culture. What this looks like is asking yourself what is ok, and what isn’t, and where you draw the line. Work isn’t everything. A great way to make sure this is a priority is to build a life outside of work that is worth being free for. This might be centred around relationships, hobbies, health – anything that makes you want to turn the computer off, step away from work, and get out and live a happy and balanced life.

If you are a victim of workplace bullying or see it happening in your organization, please speak up. As the Workplace Bullying Institute says “(1) you are not alone, and (2) nothing you did is responsible for the misery to which you are subjected.” Make sure you take action today.

wall street