People who are bullied at work can suffer a myriad of negative health impacts—poor mental health, sleep deprivation, and stress-related illness among them. This can also impact their workplace at the organizational level, especially since some bullied workers leave their jobs, file HR claims, pursue legal action, or simply suffer from low morale. It’s a problem that both the employer and the employee bear, but often is only addressed at the employee level.
Health care is one such industry in which the effects of bullying can be prominently felt. Health care professionals often operate under multiple entrenched hierarchical structures, providing more opportunity for senior professionals to potentially act negatively towards those with less experience and training.There can be bullying individuals in any workplace, but a larger, long-term problem arises when there is a toxic work environment that either tolerates or enables bullying.
Erika Sabbath, faculty member in Work Health and Well-being: Achieving Worker Health and assistant professor at the Boston College School of Social Work, says, “If you can figure out how to make a workgroup more collegial, you not only prevent bullying, but also other kinds of work stress that lead to poor health, like being overworked, feeling like you can’t speak up, or feeling like you don’t trust your coworkers. All of these elements can thrive in a negative work environment.”
There’s a personal value to preventing bullying in the workplace, but recent research has also quantified mental health spending as a result of bullying—and the results have striking implications for both employers and employees.
If you can figure out how to make a workgroup more collegial, you not only prevent bullying, but also other kinds of work stress that lead to poor health.
The Economic Impacts of Bullying in the Workplace
Researchers sought to understand if there was a quantifiable way to measure bullying’s impact on mental health care spending—costs that the worker would partially have to bear in terms of copay, deductible, and/or out of pocket costs, but also one that an employer would partially bear via increased premiums or insurance costs.
The Boston Hospital Workers Health Study encompasses two prominent Boston hospitals that self-insure. Patient care workers within the study were asked to fill out a survey about bullying, and the accompanying dataset provided information about their mental health care utilization within the following year.
On average, workers who experience one or more types of incivility or bullying spent as much as twice the amount of money on mental health care as those who experienced none. Participants who were exposed to bullying spent more money on mental health care than those who were unexposed. Bullying was thus an indicator of both a change in mental health and spending around it.
Not every employer bears these exact costs, but the results are quite applicable across organizations. Sabbath, who was the lead author of the study, explains that “actually seeing that people who are bullied spend more on mental health care than people who aren’t is a powerful metric for an employer.”
In other words, there’s a financial, as well as personal, incentive to preventing bullying in the workplace. And at the larger level, these results connect to cultivating a culture of health—the promotion of health and well-being across employees, consumers, community, and environment. Nicolaas Pronk, program director of Work Health and Well-being, president of the HealthPartners Institute, chief science officer at HealthPartners, Inc., and adjunct professor of social and behavioral sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says, “In building a culture of health, these issues reflect upon important drivers such as leadership, organizational paradigms, and organizational values.”
On average, workers who experience one or more types of incivility or bullying spent as much as twice the amount of money on mental health care as those who experienced none.
Responding to Bullying in a Work Environment
With the knowledge of bullying’s impacts in mind, it can still be challenging to effect long-term, large-scale reduction of bullying. Altering people’s behavior may be difficult without altering the environment around them. “We talk about changing the work, not the worker: try to make work better for everybody to improve the mental health of the entire group, rather than sanctioning a bully or catching people once they’ve developed a mental health problem,” says Sabbath.
Investment from an employer and buy-in from managers are both necessary to make impactful organizational change. As Pronk notes, “This starts with leadership, which is often a major complication in terms of the ability for businesses to move forward.”
An effective starting point is to support the victim of bullying in the short-term (and avoid blaming them for what’s happened), and training supervisors to value the human aspect of management in the long-term.
Workplace mental health can be a hot topic in workplace culture, but it still can be misunderstood as a community health problem that simply shows up at work. The study shows, however, that work itself can influence employee mental health—and that managing bullying at the individual level is not necessarily as effective as addressing the culture as a whole.
An effective starting point is to support the victim of bullying in the short-term, and training supervisors to value the human aspect of management in the long-term.
Future Avenues of Research in Workplace Bullying
The study did not assess the sources of the bullying that the health care professionals experienced. Pinpointing the origins may help with response and prevention. Sabbath, however, is primarily interested in the common organizational environments that could incentivize toxic behavior. In other words, “What organizational or working conditions give rise to bullying? It doesn’t emerge in a vacuum,” she explains.
Entrenched hierarchical structures, like the ones that health care professionals can often face, is one such organizational condition. Attacking the root environmental sources can in turn have trickle-down effects on the workers within the system, provided that the right methods are put in place.
“Building a culture of health involves both a process and an impact loop,” says Pronk. “Process reflects the ability to listen to what needs to be addressed and bringing it forward. Impact includes openness, credibility, respect and trust, learning, growth, and development, achievement, and finally exceptional business performance.”
“These impacts connect the individual workers to the organization’s performance in a symbiotic manner.”
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health offers Work Health and Well-being: Achieving Worker Health, which provides the full set of skills needed to improve worker health, safety, and well-being in the workplace .