Synopsis: Studies estimate that at some point in their careers, 35 percent of workers will be bullied badly enough to affect their health. Experts discuss the reasons for workplace bullying, the outcomes, and some of the few ways to prevent it.

Host: Reed Pence. Guests: Dr. Gary Namie, Director, Workplace Bullying Institute; Meredith Fuller, psychologist and author, Working With Bitches: Identifying Eight Types of Office Mean Girls and How to Deal With Them

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Workplace Bullies

Reed Pence: It’s the truly lucky person who loves his job and looks forward to going to work every day. They do interesting, fulfilling things with bosses and co-workers they like. They’re paid fairly. They have flexibility if they have to take the kids to the doctor. But most of us are not so lucky. Most jobs are a grind, and many workplaces are less flexible than ever. For some workers, it’s even worse than that. They may dread going to work, because as far as their bosses are concerned, they can’t do anything right. They’re the boss’s verbal punching bag, the target of a workplace bully. And they’re far from alone.

Gary Namie: The numbers are staggering. An estimated 54 million Americans directly experience bullying at one time or another in their career. That translates to 35% of all adult Americans.

Reed Pence: Social psychologist Dr. Gary Namie is Director of the Workplace Bullying Institute, based in Bellingham, Washington. He says a lot of bosses deserve being complained about but that doesn’t make them bullies. For example, a boss who’s demanding of everyone.

Gary Namie: The two ways to distinguish demanding from bullying are one, who is affected? And if it’s only one or two people who are singled out, if it’s discriminatory in that way, you’re on the road to bullying. And the second factor is if that person who is singled out, the so called target, is actually affected by stress-related health complications then it’s gone too far, and it’s way beyond demanding. In other words it’s not as stressful if the load is shared across the work team and everyone’s working in crisis mode or deadline meeting mode, and then when it’s over there’s a celebration and it’s off for everyone. But for bullying it’s never off for that particular targeted person.

Reed Pence: Misery truly loves company. But since the targeted worker is alone, the stress for them is unremitting. And that can make the impact on health monumental.

Gary Namie: We know half of the bullied targets suffer clinical depression for the first time in their lives. There is an additional 30% who actually report being diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. Now if that psychological injury is not enough there’s also new empirical and anecdotal research that backs up the fact that a whole host of stress-related diseases are triggered by this unremitting exposure to stress that work abuse, workplace bullying can cause. Cardiovascular harm, gastrointestinal harm so you’ve got ulcers, you’ve got hypertension, you have strokes, you have heart attacks, all the way up to cardiac arrests of course.

Meredith Fuller: I’ve seen very, very senior women who are really high flying women who can be derailed by some of those behaviors. They don’t talk about it, it starts to fester, and after a matter of months, or even a couple of years, you can start to become ill.

Reed Pence: That’s Australian psychologist Meredith Fuller, who specializes in women in the workplace. She’s the author of Working With Bitches: Identifying Eight Types of Office Mean Girls And How To Deal With Them.

Meredith Fuller: You can have immune system disorders, you can find that you’re dreading going to work everyday, you can find that you begin to feel anxious, you can find you begin to feel depressed. And because your self esteem is being eroded you can really query, “Well gee am I in the best job? I should be able to handle this and I can’t.” Another thing that can happen is you lose your confidence, you lose your self esteem, you start to worry that perhaps if I were more competent I could manage this or it wouldn’t upset me, so maybe I’m not too good.

Reed Pence: And along with the psychological loss of confidence, recent neuroscience shows that stress prompts physical changes in the brain that can leave targets feeling less sure of themselves.

Gary Namie: Here’s the way that works, if you’re actually accused falsely of being incompetent, if over a six month to one year period you do not get out from under that abusive supervisor or away from that abusive coworker. Your brain is actually changing and actually preventing you from memorizing as you did once, being able to recall events that you already have learned, so you appear less competent, so they render you less competent. And finally stress affects the rate at which we age. And a Nobel Prize was given for this to Elizabeth Blackburn in 2009, and she shows that stress, unremitting stress, can shorten your life by 9 to 12 years if you’re exposed for a decade. So long story short, stress is real and bullying clearly causes stress and that’s why it must stop.

Reed Pence: But does it stop? Most of the time, no. Especially now in a tough job market, most people can’t just walk away from a bad situation. So Namie says many of us pretend like it doesn’t bother us. Research shows that many people can’t admit they’re being bullied even in anonymous surveys.

Gary Namie: Unfortunately we think we’re tough guys and gals, and we think we can will it away. And we think we have to be able to show that no one can beat us and we’re not going to give into that. The trouble is the body’s physiological responses to it are relatively automatic and not under our cognitive control. So our beliefs could be one thing but our body’s breaking down we would tend to ignore that, the truth is we should pay much more attention to our body. However the reality is people just can’t pick up and leave their jobs now. Health wise we do not consider the impact and unfortunately we just don’t have enough alternatives in the marketplace and escape valves, if you will, for people to get the safety and to restore their good health. So I’m afraid that the effect of the recession and the tough times is really, really cutting into people’s health.

Reed Pence: In fact, Namie says the still-sluggish job market may be providing more incentive than ever for bosses to bully subordinates.

Gary Namie: They can get away with it knowing that they can’t escape. In a sense a lot of times bullying is equated, for us, with domestic violence, but in a lighter analogy it’s a cat playing with a mouse that they wounded, and they don’t really want to let them go they want to keep them around to torment them. And the person who is blocked from escape enables that wounded mouse to hang around and sustain a whole lot more stress and torture without a doubt. The point is that employers have always granted bullies impunity they have not held them accountable, they have not had to suffer, they’ve not been punished from it. In fact there’s an implicit reward, they get rewarded either by complaints not being believed, in other words treated with indifference, or better yet they get a reward they get promoted for their aggressiveness.

Reed Pence: But Namie says workplace bullying isn’t really about getting promoted. It’s not even about work. A bullying boss doesn’t terrorize people because they want them to work harder.

Gary Namie: Their agenda is to meddle with you, and mess with you, and control another person. They couldn’t give a wit about the work itself. They are really destructive to the bottom line. But we can’t get employers to pay attention to the bottom line on this they are too busy defending the jerks. If this were a logical process you’d lay out rationally, here are the costs to the employers: turnover, absenteeism, presenteeism, lawsuits, because in one-fifth of the cases discrimination still plays a roll, workers comp claims, disability, the loss of the best and brightest, talent flight, my gosh you can’t afford to keep these bullies they’re too expensive. And their response is, “but Bob’s a lunch buddy,” and that’s how they sustain this, that is more important to them. So employers, forget it, it’s not that they need a nudge they need a sledgehammer.

Reed Pence: Namie says surveys show that 38% of workplace bullies are women. But they seldom target men. He says 80% of a female bully’s victims are other women. But bullying may be just the beginning. Fuller says her research has uncovered an enormous amount of nasty woman-to-woman behavior at the workplace that doesn’t quite rise to bully status and never gets reported. Maybe a co-worker freezes out a colleague, or takes credit for her work. Maybe there’s a subordinate who “accidentally” loses phone messages meant for one other particular person or “forgets” to tell her about scheduled meetings. It’s “Mean Girls” grown up, and Fuller says for women it’s personal.

Meredith Fuller: It’s more about the subterfuge, the subtlety and not being able to forgive and forget so barring a grudge. Whereas what we find when we look at the males, they are more able to overtly engage in behavior but then they’ll forget it at day’s end because after all it’s only business.

Reed Pence: If it’s “just business,” you may not even think twice about it. Not so if you take it personally.

Meredith Fuller: You can feel really shocked, you can feel confused, you can feel shamed, you worry about is it your fault? There’s nothing wrong with you, you haven’t invited it, and this is an important message because sometimes these mean girls will target you for no reason, and you can’t figure out why aren’t they doing this to the other women, gee it must be me. Well often there are very unconscious processes in place in terms of who they target or how you respond so it’s such a complex issue. And that’s why it’s been so underground people don’t tend to talk about it because we all think, gee, you know, it’s the sisterhood we should all be able to get along with other people and particularly woman and woman, and we can’t imagine that someone would be nasty to us.

Reed Pence: And you can’t go to a higher-up. That may make it even worse. Nobody wants to be taken for a complainer. And a lot of mean girls are very good at brown nosing the boss. So they keep their job.

Meredith Fuller: Sometimes what they do is they have a marvelous way of being obsequious with the head of HR, and of course they get results. And one thing that can happen is people can say, “Well they kept those lazy people in line didn’t they?” Because part of the justification for the screaming is, “Look I’ve inherited this substandard team, I’ve got to be on them all of the time because they’re lazy or they won’t produce, or I’ll make sure we get our money’s worth out of them,” or whatever. So they’re often forgiven because they’re seen as good drivers of people and they get the outcomes. And I guess that’s what happens with all of these types is that they’ve got a way of delivering the goods, whether it’s through your hard work or through intimidation, and that’s one of the reasons why they seem to be saved.

Reed Pence: Namie says with the way the law is now, it’s generally not a good idea to consider a lawsuit unless a worker can prove racial or gender discrimination. Unfortunately, in the American workplace, bullies have the power. You can’t even tell a prospective new employer the real reason why you’re looking for a new job.

Gary Namie: Our research shows that once your’re bullied you have a 77% chance of losing that job either by quitting, being terminated or being constructively discharged, and explaining it is not easy yet. I can’t wait until we have a culture change where we acknowledge, “Hey, the last place let me down, that employer let me down, I had to get out of there for my own safety and you’re not going to manage people like that are you?” And put the new employer on guard and make them want to appear competitive. The truth is we’re just not there yet, maybe someday.

Reed Pence: You can find out more about the Workplace Bullying Institute at I’m Reed Pence.


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