As May is Mental Health Awareness Month, I would like to discuss one of the most influential factors on employee mental health in modern office settings; workplace bullying. Once regarded as incidents that only took place on school playgrounds, bullying is now running rampant in offices and other workspaces, leading to a high negative financial impact for companies.

According to a report by Michelle McQuaid, workplace bullying costs the U.S. economy an estimated $360 billion annually due to high turnover and diminished work productivity. This is why experts refer to workplace bullying as the “silent epidemic” in today’s office environments. A research study conducted by Dr. Judy Blando at the University of Phoenix, found that 75% of participants have witnessed the mistreatment of co-workers at some point throughout their careers, while 47% of participants reported having been bullied at some point in theirs, and 27% admitted to being a target of a bully in the last 12 months.

What is bullying?

Bullying can be intentional, repeated, aggressive behavior that takes place over a period of time, and has a devastating effect on those targeted. Moving forward, we observe the different types of workplace bullying.

Physical bullying

Physical bullying involves unwanted physical contact that is meant to assert power and takes place when a person, their possessions, or property are subject to physical assault. The physical harm is rather obvious and entails hitting, kicking, tripping, shoving, punching, and vandalization.

Verbal bullying

There are many forms of verbal abuse used to undermine self-esteem and exert control. These personal attacks involve insults, mocking, taunting, homophobic or racist remarks, inappropriate sexual comments, or threats that create fear and cause emotional distress.

Social bullying

This type of bullying is trickier to notice, and it can be done covertly and does not always take place in front of the target. Sometimes, this type of bullying starts as a baseless rumor or nasty gossip that can quickly get out of hand. Social bullying damages a person’s social standing, reputation, or relationships, and often dents self-confidence. Social bullying also includes gesturing (bodily or facial), and pranks that humiliate, embarrass, or even isolate people.

Cyber bullying

With the proliferation of devices like smartphones, tablets, gaming consoles, and computers, cyberbullying has become prevalent online. Cyberbullies often send abusive and disparaging texts, posts, emails, hate speech, and offensive images. A cyberbully can be someone you know or a stranger, under anonymous. However, with cyberbullying, there’s a good chance that hundreds of people online are witnessing the intensifying anguish on screen.

Bullying and mental health

According to Mind the Workplace, a report by Mental Health America (MHA), workplace mental health has received increased attention in recent years. One of the main reasons for this is due to the fact that workplace mental health problems result in as much as 500 billion dollars of lost productivity and performance on an annual basis. But it’s more than just financial losses that a company experiences; overstressed, anxious, and unhealthy employees contribute to the creation of unhappy workplaces and lower the overall employee morale.

A different research study undertaken in the UK found that 33% of patients with mood disorders attribute their mental health struggles to their work situation, citing problems and unhappiness at work as the most common self-reported cause of depression. Work having a negative impact on mental health is not surprising since people spend the majority of their daily lives at the office.

The same research revealed that exposure to workplace bullying increases the risk of developing depressive and anxiety disorders, along with PTSD symptoms and stress-related psychological complaints.

How can managers prevent workplace bullying?

Eitan Meiri, an expert psychologist in the field of Abuse and Bullying and advisor to Cassiopeia, shared with me his top 6 steps that management can adopt in order to prevent workplace bullying.

According to Meiri, the first step is to implement a clear and no-tolerance policy throughout the company that specifies bullying in any form will not be tolerated. If it should occur, it will be addressed with disciplinary procedures.

This step is followed by publicizing the policy through an organized process so that all staff is made aware of the company’s standards of non-acceptable behavior. The policy should be presented internally since proper communication and promoting awareness will reach the desired effect.

Measure and track using effective tools or products that help analyze the atmosphere at work and detect the risk of offensive behaviors. By using the right tools to measure employees’ experiences, companies can identify potential behaviors before they escalate, thus maintaining a positive and healthier work environment.

Facilitate anti-bullying training at the management level, as well as for the rest of the company’s employees. In addition to sensitivity training, managers should be trained on how to take appropriate action after receiving employee complaints, and ways to resolve it.

Nominate a professional contact that is reliable and trained. The contact should be inside of the company and accessible to every employee who needs to reach out if they are being bullied or if they see someone else being a bully.

Establish a detailed process for dealing with any bullying incidents. The process can include grievance procedures, investigations, the timescale for action, and counseling.

As companies continue to strive and look for ways to improve employee experience, they should remember that creating a favorable work environment does wonders for employee morale, and is a major driver for a happier and satisfied office. As we spend a large part of our time at work, incorporating the right measures will help managers better influence their employees’ day-to-day lives, resulting in a positive and more inclusive workplace.

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From Shiran Yaroslavsky

Shiran Yaroslavsky is the VP Product US at Hibob. She is the former CEO and Co-founder of Cassiopeia (acquired by Hibob), a startup that helps managers lead teams effectively with data. Shiran is a thought leader in people analytics and remote team leadership. She was featured in 2019 in Forbes’ 30Under30 list in Israel.