Bullied workers suffer 'battle stress'

25-08-2004

What do soldiers under fire and bullied workers have in common?

Not much, you may think.

However research from a leading psychologist suggests that bullied workers go through the very same emotions and stresses as battle-scarred troopers.

Dr Noreen Tehrani has counselled victims of the troubles in Northern Ireland, soldiers returning from combat overseas and victims of workplace bullying.

"The symptoms displayed by people who have been in conflict situations and workplaces where bullying happens are strikingly similar," Dr Tehrani told BBC News Online.

"Both groups suffer nightmares, are jumpy and seem fuelled by too much adrenaline.

"In addition, they show greater susceptibility to illnesses, heart disease and alcoholism."

The favoured definition of bullying amongst psychologists is persistent devaluing demeaning or harassing of someone at work.

Disorder

To back up her years of experience, Dr Tehrani conducted a study of 165 professionals in the caring sector such as nurses and social workers.

Dr Tehrani found that 36% of the men and 42% of the women reported having experienced bullying.

Overall, one in five people exhibited the main symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

According to Dr Tehrani, the three signs of PTSD are hyper arousal, a feeling of constant anxiety and over-vigilance; avoidance of anything to do with the traumatising event; and re-experiencing, in which subjects suffer flashbacks or obsessive thoughts concerning the trauma.

Early signs of workplace bullying are sickness and absenteeism, Dr Tehrani added.

Inflict pain

Bullying can take many forms from malicious gossiping to overt physical violence.

"Generally, male bullies indulge in quite physical and loud verbal bullying," said Dr Tehrani.

"Female bullies favour a strictly psychological approach to inflicting pain on others such as gossip and persistent criticism."

Interestingly, the image of the bullying boss terrorising staff doesn't paint the whole picture.

"Bullying managers grab the headlines, but it also occurs between people on the same grade or even on occasions subordinates can intimidate their boss."

Sick

There are no hard and fast estimates as to how much workplace bullying costs the UK economy.

However, research conducted for the British Occupational Health Research Foundation (BOHRF) by the Lancaster University Management School and UMIST in 2002 suggested that bullying in the UK workplace is rife.

The research found that one in 10 people had been bullied at work within the previous six months.

Bullied employees take, on average, seven days per year more sick leave than others.

"The cost to firms must be astronomical, many millions of pounds, and that doesn't include the mental impact on workers," said Professor Cary Cooper, co-author of the study.

In addition, it appears that bullying can have a negative impact on observers.

"Our research showed that witnesses to the bullying suffered many of the same mental problems as the people being bullied," said Professor Cooper.

Public spectre

Bullying was found to be particularly prevalent in the police, prison service, teaching and healthcare professions.

The government is so worried about the problem of bullying in the public sector that is has given the Amicus trade union �1m to conduct research into its causes.

Patricia Hewitt, Trade and Industry Secretary, called workplace bullying "a terrible issue with terrible consequences".

The BOHRF study singled out the postal service as a hotbed of workplace bullying.

Stung by the findings, Allan Leighton, Royal Mail chairman, launched a programme in January 2003 to stamp out bullying amongst the firms 200,000 staff.

"Quite frankly I've been appalled by the cases of bullying I have heard about since I joined Royal Mail. These have been some of the worst cases I have heard about in my working life. There can be no excuses," Mr Leighton said at the time.

A crack squad of harassment investigators and a 24 hour bullying helpline were set up by the Royal Mail.

"We recognised that we had a problem and that a change in culture was needed," Christine Gregory, Royal Mail spokeswoman, told BBC News Online.

"Ending bullying brings huge advantages for us, it should reduce absenteeism and boost productivity.

"Above all, creating an environment of respect helps make us a good place to work."

By Julian Knight
BBC News Online personal finance reporter

BBC News

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