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Workplace bullying: a public health issue for employers and government

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Image: Workplace bullying: a public health issue for employers and governmentIn principle work is good for us; good work provides people with a focus, an income, a degree of personal satisfaction and the opportunity to socialise and interact with other human beings. Yet work can have a negative impact on people's lives – both in and outside work, an impact that is often not given the weight it deserves. Some employers are attempting to address this oversight.

Faced with a challenging economic environment, the global marketplace and the need to have more efficient and productive workers, an increasing number of employers are seeking to create working environments in which protecting and promoting the health and wellbeing of their staff is seen as a corporate priority.

In Europe much of the impetus for this approach stems from the Luxembourg Declaration for Workplace Health promotion first published in 1997 and updated in 2005. This declaration states that “Workplace Health Promotion (WHP) is the combined efforts of employers, employees and society to improve the health and well-being of people at work. This can be achieved through a combination of: improving the work organization and the working environment; promoting active participation; and encouraging personal development”. Within this and other definitions of workplace health and wellbeing the implicit essential is that the workplace is safe – for an unhealthy workplace cannot by definition be “healthy”. Taken together, a “safe” and “healthy” workplace will be one in which every employee's physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing is valued, protected and promoted.

Proactive workplace health management

A core process to achieve the aforementioned goal is proactive workplace health management. Such management can take a number of forms ranging from a focus on lifestyle topics such as healthy eating, physical activity, smoking, and stress awareness in which employee awareness is raised and opportunities might be created for staff to engage in healthier eating, exercise, and smoking cessation to an approach in which wellbeing is deeply embedded in the corporate culture of the organization. Here the wellbeing of staff is at the centre of corporate decisions and practices; human resource management and occupational health are finely tuned in, and are supportive of this culture. Health is considered in its broadest possible context.

Such an organization will be characterised not only by how many “awareness raising sessions” it offers staff, although it will do so, but it also will have a comprehensive range of policies and procedures in place in which health is protected and promoted. Safety will be of the highest standard. Occupational health will be proactive in nature and, in addition to all of these actions, steps will be taken to engage and involve staff in decision-making processes. The development of the worker is seen as essential; the demonstration of value and worth as a high priority; and working relationships are underpinned by trust and respect.

Can bullying and harassment exist in such an organization? The answer is a very obvious yes because people will be people! But in organizations that highly value the health and well-being of their employees, procedures for identifying and addressing bullying and harassment will be clear, accessible and trusted. The adoption of a comprehensive workplace health management programme has much to offer organizations and the people they employ by embedding health in corporate culture and providing a clear framework that legitimises action.

A major issue for employers and government

Workplace health is becoming a major public health issue for employers and all levels of government. Furthermore, workplace health is also gaining momentum at an individual organizational level.

“…workplace health programmes not only lower healthcare and insurance costs, but also decrease absenteeism, and improve performance and productivity.”

Well-planned, comprehensive workplace health programmes have been shown to be cost-effective, especially when the health promotion programmes are targeted and matched to the health problems of the specific employee population. Furthermore, studies have repeatedly demonstrated that workplace health programmes not only lower healthcare and insurance costs, but also decrease absenteeism, and improve performance and productivity.

The impact of workplace bullying

Similarly, workplace bullying is emerging as a factor impacting on the health of individuals both within and outside the workplace. That is, there are health consequences not only for those who have been bullied, but also those who have witnessed bullying, for the alleged perpetrator(s), or for those who have to address the problem, such as counsellors, medical practitioners, lawyers and family members.

Previous research has identified a diverse range of effects of workplace bullying on individuals, organization and society. Individuals report a disturbing array of reactions from psychological, physical, physiological and psychosomatic. Some of the psychological symptoms include:

  • generalised anxiety;
  • irritability;
  • anger;
  • crying;
  • depression; and
  • paranoia.

Physical symptoms include:

  • disturbed sleep patterns;
  • stomach disorders;
  • headaches and raised blood pressure;
  • fatigue and muscular complaints; and
  • physical abuse.

Physiological problems include:

  • neuroticism;
  • diminished self-esteem; and
  • emotional exhaustion.

Psychosomatic problems include;

  • chronic depression;
  • victimisation; and
  • sleeplessness.

The existence of these problems, either in isolation or as combinations, has long-term health and wellbeing consequences for the person who experiences being bullied.

The effects of workplace bullying

The effects of workplace bullying on the organization include decreased productivity and performance, absenteeism, higher intention to leave, job dissatisfaction, bad publicity, and increased legal costs.

Workplace bullying stifles innovation and creativity, and discourages functional conflict, openness and risk taking, attributes that many employers expect from their employees. There may also be legal implications. Should the situation require legal intervention by way of mediation, arbitration, conciliation, negotiation or through the industrial tribunals or courts, then such interventions could have severely negative organizational impacts.

The effects of workplace bullying on society ought not to be underestimated in terms of health management requirements. Those effects may include the loss of sections of an active labour force through resignation, early retirement or voluntary redundancy; and the cost of medical interventions for the public health system.

While bullying and harassment are generally considered to be unacceptable, they, nonetheless, appear to be a continuing part of working life for many employees. Workplace health management is becoming more prominent in some organizations, although it may not be as high up on the corporate agenda as it ought to be – given the positive effects that may be seen to emanate from a successfully implemented strategy. Workplace health management, and a corporate culture based on partnership, trust and respect, offers considerable potential to move the agenda forward.

There appears to be a paucity of knowledge available as to how workplace health management strategies and programmes impact on an organizational culture where bullying and harassment may be seen to exist. Similarly, there seems to be a paucity of knowledge available from evaluations of strategies that might be in place. Assembling and sharing such a knowledge base could be a very useful first step.

July 2011.


This is a shortened version of “Understanding the context of workplace health management as it relates to workplace bullying”, which originally appeared in International Journal of Workplace Health Management, Volume 4 Number 1, 2011.

The authors are Michael Sheehan and John Griffiths.