Rex Huppke: The impact of workplace bullying

When it comes to workplace bullying, we often focus on the hammers and not the needles.

Hammers are the obvious acts of oafish or even physically violent behavior, the situations where there’s little nuance and a person is clearly being victimized.

Needles are the small, repetitive acts that often go unnoticed, and unreported, the needling that can drive someone to dread going to work.

The hammers, of course, must be addressed, but letting the needles go unchecked can swiftly turn a workplace toxic.

The national advocacy and education organization Mental Health America is involved in a long-term project addressing workplace bullying and mental health. Preliminary results from the group’s survey work found that 80 percent of people who feel they are in an “unhelpful or hostile work environment” say they prefer to work alone rather than in teams.

That’s a staggeringly high number. Even half that number is still too much, particularly when you consider the increased importance of teamwork in the modern workplace. Clearly, this is not all the result of in-your-face bullying.

“People are targeted for a variety of reasons, and before they even know that they’re targeted, they’ve already been impacted,” said Andrew Faas, author of “The Bully’s Trap: Bullying in the Workplace” and head of the nonprofit Faas Foundation, which is supporting the MHA’s work. “School bullying is far more overt, whereas workplace bullying is far more subtle and complex.

“It’s often rationalized by the bully saying, ‘That’s just my style. I didn’t mean to exclude you from a meeting, or I didn’t mean to give you that information that made you look bad.’ The longer it goes on, the more the target deteriorates to the point where they become what the bully wants them to become — a poor performer. It’s a trap.”

Mental health remains a stigmatized issue in most workplaces. People are often afraid to speak up when something is gnawing at them, worried it might show weakness. They’re hesitant to seek help, as if it’s a sign of fragility.

Paul Gionfriddo, MHA’s president and CEO, said: “What this can lead to is real diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder, among other conditions. It can rise from repeated exposure to bullying, not just exposure to a one-time severe trauma. It’s a condition that can grow over time.”

There’s a toughness in our work culture that has seen its day. We know too much now about the psychological harm that even seemingly low-key bullying can cause to let it continue. Yet I can already hear some saying, “People are such babies these days” or “C’mon, you just have to suck it up and do your job.”

Respectfully, that’s bull. If your behavior or the behavior of a supervisor or co-worker is putting undue stress on someone, changing that behavior, showing concern for a fellow human being, is not just a good idea, it’s the most basic, decent thing that can be done.

It shouldn’t take thought, it should be a default reaction.

I’d posit that part of the reason it’s not is because we don’t talk openly about these issues, and business leaders don’t do enough to stress the importance of mental health at work.

“These are barriers and obstacles that we need to overcome,” Gionfriddo said. “We want to move people into a direction where the first, most obvious thing they do is speak up and say that it’s affecting them and how it’s affecting them, and then they get the support they need. You need to allow a workplace culture to shift so the workplace will give the support to them so they can be productive.”

Faas said that in unhealthy work environments that allow subtle bullying to occur, the problem is usually “driven from on top.”

“If people don’t trust or respect the leadership, then they don’t trust the mechanisms that are in place to keep them safe,” he said. “Where bullying occurs, in 80 percent of the cases, people don’t trust the HR department.”

He said companies need to get workers “comfortable with saying how they feel,” and that can often require fundamental changes in the way a company is run.

Gionfriddo said there are indicators of problems, like high absenteeism and drops in productivity. Part of what MHA is working on is developing baseline data that will help companies evaluate the mental health of their own workforce and look for problems before they take root.

“What we’re trying to do is create some baselines so corporations in part will be able to compare themselves and the mental health of their own workforce to a norm,” Gionfriddo said. “We want to create strategies that will allow for earlier identification of unhealthy workplace environments.”

Key to any strategy on this front is the acknowledgment that we’re all capable of hurting someone with our words or actions, even if it’s inadvertent. And we’re all at risk of suffering psychologically from the drip-drip-drip of another person’s abuse.

We’re adults. At work, we’re presumed to be professionals. We should strive to help those around us, not hurt them. And we should cast aside cultural constructs that suggest we can’t admit to hurting.

We all hurt sometimes. The ones who say they don’t are fooling themselves, and may well be hurting the most.

About The Writer

Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at or on Twitter @RexWorksHere.

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