Last week I was presenting a session at a conference in Cape Town about psychosocial hazards in the workplace that place employees at risk of psychological harm.  One of the hazards that I used as an example in my presentation was bullying.  While some delegates recognized this as a potential psychosocial hazard, others questioned whether or not bullying actually happens in workplaces.  Indeed, many people think of bullying as a phenomenon seen in school classrooms and playgrounds, and as being limited mostly to boys.  Alas, no…it is prevalent in workplaces too, and it’s not only the men that are the perpetrators.  Children bully other children, adults bully other adults, children bully adults, and adults bully children…it’s everywhere and it’s out of control. 

Bullying is defined as seeking to harm, intimidate, or coerce someone perceived as vulnerable.  In children, the bully is typically the bigger and physically stronger boy (or girl) who intends to physically harm the smaller, less strong one…the more physically vulnerable one.  The smaller, less strong one usually has some qualities that are perceived by the bully to be inferior such as something pertaining to their physical appearance or the activities they choose to engage in.  It can also be something that they envy that drives them to bully such as the victim’s intelligence or their mother’s car.  What is almost always the case with the bully is that they have a fragile self-esteem, and their engagement in bullying somehow makes them feel better and more confident about themselves.  This is the underlying cause that drives bullies to do what they do.

In the workplace, bullying is not so much about seeking to inflict physical harm but instead, to inflict emotional / psychological harm.  The size of the bully is not usually relevant because it’s not about physical strength.  As for the cause, it’s the same…adult bullies have low self-esteem, which undermining and hurting others can help to ease for a brief moment in time.

Bullying in the workplace can take the form of undermining or criticising a colleague in public, placing unreasonable demands on a subordinate, threatening a colleague or subordinate, back-biting, starting and spreading rumours, and the list goes on.

When bullying starts, it’s the bully that is psychologically unstable, but at the end of the day, the victim can be too.  Just this week I read about three teenagers at the same school who took their own lives because they could no longer tolerate being bullied.  Although I have not read the same stories about adults, I am confident that it happens possibly just under a different term such as harassment or victimization.

So what can organisations to reduce the risk of employees being bullied and suffering the psychological harm as a result? 

  1. First prize is to eliminate the bullying, but this is a difficult thing to do as not every employee can be observed all the time.
  2. So the next best thing is to take a look at job design. A consideration here would be to increase the distribution of CCTV throughout the workplace.  How is this going to help if employees are working remotely and the bullying is happening across electronic and social media channels?
  3. Then the next line of defense is to look at your organisation’s administrative policies, which includes things such as lines of reporting, incident management, etc.
  4. Failing all of the above, your final control measure is PPE. Yes, there is such a thing as PPE to limit risk of psychological harm.  A consideration here would be to introduce assertiveness training throughout your workforce to equip vulnerable employees with skills to reduce their risk of being bullied or to defend themselves better in the face of being bullied.

Bullying is just one of a long list of psychosocial hazards in the workplace.  If you are interested in knowing more about these hazards, how to identify them in your organization, and the control measures that you can put in place to reduce the risk of them causing psychological harm to your employees, please get in touch and I can help you.


Take care everyone.

Your Partner in Mental Health Matters @ Work,


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