"Gossip Gossip... Evil Thing, Much unhappiness it bring..." are the words to a common rhyme that children are taught in early primary school. Bullying starts with words.
Suicide notes left, have confirmed that the prank by the Australian DJs, and subsequent gossip and bullying contributed to nurse Jacintha Saldanha's heartbreaking decision to end her own life. Her letters show how the prank affected her emotional state and apparently criticizes senior colleagues on the hospital staff who were less than supportive after the joke call. Let's hope that we learn the lesson about the consequences of cheap laughs, rumour mongering and intimidation. Even when we think it's harmless, it isn't, and by involving yourself in gossip, you are perpetuating the pain.
We think of bullying as something that is an issue for children and adolescents, but the reality is, that it is actually very common among adults, in the media and in the workplace particularly, and is reported to have cost the tax payer an estimated £14 Billion during 2008 in sick days, lost time and productivity (most recent statistics I could find). But it's not just the bully to blame, it's the culture that allows it to continue. Why don't we stand up for each other more?
This is a subject very close to my heart, having had personal experience of bullying at work, and also seeing friends suffering the same horrible problem.
So what exactly is workplace bullying? Is it also a failure to defend people? it commonly takes the form of discrediting quality of work, gossip, rumour spreading and other tactics used to discredit an individual's reputation. It can be very hard to pin down because of it's often covert nature. Specialist Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik says that workplace bullying is "persistent verbal and nonverbal aggression at work, that includes personal attacks, social ostracism, and a multitude of other painful messages and hostile interactions." . More often than not though, the lack of support and passivity of others in allowing bullies to operate, is the most damaging aspect. It seems we live in a society where we are increasingly reluctant to stick our necks out for each other. If Jacinta had seen more support from her collegues, perhaps she would still be here.
Bullying is characterized by it's repetition, it's duration (very enduring), escalation, power disparity (the target will be someone who lacks the power to defend themself), and attributed intent.(Einarsen, 1999; Keashly & Harvey 2004; Lutgen-Sandvik, 2006).
Research by the Workplace Bullying Institute, suggests that the following are some of the most common tactics used by workplace bullies:
1. Falsely someone of "errors" not actually made (71 percent).
2. Stared, glared, was nonverbally intimidating and was clearly showing hostility (68 percent).
3. Used the "silent treatment" to "ice out" and separate from others (64 percent).
4. Started, or failed to stop, destructive rumors or gossip about the person (56 percent).
5. Encouraged people to turn against the person being tormented (55 percent).
6. Singled out and isolated one person from other coworkers, either socially or physically (54 percent).
7. Publicly displayed gross, undignified, but not illegal, behavior (53 percent).
8. Stole credit for work done by others (plagiarism) (47 percent).
9. Used confidential information about a person to humiliate privately or publicly (45 percent).
10. Retaliated against the person after a complaint was filed (45 percent).
11. Made verbal put-downs/insults based on gender, race, accent, age or language, disability (44 percent).
12. Launched a baseless campaign to oust the person; effort not stopped by the employer (43 percent).
And what about the bully? Research shows that a bully or abuser will often have problems with social functioning. These types of people often have psychopathic traits that are difficult to identify in the early stages of your dealings with them. "These individuals often lack anger management skills and have a distorted sense of reality. Consequently, when confronted with the accusation of abuse, the abuser is not aware that any harm was done." The bully is just one part of the equation. As a damaged individual, they can perhaps be understood, but the widespread apathy is what allows them to operate.
Doesn't the average person have a greater level of insight into the damage that this behavior can bring? Bullying destroys lives. According to Gary and Ruth Namie "workplace bullying can harm the health of the targets of bullying. Organizations are beginning to take note of workplace bullying because of the costs the organization in terms of the health of their employees."
The Project for Wellness and Work-Life at Arizona State University says that, stress is the most common health effect associated with bullying in the workplace. Research indicates that workplace stress has significant negative effects that are correlated to poor mental health and poor physical health, resulting in an increase in time taken off sick. Bullying is now shown to even result in "Post traumatic Stress Disorder".
So what can be done to prevent bullying in the workplace? We all have a responsibility to stand up for others and not to get involved in gossip spreading for starters, as that is the bully's best weapon.
Targets of bullying are advised to stay out of the way of the bully, find a different route. Show minimal reactions. Keep a note. Report to an authority figure.
People's misfortune, (in Jacintha's case, answering a phonecall), and personal lives should not be fodder for entertainment. Jacitha Salanha wasn't an attention hungry celeb, she was an ordinary person doing the best she could. Why didn't anyone stick up for her? In the US, a programme in schools was started called "Steps to Respect" which taught assertiveness and empathy. Once people understand the damage that rumour mongering and bullying can do, they are far less likely to engage. To do your part to stop bullying, you merely ignore the rumours and stand up for people being targeted. Imagine if it were happening to you.
Follow Annabel Burn on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@gonzogonzo1