Negative health outcomes resulting from bullying in the workplace

A recent Danish study confirms that bullying leads to sleep problems and symptoms of severe stress among victims. Moreover, witnesses to bullying are found to react in the same manner, albeit to a lesser degree. On the positive side, systematic and frequent exposure to bullying is quite limited. However, negative behaviour in the workplace is very common, with 79.5% of the respondents being exposed at least sometimes to work-related negative acts.

Concluding a 2006–2009 research programme on bullying at the workplace, the National Research Centre for the Working Environment (Det Nationale Forskningscenter for Arbejdsmiljø, NFA) recently published the report Bullying and negative behaviour at the workplace (Mobning og negativ adfærd på arbejdspladsen (3Mb PDF)). The study combined in-depth qualitative research with a survey of 3,363 respondents in 2006 and 2008, and investigated physiological and mental health effects of bullying. In order to analyse the interactional nature of bullying, the survey covered employees at 60 different enterprises. As a result, the survey population is not fully representative of the Danish workforce.

Defining mobbing or bullying

Across Europe, different terms are used for the hostile behaviour often referred to as mobbing or bullying. Reflecting differences in the efforts to grasp the more subtle forms of harassment and violence at work, this hostile behaviour has been conceptualised as ‘moral harassment’ (PT0904019I), ‘mobbing’ (SK0709019I, PL0809019I) or ‘bullying’ (BE0611019I, NO0801019I, LT0607059I). According to the national studies, there are considerable differences in the nature of bullying across Europe which are not connected to variations in the concepts applied.

Regarding bullying, the Danish study emphasises the importance of measuring the frequency as well as the duration of bullying in the workplace. It recognises that bullying:

  • may arise from a poor work climate;
  • may occur if conflicts are allowed to escalate;
  • is closely related to negative behaviour in the workplace in general;
  • describes a social situation implicating a ‘bully’, a ‘victim’ and ‘witnesses’.

Prevalence and nature of bullying in Denmark

Overall, 10.8% of the NFA survey respondents report exposure to bullying (Table 1). Some 1.4% of the respondents experience bullying at least once a week, while 9.4% are sometimes bullied. Furthermore, 26.5% of respondents report having witnessed bullying daily or weekly or at least sometimes.

It appears that men are somewhat more exposed and somewhat more likely to witness bullying than women. However, the survey finds that women experience bullying as being somewhat more disturbing than men do. The study confirms that the degree to which bullying is experienced as being disturbing is closely related to exposure frequency.

Table 1: Prevalence of bullying, by gender (%)
Frequency Women Men Total
Exposed to bullying – ‘victims’
Daily or weekly 1.3 1.7 1.4
Sometimes 7.8 12.9 9.4
Never 90.9 85.4 89.2
Colleague(s) exposed to bullying – ‘witnesses’
Daily or weekly 2.8 3.7 3.1
Sometimes 21.7 27.0 23.4
Never 75.5 69.3 73.4

Source: NFA, 2009

Regarding the duration of bullying taking place on a daily or weekly basis or sometimes, 38% of those experiencing bullying report having been exposed for less than one month and 17% have been exposed for less than half a year. However, 36% of those experiencing bullying report an exposure duration of more than one year (Table 2).

Table 2: Duration of bullying (%)
Duration %
Less than one month 38
1–6 months 17
7–12 months 9
1–2 years 16
3 years or more 20

Source: NFA, 2009

Looking more closely into the nature of bullying, the study finds that its prevalence differs according to job groups and the socioeconomic status of employees. The survey registers the highest levels of bullying among unskilled workers, while bullying rates are lower among skilled workers, lower again among white-collar workers and lowest among managers.

Moreover, on a multiple response question, 29.5% of those reporting being bullied state that the perpetrator was a superior, whereas 77.5% were bullied by colleagues; 6.7% were bullied by subordinates and 3.9% by clients, patients, customers or pupils.

Latent bullying – negative behaviour in the workplace

Applying the concept of negative behaviour developed by the Negative Acts Questionnaire, the NFA study investigates which types of acts are experienced as bullying. Negative acts may be work-related, such as being assigned tasks with too tight deadlines or being exposed to excessive monitoring while performing work, or may be directed towards the person, such as being ignored, humiliated or reprimanded. Although such negative acts are not in themselves bullying, they indicate the risk that bullying may occur. Negative acts become bullying when they are directed towards the same person(s) systematically, that is, on a frequent basis and for a certain period of time.

Some 79.5% of the respondents are exposed to work-related negative acts at least sometimes. Moreover, 33% are sometimes exposed to negative acts directed towards the person.

The respondents were asked to assess which six of the 23 negative actions surveyed they considered the worst (see figure). In the ranking, no significant gender differences were evident. Although exposure to the negative acts ranked as the worst proved quite common on a monthly basis or sometimes (in the range of 18% to 50% in the case of women, and 20% to 51% for men), daily or weekly exposure is relatively limited overall.

Daily or weekly exposure to worst negative acts, by gender (%)

Daily or weekly exposure to worst negative acts, by gender (%)

Negative health outcomes from bullying

Investigating the impact of bullying on psychological stress reactions according to the Impact of Event Scale, the NFA study finds that negative acts which potentially isolate the individual at the workplace, acts directed towards the person and unreasonable workloads induce most psychological stress.

The study reveals a close connection between relatively poorer self-rated health, somatic stress reactions and sleep problems, on the one hand, and exposure to bullying, on the other. Interestingly, moreover, witnesses to bullying react in the same manner, albeit to a lesser degree. Thus, bullying presents a problem to the workplace as much as to the individual.

Rune Holm Christiansen and Helle Ourø Nielsen, Oxford Research

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