Bullying most harmful harassment: Study

Victims report lower job and life satisfaction, increased anxiety and depression

Workplace bullying is harder on victims than other forms of harassment, according to a study by researchers at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

Victims of gender- and ethnic-based harassment are still negatively affected but people who experience generalized workplace harassment, often called bullying, had lower organizational commitment, job satisfaction and life satisfaction, said Jana Raver, co-author of Once, Twice, or Three Times as Harmful? Ethnic Harassment, Gender Harassment, and Generalized Workplace Harassment.

They also had higher turnover intentions, anxiety, depression and physical symptoms, found the study of 735 employees at various organizations in the United States.

Bullying is often a subtle form of mistreatment, such as ostracism or spreading rumours, and because the motives aren’t readily apparent, victims tend to blame themselves, said Raver, who is also an assistant professor at Queen’s University’s School of Business in Kingston, Ont.

“That can put a lot of strain on people,” she said.

But when someone experiences gender or ethnic harassment, it’s easy to attribute it to the perpetrator’s own prejudice, said Raver.

“In some ways, that provides a little bit of explanation as to why you’re being targeted,” she said.

Also, while gender- and ethnic-based harassment is illegal in most jurisdictions and employers have policies against these forms of harassment, the same is not true for bullying, said Raver. The lack of recourse for victims can make them feel powerless and worsen the effects of the harassment, she said.

The effects of bullying can present similarly to post-traumatic stress disorder, said Judith Plotkin, vice-president of business development at employee assistance program (EAP) provider Human Solutions in Toronto.

Bullying victims can end up on disability leave and even years later can have an extreme physical reaction when driving by the workplace where they were bullied, she said.

“I think employers are becoming more and more interested in bullying because the effects can be so devastating,” said Plotkin. “It can really make people feel very, very threatened at work, very unsafe.”

Each type of harassment is independently associated with a host of negative outcomes and it only takes a single type of harassment to predict low organization commitment, poor job satisfaction and increased turnover intentions, said Raver. This is bad news for organizations that could lose employees who feel their only recourse is to look for employment elsewhere, she said.

Ontario’s new workplace violence and harassment legislation, and similar legislation in Saskatchewan and Quebec, are a good way to begin addressing this problem in Canadian workplaces, said Raver.

“The most powerful aspect of having legislation is the message it sends,” she said. “It sends the message to employers that this is a serious issue and they need to take proactive steps to try to build an environment that’s safe, so there’s no violence, and that’s also respectful, so there’s little harassment as well.”

The legislation requires employers to have anti-harassment policies in place and complete risk assessments, said Raver. Hopefully, proactive employers will take it a step further and train managers to ensure they have the interpersonal skills needed to address these conflicts when they arise, she added.

Surprisingly, Caucasians reported higher levels of bullying than minorities and women were no more likely than men to experience either gender-based harassment or workplace bullying, found the Queen’s study.

“Harassment is not just about race, it’s not just about gender — anyone can experience it. It’s much more pervasive than many people have assumed over the years,” said Raver.

No additive effect

While targets of harassment often experience multiple forms of harassment, there is no additive effect of harassment, found the study.

In effect, people subconsciously steel themselves against the harmful effects of workplace harassment after the first incident, which seems to prevent them from experiencing additional harm when facing a second form of harassment.

“Experiences with one form of social identity (ethnic or gender) harassment may signal that the environment tolerates bias. Once targets perceive the environment tolerates biased treatment, they become prepared for (or at least not surprised by) additional incidents of bias, even if they involve a different social identity group,” stated the study.

But when bullying is involved, adaptation is more difficult and the negative effects of the three forms of harassment combine, leading to even higher anxiety, depression and physical symptoms, found the study.

Tips for employers

Respectful workplace policies

Employers are increasingly recognizing the importance of employees’ psychological safety, even those that aren’t located in jurisdictions with workplace violence and harassment legislation, said Judith Plotkin, vice-president of business development at Human Solutions, an employee assistance program provider.

One way to ensure employees’ psychological safety is to develop respectful workplace policies, said Plotkin, using the following steps:

• Employers need to have policies that can help managers, supervisors and key personnel identify incidents of violence, harassment (including bullying) and discrimination.

• Employers need to make sure they have a vehicle for disseminating and communicating harassment and violence policies.

• Policies need to outline the appropriate action to take to deal with allegations of inappropriate conduct in accordance with policies and programs that are in place.

• Policies need to include education and training so employees and leadership can learn the importance of respectful behaviour in the workplace.

• Employers need to consider harassment (including bullying), discrimination and violence as defined by provincial and territorial legislation (including health and safety acts and human rights codes) and ensure policies are compliant with relevant legislation.

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