Workplace Bullying: How to create a bully-free culture in your business

Mention the word bullying and people are immediately transported back to their school days. However, bullying can affect different ages and environments and isn’t just restricted to the classroom. Bullying in the workplace is far more commonplace than you may think.

According to Royal & Sun Alliance, the largest commercial insurance company in the UK, the cost to British business due to absenteeism, lost productivity and staff turnover is almost £18 billion a year. Employers have a responsibility to create a safe and positive work environment for their teams. There are steps you can take as a business owner to ensure that bullying and harassment don’t get a chance to prosper in your workplace.

What is workplace bullying?

The government’s official definition of workplace bullying and harassment is ‘behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated or offended’. Workplace bullying is different from harassment, which is against the law and involves unwanted behaviour related to a protected characteristic (for instance, race, gender or disability) under the Equality Act 2010
However, bullying should still be considered a serious matter. It can have a hugely detrimental impact both upon individual employees, as well as on the productivity of a business. A study by SME loans in 2019 reported that 1 in 4 employees had experienced bullying at work, which demonstrates how widespread the problem is within UK businesses.

Bullying behaviours

Bullying can be verbal, non-verbal, written or physical. Examples of bullying behaviour include:

  • Shouting at colleagues
  • Criticising a competent employee, taking their responsibilities away or giving them trivial tasks to do
  • Spreading malicious rumours
  • Persistently picking on or undermining people
  • Setting a person up to deliberately fail by overloading them or giving them impossible deadlines
  • Deliberately withholding information
  • Ignoring and regularly excluding staff from work activities
  • Blocking promotion

The human toll

Targets can experience a wide range of both physical and mental ailments as a direct consequence of being subjected to bullying in the workplace. Physical symptoms can include:

  • Sleep deprivation
  • Loss of appetite
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Headaches
  • Musculoskeletal problems
  • Panic attacks

For many, the impact on mental health is just as debilitating. Victims of bullying frequently report that they suffer:

  • Anxiety
  • Severe stress
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Reactive depression
  • Loss of confidence
  • Feelings of worthlessness leading them to withdraw
  • Low morale
  • Post-traumatic stress syndrome in severe cases

Being bullied at work may set back an employee’s employment prospects for years, as they may be unable to work for a long period afterwards and will be faced with trying to rebuild their career.

“I was so traumatised after enduring 3 years of bullying at my former employer that my doctor diagnosed PTSD and I had to undergo 6 months of counselling.”

a victim of workplace bullying

The cost to business

The figures reported from the Royal and Sun Alliance survey show the scale of the financial impact bullying has on the UK workplace. For both employers and employees, the consequences can be devastating and far-reaching. Business owners suffer the cost of lost productivity caused by increased absenteeism if employees take sickness absence. Being on the receiving end of a workplace bully can also detrimentally affect a person’s productivity, as their concentration levels will be adversely affected by stress and sleep deprivation. If bullying isn’t dealt with, then there may be a higher turnover of staff, resulting in high recruitment and training costs.

Worse still is the potential cost to a business of having to attend an employment tribunal. Legal costs could run into tens of thousands of pounds and potential compensation to employees could be even higher. If you opt to go down the route of a compromise agreement to avoid a case reaching a tribunal, then this is also likely to cost you a considerable amount with payments in lieu of notice, etc. 

On top of this, you also have to contend with the potential damage to your company’s reputation. In today’s social-media-driven world, it’s almost impossible to keep a bad reputation at bay. Bullying victims may well tell their friends and family about their dreadful experiences at your company, which in turn, could deter potential employees, partners and customers.

How you can prevent bullying in your business

Have a procedure

If your business has a number of employees, then one of the best things you can do is put a clear policy together stating that workplace bullying will not be tolerated. This policy should also outline the steps an employee should take if they feel they are being subjected to bullying or harassment. Information and support, together with guides and templates are available from ACAS.

Set the right example

As an employer, you should also set a good example through employee consultation, maintaining good communication and fair policies. If one of your employees raises a complaint of bullying, then you need to demonstrate that you are being supportive and treating it with the utmost fairness. You can also produce an organisation statement for all staff about the expected standards of behaviour. This will make it easier for people to be aware of their responsibilities and what the boundaries are within the workplace.

How to prevent workplace bullying through education

As well as setting the right example, you can also take steps to educate your employees to create the right workplace culture and an environment where bullying cannot prosper. Steps you can take include:

  • Training for managers – Those in charge need to understand what makes a good manager, how to set and manage expectations and how to manage conflict constructively.
  • Create a culture of well-being – the importance of work-life balance cannot be underestimated. People are more likely to lash out at their colleagues if they are stressed and overworked. By promoting a culture of well-being, you will increase motivation and teamwork.
  • Educate your team – As an employer, it’s your job to raise awareness of bullying and the effects it can have in the workplace. This will show your employees that you have a commitment to creating a safe environment, as well as improving everyone’s understanding of what behaviour is acceptable.

Promote a positive culture

Just as important as processes and training is creating a positive workplace culture. The working environment will have a big impact on productivity within your business, so it’s essential to get it right. Good leaders and business owners should always be looking to improve employee engagement. This is how you retain talent in your workforce, as well as create a positive working environment.

Top tips to make your workplace more positive

  • Be clear on your company values  – Make sure you tell your team what’s important for your business so that they understand how what they do fits into the bigger picture.
  • Stay transparent – If you’re making changes to your business, be upfront and open with your team, rather than letting communication happen by whispers and rumours.
  • Praise your team – Everyone loves to hear that they’ve done a good job once in a while. Thanking your team for their efforts, as well as highlighting when someone’s performed well, are great for both motivation and morale.
  • Communicate your vision and goals – If your team understand their job expectations and targets, then they will be clear on their responsibilities.
  • Avoid micro-management – No one likes being watched over like a hawk. Give your team space and opportunity to find their own methods of working and you’ll reap the rewards with a more engaged workforce.
  • Get feedback – Don’t underestimate the value of listening to your team. Get to know your employees and ask for their feedback regularly. Everyone likes to feel they have a voice and that their opinions matter.
  • Beat the stigma – Don’t let mental health be a taboo subject. Encourage your team to access the tools they need to take care of their mental health, such as meditation and mindfulness. Foster an open culture where it’s ok to talk about how you are feeling.
  • No fun, no point – Taking occasional time out from the normal routine can work wonders for team morale. Plan activities or social events where people can relax and bond as a team.

At times of stress and anxiety, our conscious mind can get overwhelmed easily. Meditation and mindfulness shift the focus from the mind to the body, the breathing, the relaxation of the muscles, the stillness etc. This “dilutes” the chatter and worry of the conscious mind and opens up communication with the inner (unconscious) mind.

This inner mind contains our resources, strengths, coping skills, resilience and much more. With meditation, we are able to reduce the physical, emotional and mental effects of stress.

Andrew Johnson, Tide member and Founder of Working Mindfully, the meditation and mindfulness app for the workplace.

Wrapping up

When you’ve spent time and effort building up your business, the last thing you want is for it to gain a reputation for having a toxic culture as a result of workplace bullying. If you’re an employer, then you have a duty of care to your team to provide a place of work where they feel safe and secure. The health effects of workplace bullying can be considered as an industrial injury and it’s not an issue that can be ignored. 

However, by having clear processes in place, so your team understands the standards of acceptable behaviour, you will go some way to ensuring a toxic culture cannot prevail. You should also avoid favouritism and ensure that any complaints of bullying are dealt with fairly and properly.

By taking steps to build a more positive culture in your business, you will not only see the benefits in a more engaged and happier team, but this will also result in increased productivity too. 

Caroline Wire

Caroline Wire

Senior Small Business Copywriter

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