Mobbing at work is characterised by the systematic psychological abuse or humiliation of a person by an individual or a group, with the aim of damaging his/her reputation, honour, human dignity and integrity, and ultimately driving the victim to quit the job.

Swedish psychologist Heinz Leymann was the first to use the English term ‘mobbing’ to describe hostile behavior by employees in the workplace, a term used in the early 1970s by a Swedish physician to describe hostile behavior observed among schoolchildren. Leymann defines mobbing as ‘hostile and unethical communication, which is directed in a systematic way by one or a few individuals mainly towards one individual who, due to mobbing, is pushed into a helpless and defenceless position, being held there by means of continuing mobbing activities’.

Different words for this hostile behaviour are used in different countries. In most European countries the term mobbing is used. In English-speaking countries, such hostile behaviour at work is called ‘bullying’. Other terms used are moral harassment, victimisation and psychological terror.

At European level, there is no commonly agreed definition of the term mobbing. As well as Leymann’s definition, there is a more recent one proposed by Norwegian academic Stale Einarsen in 2003 that is widely accepted:

Bullying at work means harassing, offending, socially excluding someone or negatively affecting someone’s work tasks. In order for the label bullying to be applied to a particular activity, interaction or process it has to occur repeatedly and regularly (e.g. weekly) and over a period of time (e.g. six months). Bullying is an escalating process in the course of which the person confronted ends up in an inferior position or becomes the target of systematic negative social acts. A conflict cannot be called bullying if the incident is an isolated event or if two parties of approximately equal‘strength‘ are in conflict.

  • European level, diverse efforts have been made to promote actions to tackle the phenomenon, starting with Directive 89/391 which gave employers more responsibilities in terms of health and safety ‘in every aspect related to the work’. The European Parliament also approved a Resolution (Resolution A5-0283/2001) urging EU Member States to revise and complete their legislative systems with regard to measures addressing mobbing and sexual harassment and to reach a harmonised definition of ‘mobbing’. Recent surveys on working conditions highlight increased psychological health problems at work. According to the fourth European Working Conditions Survey (2007) published by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions , 5% of workers report having been exposed to bullying or harassment in the last 12 months. In order to combat this trend, the European social partners signed a Framework Agreement on harassment and violence at work and the European Commission, in the European Strategy on Health and Safety (2007-2013), highlights the importance of promoting mental health at work.
  • a few EU Member States (notably Sweden) have adopted specific legislation with regard to mobbing in the workplace. Other EU Member States are working on legislative proposals (for example, Italy). The increasing impact of mobbing in the workplace has motivated the social partners to deal with it in collective agreements and codes of conduct.

See also: Harassment and violence at work, health and safety, Framework Directive on health and Safety.


Please note: the European industrial relations dictionary is updated annually. If errors are brought to our attention, we will try to correct them.


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