NEW YORK, N.Y.—“I had no idea how widespread it was,” Shawn Bobb of the New York State Public Employees Federation said
of his reaction when he first heard workplace bullying discussed in the late ’90s.
But it is, the PEF health and safety coordinator told a forum, “Bad Bosses: Effect on Worker Health,” held Dec. 5 at United Auto Workers Region 9A’s Manhattan offices—and it also often damages the health of the workers affected. Bullying is the beginning of the continuum of workplace violence, he added, and when you experience that kind of stress “eight hours a day, it builds up, and that causes health problems.”
When the University of Maryland conducted a survey of 13,000 workers in seven New York State agencies in 2010-12, 44% of the respondents reported at least one act of bullying behavior—being ignored or shunned, insulted, humiliated or ridiculed, shouted at, or threatened—in the previous six months. One out of ten said those acts had been repeated enough to count as a pattern of bullying, and 4.8% said they had experienced it in the past month. The survey found no gender, racial, or ethnic differences in the frequency of bullying. In 48% of cases, the perpetrator was a coworker; in 40%, their immediate supervisor; and in 36%, a top manager.
Of those who reported being bullied, 45% said it had made them think about quitting.
Bullying is hard to define—one reason there’s no state law against it, said Bobb—but it commonly is a pattern of repeated mistreatment, such as verbal abuse; threatening, humiliating, or offensive actions; and interfering with the victim’s ability to do their work. The Civil Service Employees Association lists “yelling, tantrums, cursing at someone” and “insults, intimidation, back-stabbing, belittling.”
“Bullying is a power thing,” said Bobb. One woman in the audience said it’s also used to push out older workers who are getting paid more than newer ones.
The health effects are similar to those of other kinds of work-related stress, said Grace Sembajwe, a professor at the City University School of Public Health: sleep deficiency, psychological distress, physical pain, lack of exercise, and a risk of cardiovascular problems. Studies of hospital patient-care workers she did between 2011 and 2014 found that sleep deficiency was linked to harassment and lack of support from supervisors.
Workers also “take home toxins,” she added: They come home frustrated and angry about the way they’ve been treated, much as those working with toxic chemicals would come home with residue on their clothes.
What can people do to stop bullying on the job? Personally, don’t suffer in silence, try to find support from someone, and document everything, including incidents, witnesses, and efforts to solve the problem. But don’t lash out, Bobb cautioned, telling the story of a woman who slapped her boss’s pointing finger away and got accused of assaulting him.
Organizations can set clear codes of behavior—although Bobb notes, “as unionists, we stay away from ‘zero tolerance’”—not retaliate against workers who complain, and train managers better. A 2008 study, Sembajwe said, found that when managers were given a brief training in “family-supportive supervisor behavior” such as helping workers schedule time off for family responsibilities, workers were significantly healthier and perceived them as more supportive.
On the other hand, says Max Neuberger, a New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, there’s a really big difference between union and nonunion workplaces. Union workers might be able to address being bullied by a supervisor through the grievance procedure. Nonunion workers are much more vulnerable to retaliation.