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Why employers need to be grown up about tackling playground bullying in the workplace

There is a myth in far too many boardrooms that bullying and mental health awareness in the workplace is a nuisance and tends to be down to a clash of personalities rather than being a compliance issue.

The reality is that although there is no direct law against bullying, employers have a duty to safeguard the welfare of their employees under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. Bullying claims can end up in a tribunal as discrimination and harassment cases.

How bullying in the workplace can have a long-term impact on mental health

Bullying is insidious, chipping away at the victim’s confidence and self-respect.  Anyone who has witnessed it in the workplace will know how quickly it can undermine mental health and wellbeing, and just how difficult it is to pin down – let alone prove – exactly what is taking place.

Acts of bullying in the workplace often involve undermining an individual in a way that can make it appear as if they are at fault. As the individual loses faith in themselves and those around them, they become ever more reticent and less likely to speak up. Once someone’s confidence has been destroyed in this way, it may never return and the long-term impact on mental health and employability can be devastating.

According to a study by ACAS, bullying at work can lead to physical and psychological health problems and can impact negatively on personal relationships and family life. It can lead to post-traumatic stress disorders, self-harm and even suicide. The study found that it is not just the victims themselves who are affected but also those witnessing it and people are often too afraid to speak up in case they are not believed, or that their actions aggravate the situation.

Employers (and board members) have a responsibility to create a safe and positive working environment

Eliminating or preventing bullying in the workplace does not mean leaving it to HR to deal with. Senior managers and board members must set their stall by adopting a zero-tolerance stance and leading by example. Sadly, ACAS research found that most perpetrators of bullying are managers, which can make it difficult for HR teams to manage the situation successfully without strong leadership and direction from above. The challenge of dealing with bullying behaviour is complicated even further by the fact that bullies can abuse their position of seniority to exert coercive control over more junior colleagues.

Furthermore, the Trade Union Congress itself has highlighted the fact that bullying is more common against ethnic minority workers, women in male dominated environments, LGBT staff and employees with health problems or disabilities. This should be a red flag to employers in terms of discrimination.

Bullying is a particularly unpleasant and underhand phenomenon and investigations can be long and complex, but this must not deter employers from taking action. Moreover, bosses should be mindful that HR staff themselves are in danger of being adversely affected by the unique pressures involved in following up such complaints. The role of an HR professional encompasses a duty to protect employees’ mental health and wellbeing as well as that of the victims of bullying and research by Time4Sleep, reported in, advises that over 90 per cent of HR staff claim to lose sleep because they are thinking about work.

Undoubtedly there has been a greater awareness of workplace harassment in recent times with many victims choosing to speak up knowing they are more likely to be taken seriously. If board members and other senior managers begin to speak openly about bullying and the types of behaviours that will not be tolerated within their organisation, boundaries will naturally be set and the confidence to speak up will grow.

As senior managers and board members are faced with the realities of bullying within the workplace the time has come for an active and forward-thinking approach to this behaviour. A unilateral, open and zero tolerance stance with a simple policy will show employees that workplace wellbeing is not only recognised, it is encouraged.

Do you need to work through a zero-tolerance policy in your workplace? Have you suffered at from bullying in the workplace and not sure what your next moves are? Get in touch with Richard and his team at Boardside –