The economic costs of workplace bullying

May 31, 2020

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The economic costs of workplace bullying

Workplace bullying is aggressive behavior perpetrated by one or more persons, repeatedly and systematically over a prolonged time period, where the targeted person feels unable to defend themself. Previous studies have highlighted the relationship between bullying and work-related stress in the workplace. The current study builds on these to examine the economic costs of workplace bullying.

The research, conducted in Ireland but applicable to most other industrialized nations, describes the range of impacts of workplace bullying on individuals and organizations. Using statistical methods, it estimates the number of workdays lost as a result of workplace bullying and calculates the economic value of the associated lost productivity. Overall, the research estimates a total of 1.7 million days lost due to bullying at a cost to the economy of €239 million per year in Ireland alone. A similar study in the US in 2007 showed the cost ran into $4.5 billion. In addition, the new study finds that although bullying is more prevalent in the public sector, it has a larger effect on absences in the private sector.

What the researchers say: Commenting on the study the lead author said: “Workplace bullying is a pervasive problem with significant personal and wider costs. Our study highlights the considerable economic cost of workplace bullying in Ireland. In addition to lost productivity from workplace bullying, there are also likely to be costs associated with early retirement and presenteeism. Furthermore, bullying-related costs are unlikely to have gone away as a result of new COVID-19 work-from-home practices.”

“To tackle the problem, organizations need an anti-bullying policy in order to signal to staff that bullying is unacceptable,” the researchers noted. “However, a policy is insufficient in itself and it is vital that it is implemented fairly and in a timely fashion. Ideally, organizations should be proactive, identifying how and when bullying occurs in the organization, and be prepared to develop specific interventions that are appropriate to context.”

So, what? Bullying anywhere is a signal that the bully him or herself has probably been a victim of bullying, that they are unsure of themselves, that they feel disempowered and that the victim(s) are easy targets who themselves need to be empowered.

It’s not enough, as the researchers point out, to have an anti-bullying policy in place. There must also be a safe speak-up culture so that people can notify senior leaders of the problem. In most workplaces this is woefully absent, even where there is an official policy of speak up.

Also, organizations have to have the capacity to treat both the bully and their victims with respect, find out what the deeper problems are and help them to self-empowerment.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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