March 31, 2008— -- Chances are if you work with others, you'll be bullied at some point in your career.
In the U.S., where the practice is being studied, an estimated 37 percent of workers, or about 54 million people, have been bullied at the office, or repeatedly mistreated in a health-harming way, according to a 2007 Zogby International survey. The percentage balloons to 49 percent of workers, 71.5 million people, when witnesses are included.
The problem is, however, unless you're at the receiving end of severe abuse, you're unlikely to realize it.
Experts say there's a general lack of awareness about the bullying and the types of behaviors the term encompasses. This often prevents people from realizing that a boss or co-worker is a bully. There's also an element of personal shame involved.
"They're sinking into a really bad state emotionally, finding it harder to go to work and it might even affect their job performance," says David Yamada, a professor at Suffolk University Law School and president of the New Workplace Institute, a nonprofit that promotes healthy, productive and socially responsible workplaces. "Oftentimes people don't put the pieces together until it's too late."
While hard to quantify, workplace bullying is clearly costly for employees as well as employers.
About 45 percent of individuals targeted by bullies at work suffer stress-related health problems, according to the Zogby survey. That could include cardiovascular problems, an impaired immune system, debilitating anxiety and even post-traumatic stress disorder, says Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute and president of Work Doctor, a consulting firm that specializes in correcting and preventing workplace bullying.
Companies pay in employee turnover, employee absenteeism and, to a small extent, workers' compensation claims. Bullies can tarnish an organization's reputation and ability to recruit, since word gets around when employees are miserable and leaving in droves.
New research by University of Manitoba's M. Sandy Hershcovis and Julian Barling, of Queen's University in Ontario, also shows that workplace bullying is hurting employees more than sexual harassment--causing more job stress, less job commitment and higher levels of anxiety.
Yamada and the Workplace Bullying Institute have been promoting state legislation that asks employers to address the issue and give victims legal recourse, which they currently only have if the bullying is related to a protected status, such as race. But critics counter that such legislation creates a serious liability risk for companies.
Regardless of the legislation or your company's individual policy, workers have to recognize the problem before anything is likely to change. If you're physically ill the night before the start of every workweek, take a minute to think about whether it's because you're being bullied.
While more overt signs might include a boss who has a habit of yelling at you in front of your co-workers or making belittling or critical comments about your work during meetings, some behavior is more insidious. Ever get excluded from a group lunch or team meeting? That might qualify as bullying, too.
If you're looking for advice, scholars with Arizona State University's Project for Wellness and Work-Life, a group that examines the intersections of work, domestic life and wellness, have some suggestions. In their 2007 report entitled "How to Bust the Office Bully," they recommend that targets figure out a rational way to tell their stories to colleagues, bosses or human resources while managing their emotions. Emphasizing your competence and showing consideration for others' perspectives is also crucial, the report says.
But if you feel like your company supports this kind of negative behavior, your best option just might be to quit.
"It's not worth it," Hershcovis says, "to put your health at risk."