EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Increasing focus on workplace 'mobbing'

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A conference held in January 2004 highlighted the problem of workplace 'bullying' or 'mobbing' in Italy. Research has found that some 1.5 million workers suffer mobbing at work, and the issue is being regarded with increasing concern. There have been a number of proposals for legislation on the issue, plus a number of collective agreements, while trade unions are increasingly active in seeking to prevent such psychological harassment at work.

The phenomenon of 'psychological' or 'moral' harassment and abuse at work is known by various terms. The term 'bullying' is common in the UK and Ireland, for example, while 'mobbing' is often used in the USA and in some continental European countries, including Italy. The word 'mobbing' comes from the English verb 'to mob' used in the human context for the first time by the ethnologist, Konrad Lorenz, who borrowed the term from animal science, literally meaning 'to form a crowd around someone in order to attack him or her', defining the behaviour of some animal species of assailing one member of the group which, for various reasons, is to be expelled. The first researcher who applied the term to work was the German psychologist, Heinz Leymann, a leading working environment expert. Mr Leinz started studying the mobbing phenomenon during the 1980s, defining it as psychological violence at work.

Mobbing is taken to include all behaviour involving psychological 'terrorism' at work. It can be displayed by an employer/manager to employees or vice versa ('vertical mobbing') and among colleagues (horizontal mobbing) and has clearly discriminatory objectives, aimed at progressively isolating the worker concerned and in many cases at driving him or her to resign or making it easier for him or her to be dismissed. This article refers to mobbing at the work place and to verbal or physical harassment targeted at an employee's private and/or professional life or identity, which is regular (eg happening at least once a week), systematic and long-lasting (eg over at least six months).

Effects

Research indicates that many workers who are the victim of mobbing develop health problems, mainly 'psychosomatic' effects caused by stress (insomnia, anxiety, panic attacks, nightmares, depression, fear reactions etc). These workers are likely to develop anxiety and behavioural disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or adjustment disorder (AD). PTSD is highly traumatic because it can weaken the immune system and cause problems to the digestive, auditory, cardiovascular and musculo-skeletal systems. The main characteristics of PTSD are anxiety reactions, depressive moods, 'hyper-arousal' situations, obsessive re-experience of work problems with recurrent nightmares, flashbacks and avoidance of situations recalling the event. AD is less traumatic because, though it has the same characteristics as PTSD, it does not involve permanent consequences.

Mobbing, according to researchers, affects the victims in all domains and displays its effects in all areas of life, such as family, friendships and interpersonal relations, through anxiety or panic reactions, behavioural disorders and even suicidal thoughts.

As well as the individuals involved, mobbing can severely affect the work group, it has been found. It may lead to divisions which can disrupt communications and reduce productivity, with a series of negative consequences for the company’ efficiency and efficacy. The company where mobbing occurs may suffer damage not only to its image but also to its finances. An evaluation by the International Labour Office has found that psychological harassment costs about EUR 150,000 a year in a company with 1,000 employees. Moreover, some researchers have found that a mobbing victim has a reduced working performance (by 60%) and an increased cost for the company (by 180%).

Situation in Italy

In Italy, targeted research and studies on mobbing started in the 1990s. In 1998, the European Foundation for the Improvement of the Living and Working Conditions estimated that, in Italy, about 4.2% of workers were victims of mobbing. According to data compiled by national experts, at present, the proportion varies between 4% and 6% of the work force, ie between 1 million and 1.5 million workers. However, some commentators believe that these data underestimate the problem because:

  • they do not take into account the area of undeclared and 'atypical' work, which would significantly increase the proportion of workers suffering mobbing;
  • mobbing is not a well-known phenomenon and many workers find it hard to distinguish between mobbing and other phenomena such as conflicts at the workplace; and
  • the other people affected by a mobbing situation (ie the friends and family of the victim) should also be added to the immediate victims, thus increasing the number of people affected to about 5 million.

A study conducted by the Bocconi University of Milan on a sample of 1,000 people chosen among 3,000 victims who consulted the Milan Labour Health Clinic (Clinica del Lavoro) - the only institute in Italy that has structural data on the subject - found that there are significant differences between the victims of mobbing in Italy and in other European countries. The study found that in Italy victims are almost equally divided among women (51%) and men (49%), while in the rest of Europe the clear majority of victims are women.

The research found that the main factor at the basis of mobbing is competition. There is also an important difference in the way mobbing is displayed in the public and private sector: in the public sector there is more gossip, intrusion into private life and spreading of false information to put the worker in a situation of psychological unease; while in the private sector there is more continuing harassment, increases in workload and isolation to induce the worker to resign. Mobbing is more frequent in large companies. Mobbing usually does not take the form of physical violence or sexual harassment. Organisational superiors are usually the worst 'mobbers' and attack the victim in the working sphere, while colleagues tend more to focus on workers’ private life.

Mobbing prevention

At present, there is no specific legislation on mobbing in Italy. However, politicians have been developing legislative proposals at regional and national level, and nine proposals on mobbing prevention have been put forward to parliament so far.

The national healthcare service has set up nine safety and occupational health services to deal with mobbing, the most advanced of which is the abovementioned clinic in Milan, but many other hospitals are now becoming aware of the problem. Since 2000, the National Institute for Industrial Accident Insurance (Istituto nazionale assicuarazioni incidenti del lavoro, Inail) has recognised 'biological damage'- ie damage to 'psycho-physical integrity'- as an occupation illness for which affected workers should receive an allowance, but has not made it a specific occupational syndrome in the same way as asbestosis and silicosis.

Trade unions have been addressing the mobbing issue for quite a while, mainly in terms of of prevention and assistance to victims. Many unions have set up, at local, regional and national levels, guidance services (sportelli di orientamento) to help mobbing victims. The role of these services is also very important in terms of the dissemination of information on the subject. Trade unions are seeking to prevent mobbing through targeted measures, including the introduction of 'health and safety officials' (Responsabili dei lavoratori per la salute, Rls) responsible for: providing assistance to workers who suffer mobbing; providing information and raising public awareness on the subject; and developing joint actions with other European trade unions.

An important conference on companies’ responsibility in mobbing situations took place on 20-21 January 2004 at the National Council for Economic Affairs and Labour (Consiglio nazionale dell’economia e del lavoro, Cnel), promoted by the the Italian Confederation of Workers' Unions (Confederazione Italiana Sindacato Lavoratori, Cisl) benefit assistance institute Inas-Cisl.

At this event, Roberto De Santis, the general secretary of Cisl's middle-managers' association (Associazione quadri) explained the trade union strategy to tackle mobbing. According to Mr De Santis, a law on the subject would be very important, but mobbing is a problem related to the labour market and as such should also be tackled through collective bargaining: 'the agreement is a very simple but important tool, it can be applied faster than a law and can be easily changed. Moreover, it is the result of a free commitment by the partners and is not linked to any regulatory measure.'

According to Mr De Santis, a preventive strategy should first be based on provisions in national sectoral collective agreements. At company level, trade unions should promote special 'climate agreements' (accordi di clima) including:

  • a comprehensive definition of mobbing;
  • a code of corporate ethics banning offensive, harassing, persecutory and immoral behaviour;
  • training and information for workers;
  • the creation of a joint committee made up of representatives of the company and workers, chaired by an external person chosen by agreement among the parties; and
  • the possibility for the employer to take disciplinary action against 'mobbers'

A joint commitment by both the trade unions and the company is seen as necessary in order to combat the mobbing problem, and collective bargaining should disseminate of a culture of employment relations focused on the 'valorisation of human resources'.

Some companies have already signed agreements on the prevention of mobbing, for example a public healthcare unit in Florence and the Atm Turin public transport company. The only national sectoral collective agreement that currently deals with mobbing is that for the public administration (IT0303204F), which has created a joint committee on the issue.

Commentary

Mobbing issues are becoming an important problem in companies. There are various reasons behind this phenomenon, but a particular one is the increase in fixed-term employment forms. This allows companies to recruit more flexibly and to select those workers who meet their current needs most fully. This places existing workers on open-ended contracts under a 'competitive pressure' which was previously unknown, and companies and individual managers are often tempted to put in place strategies aimed at replacing older workers, those whose skills are out of date, and those considered as unreliable in terms of work continuity, such women with children. These strategies are often adopted by individual managers without the agreement of the company. However, they have a negative impact on the victims and lead to isolation, guilty feelings and sometimes resignation. Mobbing is sometimes also the result of the lack of a sympathetic climate among colleagues, fuelled by individualism.

This situation means that trade unions must find an appropriate strategy to fight mobbing. The possibility of fully entrusting the law with the protection of workers against mobbing is objectively very unlikely. It is very difficult to create consensus on the issue among the political parties, but also it is very difficult to assess if a law could, together with the relevant court procedures, provide successful guarantees for abused workers. Court cases are time-consuming and expensive and would also raise the problem of offering evidence for a crime involving interpersonal relations. It seems more likely that unions will seek a collectively agreed solution to protect workers against mobbing.

Mobbing actions are likely to involve the infringement of corporate policies by individuals (managers), and it should thus be possible to punish them within the framework of corporate regulations. Bringing the problem down to the company level requires specific prevention policies, which it seems more advisable to entrust to joint bodies at this level. These bodies should be responsible for organising prevention and information campaigns on mobbing.

Trade unions, for their part, should be more sensitive towards these problems and should develop the necessary competence to understand individual problems, through the creation of expert 'confidant centres' (centri di ascolto).

Lastly, the strategic importance for companies and trade unions to develop a specific commitment on mobbing should be stressed. Companies should meet their social responsibilities and guarantee their employees a peaceful working environment, where they can express their potential. Trade unions should consider personal and social problems as a challenge, around which they can consolidate their representativeness and their mission to protect and promote workers’ interests. (Domenico Paparella, Vilma Rinolfi and Fernando Cecchini, Cesos)

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