Analysis: new research finds that one in 10 employees in Ireland have experience of being bullied and the problem is unlikely to go away with remote working

By John Cullinan and Margaret Hodgins, NUI Galway 

Workplace bullying is both widespread and damaging.

It occurs when there is repeated and systematic aggressive behaviour by one or more persons towards another, and takes place in all types of work environments, from offices to shops to building sites.

Sometimes, the bullying within an organisation is visible, but often what is observed only represents the tip of the iceberg.

orryingly, research shows that almost one-in-ten employees in Ireland have recent experience of being bullied.

At a macro level, there are significant costs to the economy from bullying in the form of lost productivity, which can occur when those who experience bullying end up taking extra time off work as a result.

In a recent study we found that a total of 1.7 million work days are lost in Ireland each year because of bullying, at a cost to the economy of almost a quarter of a billion euros per annum.

From RTÉ News, Ailbhe Conneely reports on a 2019 survey looking at bullying and harassment in the Oireachtas

While these numbers clearly highlight the enormity of the problem in Ireland, the most important and serious consequences of bullying are always for the victims. For them, it is an insidious problem with a wide range of negative personal effects.

For example, in another recent study, we showed that employees who reported being bullied were considerably more likely to be often or always stressed, while other research has found links with post-traumatic stress disorder.

There is also evidence that workplace bullying can lead to poor concentration, increased propensity to accidents, lowered commitment and performance, as well as increased alcohol consumption and strain on personal relationships.

In fact, bullying at work has been described as a more crippling problem for employees than all other kinds of work-related stress put together.

In addition to these personal impacts, there are also numerous financial and other costs, both to individuals and organisations.

For example, there can be direct costs to the victim, such as loss of income, medical costs, legal costs, and early retirement. Indirect costs may include reduced well-being and quality of life, poorer job satisfaction, as well as lost opportunities.

For the employer or organisation, direct bullying-related costs arise from sickness absences, replacement costs, legal costs, and HR-related costs. There can also be indirect costs to the business such as effects on bystanders or witnesses, reputational damage and lower morale.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Ray D'Arcy Show, author and lecturer Jacinta Kitt on the problem of bullying in the workplace and how to lessen a culture of negativity

Given all of this, as well as the context of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, an important issue to consider is how changes in work practices, including increased demands and remote working, might impact workplace bullying.

Will the fact that many of us are now working from home mean that prevalence rates of bullying will fall. Or will new working arrangements exacerbate situations where bullying is more likely to occur?

While it is difficult to know for sure, especially given the lack of up-to-date data on the issue, previous research examining the facilitators of workplace bullying, as well as evidence on prevalence rates across sectors and contexts, provide some indications.

We know that bullying thrives in stressful work environments and is associated with organisational change, meaning pandemic-related changes to work practices could prove a fertile ground for bullying in some sectors.

For example, the prevalence of bullying is generally higher in the health sector. While working from home has been lower here than in other sectors during the pandemic, it has experienced significant changes in other working conditions and practices in very demanding circumstances. As a result, we think it likely that bullying would have remained a serious concern in the health sector during the pandemic. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Barry Lenihan reports on the Medical Council of Ireland's warning to senior doctors over the bullying of interns

For other sectors where remote working has been much more common, it is less clear what the implications are. For example, it could mean that there are fewer opportunities for bullying as a result of reduced contact with colleagues. However, survey data we examined from before the pandemic shows similar bullying prevalence rates amongst those working and not working from home.

But it is important to note that this was when remote working was a choice rather than enforced so we need to be careful not to over-interpret this finding. It is possible that some respondents may have been working at home because of workplace bullying.

Nonetheless, aspects of work that increase stress, such as excessive workload, limited control over work and conflicting demands, are all likely to have increased with remote working and this could enable bullying.

A further consideration arises in relation to how we communicate with our colleagues and managers.

Enforced home working inevitably entails much higher levels of electronic communication, whether by email or Zoom. While this is not a risk in itself for bullying, if a relationship between two or more workers is already fraught, the victim may suffer insofar as they cannot "escape" psychologically to home.

Home space has now become work space for many and the boundaries previously afforded, which may have provided some protection as a coping response, are erased by home working.

From RTÉ Prime Time, Fran McNulty investigates allegations of intimidation, threats and bullying in the Irish film industry

Overall, the evidence suggests that workplace bullying in Ireland is widespread, costly and unlikely to disappear with remote working. The question then is what to do about it. Workplace bullying is notoriously difficult to deal with in organisations and the evidence base for effective interventions is thin.

While anti-bullying policies are important to signal to staff that bullying is unacceptable, they need to be implemented fairly and in a timely fashion.

Ideally, organisations should be proactive, identifying how and when bullying occurs, and be prepared to develop specific interventions that are appropriate to context.

That context may now be very different as a result of Covid-19, and employers should look carefully at how new work practices may be acting as facilitators to workplace bullying.

Dr John Cullinan is a Senior Lecturer in Economics at the JE Cairnes School of Business and Economics at NUI Galway. He is a former Irish Research Council awardee. and Dr Margaret Hodgins is a Senior Lecturer and Principal Investigator with the Health Promotion Research Centre at NUI Galway 


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ