Speaking up about bullying at work
Anti-Bullying Week takes place 13-17 November. Here, OT looks into what to do if bullying is taking place at your practice
16 November 2023
Joking with those you work with is a normal part of life in any workplace. But when does a gentle ribbing with a colleague cross the line into something more serious?
It’s not a question that is easy to answer, for a number of reasons. The NHS notes that bullying could be made up of any or all of the following:
- Arguments and rudeness
- Excluding and ignoring people and their contribution
- Overloading people with work
- Spreading malicious rumours
- Unfair treatment
- Picking on or regularly undermining someone
- Denying someone’s training or promotion opportunities
- Using social media to humiliate, threaten or offend.
The University of Manchester defines workplace bullying as “when an employee is subjected to repeated behaviour that harass, exclude, or negatively affect someone’s work. This may range from obvious acts of physical violence to more ambiguous behaviour, such as mocking, insulting or socially excluding someone.”
It is important to remember that this might not always, or ever, take place in plain sight on the practice floor – it could be via social media, WhatsApp or email, for example, making it even harder to identify.
Maybe a sensible approach, if you do witness or hear rumours of the above, is to pay close attention to how the subject of the potential bullying is behaving. If they are unusually quiet or reserved, even if they do not seem visibly upset, you might have your answer on how much it has affected them.
It is understandable, though, that you might still have trouble speaking up – and you wouldn’t be alone.
Psychology Today notes that, “for every employee who is bullied, there are typically many others who witness the mistreatment, but who are not targets themselves. Witnessing this type of attack on a fellow co-worker can be traumatic, especially if the witness feels powerless to stop the harassment.”
It’s not quite as simple as that: as Psychology Today points out, “regardless of how we respond to the display of bullying, one thing is certain — we are all negatively impacted by its presence.”
In fact, the same article notes that those who witness bullying at work are more likely to want to resign, even when the bullying isn’t directed towards them. So even if you do keep quiet out of worries about your own job, it isn’t going to help you in the long-term.
Also, as the University of Manchester notes – there is clear evidence that those who are bullied at work suffer less as a result of the bullying when bystanders speak up on their behalf.
When bullying becomes harassment
It is important to note that, while bullying itself isn’t illegal, harassment is.
The official UK Government website defines harassment as when unwanted behaviour is related to one of the following:
- Gender reassignment
- Marriage and civil partnership
- Pregnancy and maternity
- Religion or belief
- Sexual orientation.
The above are all protected characteristics, as defined by the Equality Act 2010. If the bullying you witness strays into one of these areas, a crime is likely being committed.
According to the General Optical Council (GOC), four in 10 optical workers experience harassment, bullying or abuse. That the numbers are high suggests the issue is going unchallenged in many cases. We might know that it is happening – but the evidence suggests that we aren’t finding much impetus to address it.
What to do if you see bullying taking place
The Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecologists (RCOG) advises a clear approach for those who might witness a colleague being bullied.
They advise remaining calm and clarifying the situation (facts are your friend here), before removing the subject of the bullying from the situation (if you can) and listening if they want to discuss the incident or other incidents that might have taken place.
Next, you should document the incident, including facts and dates. Make sure you avoid gossiping about what has happened.
A proactive approach should then be taken, including encouraging your colleague to speak out, making it clear that what you have witnessed is wrong, and looking into what support and advice is available.
“When bystanders speak up it demonstrates that these behaviours are not accepted by the wider environment. Sometimes it is appropriate to speak to the individual concerned yourself or you may choose to escalate the issue to a senior colleague,” RCOG emphasised.
The National Bullying Helpline also has extensive resources around bullying at work, including what to do if your manager is reluctant to tackle the behaviour, different types of discrimination, and how to handle bullying-related stress.
The AOP is campaigning against discrimination in optometry. Read more here.
Employers who receive an allegation of bullying from an employee might also find this guide, from Australian company Worklogic, helpful. The guide covers how to handle an accusation within your team, when you haven’t directly witnessed an incident yourself.
Read more about Anti-Bullying Week online.
Three tips when witnessing bullying at work
From Liz Stephenson, AOP head of employment
Resources from OT and the AOP