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A number of research projects have highlighted the prevalence of bullying in workplaces across Britain and the detrimental effect it can have on those who experience it. A recent study, published in the Journal of Social Psychology, has found that the impact of bullying isn’t restricted to the direct victim and their families, but can also be felt by the victim’s colleagues.

Study into bullying

Researchers at the University of New Hampshire conducted a survey to find out how wide ranging the impact of bullying at work could be.

They questioned survey respondents about their experiences of supervisory abuse, vicarious supervisory abuse, job frustration, perceived organisational support, and co-worker abuse. 

Abusive supervision

According to the researchers, abusive supervision is considered a dysfunctional type of leadership and includes a sustained display of hostile verbal and nonverbal behaviours toward subordinates.

“Although the effects of abusive supervision may not be as physically harmful as other types of dysfunctional behavior, such as workplace violence or aggression, the actions are likely to leave longer-lasting wounds,” said Paul Harvey, associate professor of organisational behaviour at UNH, “in part, because abusive supervision can continue for a long time.”

Vicarious supervisory abuse

Vicarious supervisory abuse takes place when abusive bosses negatively impact the work environment for the co-workers of employees that they are bullying. These co-workers suffer from “second-hand” or vicarious abusive supervision, by observing or being aware of a supervisor abusing a co-worker. 

This can happen in a number of different ways, including:

  • an employee hearing rumours of abusive behaviour from co-workers, 
  • reading about such behaviours in an email, 
  • or actually witnessing the abuse of a co-worker. 

The researchers found that first-hand supervisory abuse and second-hand vicarious supervisory abuse can result in similar negative effects, such as:

  • greater job frustration, 
  • a tendency to abuse other co-workers, and 
  • a lack of perceived organisational support.

Unsurprisingly, these effects were found to be intensified if the co-worker was a victim of both kinds of supervisory abuse.

Bullying and harassment in the UK

Bullying and harassment are a relatively common occurrence in Britain’s workplaces. A recent study by Canada Life Group Insurance found that around a quarter of employees have experienced bullying at work. Ten percent of employees reported taking time off as sick leave to avoid bullying, and 11% said they have done so because they say have been treated unfairly by a line manager.

It is important that employers act quickly to resolve any incidences of bullying or harassment in the workplace. Failure to do so could result in stress for the affected employees, higher rates of sickness absence, and ultimately the possibility of an employment tribunal claim.

The latest estimates from the Labour Force Survey show that the total number of cases of stress in 2011/12 was 428,000 (40%) out of a total of 1,073,000 for all work-related illnesses.

The figures also show that the main causes of work related stress were work pressure, lack of managerial support and work-related violence and bullying.

Recent research has highlighted that poor working relationships are bad for business by damaging the emotional health, productivity and motivation of the UK’s 29 million employees.

The study, by Canada Life Group Insurance, found the ongoing economic downturn has heightened worries about job security, and workplaces are proving to be increasingly hostile environments.

Around 26% of employees have fallen out with a colleague who they say has made their working life more difficult, and 25% feel as though they have been poorly treated because they are different or ‘do not fit in’.

Employees seem more likely to recognise when their colleagues are treated unfairly – be it getting undeserved praise or unwarranted criticism - rather than if they are facing these issues. Almost two-thirds (64%) believe they have witnessed colleagues benefitting from favouritism but just 12% say they have benefitted from this.

Over half (54%) would say that some members of staff get away with doing less work because of their friendships with other employees (7% - themselves). Two-fifths (42%) have witnessed senior members of staff abusing their power in the workplace, and 47% have seen colleagues making life more difficult for one another after a falling out.

This could have as demoralising an effect as witnessing bullying or ill-treatment; a third (36%) have witnessed colleagues receiving praise and recognition – even though they feel have not worked as hard as they should.

The TUC has issued a statement in response to the Government's recent announcement that it is to repeal sections of the Equality Act, less than two years after the legislation was introduced.

TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said:

'Getting rid of third party harassment will make working life even harder for the thousands of care home staff, teachers and health workers who suffer prejudice and abuse from those they are trying to help.

'And taking away the power of tribunals to make recommendations to employers will make it much more difficult to deal with employers who serially bully and discriminate against their staff.

'These changes are in line with wider government plans to weaken employment rights and let bad bosses off the hook. This is no way to create the decent full-time jobs that this country so desperately needs.'

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