A new approach to bullying in the workplace

New Belgian research on bullying in the workplace underlines the fact that it is a gradual process, and that different groups of workers are exposed to bullying. The type and frequency of negative behaviours encountered increases the bullying intensity, causing greater problems in relation to health and well-being.

Belgian research into the topic of bullying at work started relatively recently in light of growing policy interest in the matter. A new law was introduced in 2002 and revised in 2006 (BE0312304F; BE0205301N). Since the introduction of the law, new research has been developed within a government campaign entitled ‘Respect at work’ (Respect au travail/Respect op het werk) initiated by the Directorate-General ‘Humanisation of working life’ of the Federal Public Service Employment, Labour and Social dialogue (SPF Emploi, Travail et Concertation sociale/FOD Werkgelegenheid, Arbeid en Sociaal Overleg).

Measuring bullying

Bullying at work can be defined as a gradually escalating process, whereby the type of negative behaviours and their intensity gradually increase. However, the actual measurement of bullying often does not adequately capture this process. The new Belgian research uses an ‘objective’ measurement of bullying gathered by means of the Negative Acts Questionnaire (NAQ), developed by Ståle Einarsen and Bjørn Inge Raknes in 1997. This questionnaire does not ask respondents to label themselves according to whether they have been bullied or not. They only have to indicate how often they experience a range of negative behaviours by others. Based on a latent class analysis, Notelaers et al (2006) distinguish six clusters of respondents: those who are ‘not bullied’ (35.3%), the ‘limited work criticism’ cluster (27.7%), those with ‘limited negative encounters’ (16.5%), those who are ‘sometimes bullied’ (9%), those who are ‘work-related bullied’ (8.3%) and ‘victims’ (3.2%).

In line with existing theories, the cluster analysis finds different and distinct groups of employees concerning exposure to bullying at work. While large groups of respondents report no or hardly any exposure to any kind of bullying behaviour at work, others systematically report exposure to a wide range of such behaviour. More specifically, this latter group of potential targets comprises three distinct groups which differ both in terms of frequency and nature of the reported bullying behaviour.

Three levels of bullying

The workers who are ‘sometimes bullied’ (9% of the sample) report exposure to a wide range of bullying behaviour, although most such behaviour occurs only occasionally. The second group of highly exposed respondents (8.3% of the sample) was identified as a target of work-related bullying; workers in this category systematically indicate a high level of exposure to the work-related acts listed in the NAQ, for example one’s opinion not being taken into consideration. However, this second group is exposed to only some of the more person-related kinds of behaviour, such as personal insults. The third target group was categorised as ‘victims’, as they show a high level of exposure to most forms of bullying behaviour. This group – 3.2% of the total sample – signals exposure to many of the items of the NAQ on as much as a weekly basis.

All of these three groups of bullied persons report a higher level of work tension and lower job satisfaction compared with respondents who are not exposed to bullying. Nevertheless, the victim group clearly suffered most as they reported significantly less job satisfaction and significantly more sleeping problems and time spent worrying than the other two groups did.

High risk groups

Further analysis of the clusters shows that certain categories of employees have a higher probability of being bullied. Blue-collar workers, civil servants, temporary workers and people in the 35–45 year age category are the most significant risk groups. No direct relationship was found by sex. The research emphasises that many of the differences between occupations and sectors can be explained by a combination of psychosocial risks related to the job task, the group culture in the workplace and the organisation of work.


Most Belgian research in the area of bullying has focused on the prevalence and causes of bullying. Much of the research is based on the experience of the person being bullied. It may also be worthwhile to focus research efforts on gaining a better understanding of the person doing the bullying and how to prevent this problem from occurring. More attention needs to be paid to evaluating pro-active interventions and the dissemination of best practice examples. The finding that bullying is a gradual process could help in this regard.

Reference and further information

Notelaers, G., De-Witte, H., Vermunt, J-K. and Einarsen, S., ‘Pesten op het werk, gewikt en gewogen. Een latente-klassenbenadering op basis van de Negative Acts-vragenlijst’ [How to measure bullying at work? A latent class analysis of the Negative Acts Questionnaire], Gedrag en Organisatie, Vol. 19, No. 2, 2006, pp. 140–160.

For more information at European level, see the EWCO topic report, Violence, bullying and harassment in the workplace (TN0406TR01).

Guy Van Gyes, Higher Institute for Labour Studies (HIVA), Catholic University of Leuven

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