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Bullying: witnesses also suffer

Bullying: witnesses also suffer
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New Zealand

Workplace bullying can have adverse effects on those who witness it as well as those who are subjected to it, a New Zealand research team has found.

The team, headed by Helena Cooper-Thomas from the University of Auckland School of Psychology, found those who regularly observed bullying behaviour had more negative views about their work environment, their performance, and even their own wellbeing, than those who had not been exposed.

The team’s report, The Impact of Bullying on Observers and Targets, published in the latest issue of the New Zealand Journal of Human Resources Management, says that while being bullied is known to have negative impacts, workers who observe such behaviour have in the past received scant attention.

The study used a computer-based survey of 1733 employees from 36 organisations in the health, education, hospitality and travel industries to measure their personal experiences of 22 negative workplace behaviours, the frequency with which they had seen such behaviour directed at others, and how they felt about their workplaces and their own roles in them.

From the initial sample the team identified 586 participants suitable for further analysis. This comprised 225 who had never experienced or observed bullying, 228 who identified themselves as having been bullied at least twice a week during the previous six months, 53 who said they had observed bullying several times a week or almost every day during that period, and a further 80 who had both observed the behaviour in regard to other workers and had themselves been targeted.

Witnesses to bullying made up 8% of the overall sample – a figure that the report notes as low by international standards, with overseas studies generally reporting figures of between 9 and 20%; one UK study found almost 50% of workers claimed to have witnessed bullying.

Among the four groups selected for further analysis, 76% were female, with a mean age of 43 and an average of seven years service in their jobs.

Questions about workplace leadership and social climate, personal wellbeing, psychological strain, job commitment, perceived performance and turnover intentions revealed clear differences between the four groups, with positive indicators decreasing and negative ones increasing as exposure to bullying rose.

“The consequences of bullying are severe for individuals and organisations,” the report says. “Targets experience lower self-esteem, more negative emotion, anxiety, stress, fatigue, burnout, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and changes in daily cortisol levels compared with non-targets.

“Similar trends are evident for observers as for targets, with observers reporting health and work satisfaction at a level between that of targets and non-bullied employees.”

The report says the research contributes to the workplace bullying literature by confirming a suspected, but previously unproven, “ripple effect” that spreads the harmful impact of bullying beyond immediate targets, and by indicating a critical link between leadership styles and bullying.

Laissez-faire leadership, in which leaders tend to abdicate responsibility, emerged as a key risk factor, while constructive leadership, which focuses on achieving necessary change with a focus on tasks and employees, was associated with lower levels of bullying. The report suggests that, in light of these findings, leadership may be a critical factor in reducing workplace bullying. “[It] suggests that leader training to deal with workplace misbehaviour as it occurs will be effective in the long run and conducive to a positive work environment,” it says.



People Mentioned:
Helena Cooper-Thomas
Organisations Mentioned:
University of Auckland
Reference No:

From Alert24 - Safeguard Update

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