When someone says the word ‘bully’, what do you picture? Is it the kid in the lunchroom who made fun of your glasses? Or the person sitting behind you in class who started a mean rumor? Whether we are aware of it or not, bullying is something that happens as an adult, too. In February, Canada and the United States will celebrate Pink Shirt Day, a day when pink clothing is worn to show solidarity against bullying.

With the day fast approaching, we encourage you to consider what workplaces and companies can do to understand bullying’s effect on employees and help put a stop it.

To start, here’s a quick explainer about different types of bullying:

  • Physical: actual force or aggression against someone, like hitting them
  • Verbal: using language to attack someone, like name calling
  • Cyber: using electronic devices to threaten, intimidate, exclude or embarrass, like sending threats on social media
  • Social or relational: attempting to hurt someone through exclusion or ignoring them, like gossiping behind their back

Life in the Digital Age & Increases in Bullying

The introduction and massive adoption of digital and online platforms over the last several decades has certainly increased the potential victim pool by eliminating geography and increasing connectedness for perpetrators. And in 2020, opportunities rose even more as people began to live a great majority of their lives digitally.

It’s no surprise then that recent studies in the U.S. showed cyberbullying has increased by 70% in the last year or so. Not only has moving work, school and social interactions to be almost entirely virtual opened up the options for bullies, but the added stress of the pandemic and its closely tied financial repercussions have had a major impact on peoples’ psyches.

People all over the world are on edge, and misunderstandings are more likely to occur during stressful situations as the desire for self-protection is deep seated. Heightened emotions and low mental states are more sensitive to bullying and perceived slights.

Adults and Workplaces are Not Immune to Bullying

Unfortunately, some people continue to be bullies (or develop into them) as adults – and workplaces are not immune from the behavior.

In the workplace, some 61% of bullying comes from bosses or supervisors, according to the World Bullying Institute – and 33% of bullying comes from coworkers. It’s likely not a surprise that protected classes are bullied more often than others, the same research says that only 19% of bullied people were white.

These numbers all add up to more than 60 million working people being affected by bullying, which can impact the overall well-being of an organization. While there are laws in place to prevent things like harassment and discrimination, it’s important to understand the distinction between them all.

Harassment and bullying are similar because someone is being hurt through cruel, offensive or insulting behaviours. They’re different in that harassment is a form of discrimination. Discrimination means someone is being treated poorly because of certain characteristics or differences, such as age, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or physical and mental disability, among other things.

Effects of Bullying on Business

Like any threat to physical or mental well-being, bullying will also have repercussions for your organization by affecting its overall health. You may see things like increased absenteeism, turnover and stress in employees. But you could also experience higher costs for employee assistance programs and recruitment, not to mention an increased risk of accidents and reductions in motivation and customer confidence.

While some bullying is more overt, it can be subtle, even though it is all a form of aggression. It’s also hard to predict who may become a target or a perpetrator, but keep in mind that bullying is usually a pattern of behavior. It could be that a number of incidents occur, but sometimes all it takes is one to have a lasting effect.

Keep an eye out for some of the following things on your team. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety website also has more extensive list of behaviors to watch for.

  • Intimidation of a particular person
  • Socially isolating or excluding someone
  • Deliberately interfering with someone’s work through undermining it or removing areas of responsibility
  • Gossip, innuendo or malicious rumors

Employee Health Outcomes

When it comes down to it, if your employees feel they are being treated well and are happy at work, that’s going to do far better things for your organization than sweeping incidents under the rug or ignoring them completely. It’s important to address employee concerns before they start influencing morale and productivity.

If someone is the target of bullying, they may feel a range of emotions and effects. These could include feeling frustrated or helpless, losing confidence and an increased sense of vulnerability. However, the reaction could be more severe.

Physical symptoms could range from loss of appetite to inability to sleep to stomach pains and headaches. Mental health can suffer through anxiety, loss of concentration, low morale and productivity. These stressors could also come home with employees to create tension with their loved ones.

Prevent Bullying in the Workplace

As with any company policy, the most important factor is commitment from management. It might be a good idea to create a comprehensive policy to cover everything from bullying to harassment to physical violence. Then make sure that it’s enforced and supported so that employees feel comfortable addressing issues when they arise.

Any workplace policy should include a way to report incidents, anonymously if possible. Education about bullying, conflict resolution and options for receiving assistance is important, too. And training management to recognize and deal with situations promptly shows employees that you take the issue seriously.

Most importantly, take action quickly. Gather all the facts and show that your organization is taking every measure to enforce its policies and provide a safe working environment.

In schools, statistics show that 71% of students who are bullied continue to be, so it’s worth considering similar numbers could be found in workplaces. If you witness bullying at work, consider the following ways you can help:

  • Speak up. Ignoring bullying only helps make toxic workplaces even more uncomfortable.
  • Support by offering to act as a witness, or going with the victim to HR.
  • Listen to and respect your coworker’s response to the situation. Maybe they don’t feel comfortable going to HR and just need someone to talk to.
  • Report the incident to management yourself so they know that problems have occurred.
  • Stick with your coworker when you can – find strength in numbers.
  • Encourage your office to implement policies against bullying and retaliation.

Last but not least, wear your best pink shirt on February 24 to help raise awareness about the work we can all do to prevent bullying.


Stay up to date with the latest news and updates