You have too much to do.  Emails keep flying in, you have things to prepare and you're feeling completely out of control at work.  On top of that you are working long hours, didn't get the bonus you deserved and you are feeling completely overwhelmed.  Now you are experiencing some hostility at work, your colleagues, your boss and your friends are not treating you so well, keep making sly remarks and you are starting to feel quite unwell... 

Workplace bullying is a real issue. Studies indicate that between 2 and 30% of those working have experienced bullying in their professional lives [1].  Workplace bullying involves an employee perceiving that they are being persistently abused or mistreated by colleagues and feeling unable to defend themselves against this abuse or mistreatment [2].  The bullying can involve unreasonable demands relating to the employee's role, including unacceptably tight deadlines, being asked to complete unnecessary tasks and micro-management of work [3].  The bullying could also involve regular criticism, hostility, being left out of social situations or gossiping [4].

Issues in the workplace are a significant contributor to the current poor state of mental health that we find across the developed world. One study suggests that 33% of those suffering with mood disorders feel that their condition is due to work-related factors [5]. Work can be extremely beneficial for an individual's mental health, being a source of social interactions, income and purpose.  However factors such as excessive workloads, lack of control over work demands and workplace bullying have all been shown to increase individuals' stress levels and make them more susceptible to developing mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety [6].

But you have to wonder...what came first - the bullying or the poor mental health?

If the managers or employees bullying others were not so stressed/depressed/anxious themselves would they even engage in this bullying behaviour?  Would a manager be so harsh with their team, set unreasonable deadlines and criticise constantly if they had themselves found a way to better manage their stress? Would a gossiping employee be so mean if they themselves were confident, happy and secure?  Of course, an individual may naturally be inclined to behave in this way but if they were in great mental, physical and emotional health it is likely that most of these bullies would not treat others in this unfair way.  Similarly if a victim of bullying was in optimum mental health and therefore better able to defend themselves or stand up for themselves, would the bullying behaviour continue? 

It seems that bullying and poor mental health have a bi-directional relationship.  Poor mental health causes people to bully and also makes them more susceptible to be the victims of bullying (as they may find it more difficult to defend themselves or may perceive the actions of others less favourably). Yet bullying in itself can really affect the well-being of others, causing mental health to deteriorate.  So how do we break this vicious cycle and how can we stop workplace bullying from taking place?  One way is through equipping everyone in an organisation with the tools that they need in order to manage their stress and mental health.  If everyone were in optimum mental health - perhaps we could bring workplace bullying to an end.

We can ask - would a victim of bullying be better able to stand up for themselves if they were feeling happy, confident, positive and had achieved optimum mental health?  Similarly - would a bully really be a bully - if they were happy, secure, stress-free and felt in control? Would bullies stop bullying if they were in optimum mental health themselves?   

Perhaps the solution to preventing bullying in the workplace lies in equipping everyone with the tools and knowledge they need to achieve optimum mental health...

References

[1] Khubchandani J, Price JH. Workplace harassment and morbidity among US adults: Results from the National Health Interview Survey. J Community Health. 2015; 40: 555–563.

[2] Nielsen MB, Einarsen S. Outcomes of exposure to workplace bullying: A meta-analytic review. Work and Stress. 2012; 26: 309–332.

[3] Ortega A, Hogh A, Pejtersen JH, Feveile H, Olsen O. Prevalence of workplace bullying and risk groups: a representative population study. Int Arch Occup Environ Health. 2009; 82: 417–426.

[4] Agervold M. The significance of organizational factors for the incidence of bullying. Scand J Psychol. 2009; 50: 267–276. pmid:19298225

[5] Hansson M, Chotai J, Bodlund O. Patients' beliefs about the cause of their depression. J Affect Disord. 2010; 124: 54–59.

[6] Bhui KS, Dinos S, Stansfeld SA, White PD. A synthesis of the evidence for managing stress at work: a review of the reviews reporting on anxiety, depression, and absenteeism. J Environ Public Health. 2012; 2012: 515874.