One person, close to me, was once bullied at her workplace.
I missed it, completely. At the time, I didn’t even know that workplace bullying was a thing — therefore I was a bystander, ignorant of what she was going through, powerless to assist. One could say that I was blind to the obvious and I started wondering how I could have happened. Was it simply a lack of information or was there more to it? Discussing with her, I learned that, although she was emotionally suffering, she wasn’t able to put a word or notion on what was unraveling at these times. Even more striking was the fact that she was only cognizant, at the latest stage of this harassment, to be the victim of wicked attacks.
I began researching the topic and found testimonies of other individuals, expressing the same issue, namely being unable, at first, to recognize they were bullied. Sandy, stated: “I had not realized I was being bullied for almost two years until I read a story in a health magazine of someone being bullied”¹. Illzy made the same observation: “My first experience with ‘bullying’ I didn’t even know it was ‘bullying’”². Laura questioned herself, wondering if her interpretation of the situation was accurate: “Am I being bullied or do I overreact?”³. She is not alone as another woman avowed: “I thought I was going out of my mind [..] being paranoid and oversensitive”⁴.
As Sandy alluded to, with simple web inquiries, I also found dozens of “health” articles online with identical titles: “X signs that you are being bullied at work”⁵ ⁶ ⁷, all providing examples of tactics used by bullies (false accusations, silent treatment, constant critics, …) fitting in broader behaviors (threat to professional status, isolation, overwork, …). As informative as they are, it was still unclear to me when or how can you be categorized as bullied?
Obviously, if you feel sick just by the idea of going to work or if you are crying for no apparent reason after the day, you don’t need to analytically decide whether or not you are being bullied, you need to protect yourself, first and foremost.
Still, do we have to wait for these extreme symptoms to gain consciousness that things are abnormal and start to act? There must be a better way to avoid reaching such levels of sickness than to wait for individuals to spontaneously become self-aware of their issues and, by themselves, investigate the reasons for their breakdown. Hence why we can now see fantastic prevention actions sprouting, world-wide, to mitigate this nightmarish catch-22 and educate the broader community on what workplace bullying is.
So, how do they explain it? What is it and why is it so insidious? I guess, like many others, I hit a snag as I struggled to find a definition of workplace bullying, not only is commonly agreed upon, but that is precise and easy enough to grasp so everyone can assimilate it.
Can we clearly and simply define workplace bullying?
In 1958, a “prophetic” article on “problems of tomorrow” (including mental health) described how behavioral science research could support the health field, explained that defining concisely a problem is a requirement to research and ultimately result⁸.
Many pieces of research and studies have been conducted on this vast and once-taboo topic, especially, since the start of the new millennium⁹. With consistent results, they underline that bullying is a worldwide phenomenon, with similar features and outcomes¹⁰. There is no doubt that our understanding of this form of aggression has increased and, today, we are more capable to explain this behavior, mostly how it impacts the physical and mental health of the victims¹¹ ¹².
It has been broadly acknowledged that we have knowledge gaps we need to fill to fully understand workplace bullying¹³ ¹⁴. Surely, one of the most important that persists is the need to bridge the theoretical definition with one that can be efficiently and effortlessly assimilated by individuals, leveraged by organizations (for prevention and diagnosis) and legislated by governments¹⁵.
A meta-analysis (e.g a summary of several research papers) underlines the discrepancy between the scientific construct and the laypersons’ perception of bullying. It found that 18.1% of their respondents qualified themselves as being bullied at work, whereas this number would be almost halved when a concept definition of bullying was provided before asking surveyed persons to assess themselves¹⁶.
I discovered a plethora of definitions in the scientific literature¹⁷ ¹⁸ ¹⁹, all different, sometimes excessively convoluted, and extensively detailed. In an attempt to summarize the notion, I would word it as follow:
Workplace bullying is the persistent repetition of negative acts (work-related, person-related, or ostracism) over a long time-period against an individual, unable to defend him or herself against these actions.
It isn’t clearer now, is it? Even if this interpretation, from a behavioral science’s point of view, might contain all the characteristic elements of workplace bullying; from my point of view, this is still perplexing.
If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough — Einstein
It stings but sounds utterly true.
Why is defining workplace bullying so complex?
Perhaps, one of the most striking reasons explaining why defining bullying is such an arduous task is the notion of temporality. The negative behavior the victims are subject to has to occur over time. Interpersonal conflict inevitably arises in the office and, without being acceptable, it certainly cannot be qualified as harassment unless it lingers. Then, what is an acceptable time frame? Is there a minimum period to reach to be considered clinically bullied?
The additional parameter to factor in is the persistence of the abusive acts, as many scientific studies underline the “frequency/recurrence” and “consistency/systematicity” of negative social behaviors as a mandatory condition to qualify bullying²⁰ ²¹. However, semantics can be tricky. Are two occurrences of incivility enough to be qualified as repetitive and consistent? Probably not. Then, how many times do you need to suffer negative social actions to be considered legally bullied?
Furthermore, the essence itself of whether an action is negative or not is subject to debate as many factors influence one’s perception of an event. Differences have been found where cultures with high-performance orientation find work-related bullying more acceptable than for cultures with high humane orientation²². In another survey, Central American employees were found to emphasize “more the physical component of workplace bullying the Southern European employees”²³.
Providing a generic description of workplace bullying to enable anyone to self-label themselves might be unsuccessful as this approach would be inherently subjective due to “personality, emotional […], cognitive”²⁴, and “sociocultural”²⁵ factors. Under the same set of circumstances and events, one could characterize them as abusive behavior and someone else could perceive their harmful nature as illusive.
Can we detect workplace bullying if we struggle to define it?
Researchers have been using several methods to identify which employees are being bullied at work, such as self-labeling (basically asking: “Do you believe to be bullied?”) or behavioral approach. The latter frames questions to exclude one’s own experience and on purpose take care not to mention bullying, in an attempt to obtain a more objective measurement. Employing statistical methods, answers can be “ponderated”, be translated into “scores” and, finally, using cut-off values, be categorized by levels of risk of being bullied (*).
One of the most widely used inventories in the behavioral approach is the Negative Act Questionnaire (NAQ), including its variants (Revised and Short, respectively NAQ-R and S-NAQ)²⁶ ²⁷. Even though these questionnaires have been used in 40 countries and more than 40,000 respondents, achieving “satisfactory reliability and construct validity”, its creators prohibit its use to determine whether an individual is bullied at work or not. Instead these instruments should be strictly used for “measuring frequency, intensity and prevalence of workplace bullying”²⁸.
Both self-labeling and behavioral tools rely on self-report and cannot be used alone as a viable personal diagnosis instrument. However, occupational health and safety agents could use them in combination with employees’ data such as absenteeism or sick leaves, get valuable insights and design intervention strategies (prevention training, investigation, …).
In the end, it seems that we do not have (yet?) an easy way to make a person capable to categorically identify, by him or herself, whether or not he or she is bullied. It presents a challenge for clinical and legal fields, but does it mean that there was no way to help my friend, Sally, Illzy, and Laura?
Reading once more a few “health” articles, I pedantically thought there was a misconception about workplace bullying. Mostly, they highlighted examples of abusive behaviors, without any indication of consistency or duration, and as we discussed, one occurrence doesn’t constitute bullying, but repetitions over time do.
Then, I realized it didn’t matter how you call it.
We are not blind to workplace bullying. We suffer from every negative act perpetrated against us. We are blind to the fact that any of those are unacceptable and we should not be subject to them, even once. My friend (and probably many others) didn’t know it was abnormal, silently enduring them until she could no more.
Actually, the prevention work is there, in raising awareness, in identifying these behaviors, that if persistent, will lead to severe mental and physical health distresses. Despite consequent fundamental and practical work to be done to become better at fighting bullying, I find comfort learning that the rising number of interventions “evidenced some level of change, mostly positive”, affecting “knowledge about the phenomenon, attitudes, and self-perceptions”²⁹.
I won’t be blind to these acts anymore. I hope, you too, Reader.
We are looking to develop awareness about toxic workplaces, especially bullying, through a podcast. If you or a friend would like to share a story to help those getting through this difficult time and bring them hope and advice, please book a call with us.
(*) This is a rough attempt to vulgarize extensive mathematical demonstrations and surely would not pass an attentive examination, but for the mere mortals, myself included, I genuinely believe it suffices.
 — ‘It’s Important To Realize When Workplace Bullying Is Happening To You’, Overcome Bullying, accessed 28 April 2020
 — ‘What Bullying Did To Me’, Overcome Bullying, accessed 28 April 2020
 — ‘Am I Being Bullied Or Do I Overreact?’, Overcome Bullying, accessed 28 April 2020
 — ‘Being Bullied — Does It Mean I’m Weak?’, Overcome Bullying, accessed 28 April 2020
 — Price L.W., 2020, ’23 Signs You’re Being Bullied at Work — And What You Can Do About It’, FairyGodBoss, accessed 25 April 2020
 — Johnson S., 2018, ‘5 Signs You’re Being Bullied At Work & What To Do About It’, Corporate Career Girl, accessed 25 April 2020
 — Neal B., 2017, ‘4 Signs You’re Being Bullied At Work & What To Do About It’, Bustle, accessed 25 April 2020
 — Anderson O.W., Seacat M.S., 1958, ‘Problem of Tomorrow: Behavioral Science Research in Health Field: A Statement of Problems and Priorities’, Social Problem, 6 (3) pp 268–271, Oxford University Press
 — Nielsen M.B., Matthiesen S.B., Einarsen S., 2010, “The impact of methodological moderators on prevalence rates of workplace bullying. A meta-analysis’, Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 83 (4) pp.955–979
 — Nielsen M.B., Einarsen S.V., 2018, ‘What we know, what we do not know, and what we should and could have known about workplace bullying: An overview of the literature and agenda for future research’, Aggression and Violent Behavior, 42 pp.71–83
 — Magee C. and others, 2014, ‘Workplace Bullying in Australia’, Center for Health Initiatives UoW, accessed on 28 April 2020
 — Saunders P., Huynh A., Goodman-Delahunty J., 2007, ‘Defining workplace bullying behaviour professional lay definitions of workplace bullying’, International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 30 (4–5) pp 340–354
 — NAQ, 2018, University of Bergen, accessed 1 May 2020