Bullying ‘a by-product’ of overloading stressed staff

2011-04-16 17:37

Do you dread the thought of missing a meeting because a colleague might just ­under­mine you?

Count yourself among the 37% of South African workers who are bullied or victimised at least once in their careers, ­according to research by the Workplace Dignity Institute.

“Often workers are being ­bullied and they don’t even know it,” says Dr Susan Steinman, founder and chairperson of the institute.

Gossip, screaming, throwing tantrums, swearing, conspiracies to isolate someone and rude and insensitive emails are some examples of bullying in the workplace.

However, says industrial ­psychologist Zurayda Shaik, not all workplace conflict is ­tantamount to bullying.

While it is not a new phenomenon, workplace bullying is a growing trend. Steinman says it is a by-product of the “major and profound restructuring of the workplace and globalisation as companies lay off workers to increase profit and overload the remaining staff to the extent that stress is commonplace in the corporate world.

“It has led to an increase in negative survival behaviour such as workplace bullying.”

While past studies show that in most cases bosses are the perpetrators, increasingly, ­according to Steinman, “someone in a senior position is equally prone to being bullied”.

This is a result of boundaries being blurred because hierarchies have become less strict.

Shaik notes increased awareness and reporting of the issue because of realisation of the detrimental effect it has on workers and organisations.

Reporting the bullying to ­superiors often aggravates the situation, however, as victims become alienated from colleagues and their abilities are questioned, Steinman says.

This can affect the victim’s ability to function properly, both in and outside the workplace.

In Australia a new law could see bullies face up to 10 years in jail.

This comes after the recent ­suicide of a teenage waitress who was bullied by her ­colleagues.

In South Africa there is “no specific legislation that directly deals with bullying in the ­workplace, but workers are ­protected by, for example the Employment Equity Act and the Protected Disclosures Act”, says Nick Robb, a partner at law firm Webber Wentzel.

The first port of call for employees is to report incidents of bullying to their managers, but this system “is widely mistrusted by everybody as it is often the company lawyer who is probably friends with the perpetrator who handles the case, and in some cases the employer will not even take it up,” says Steinman.

“Grievance procedures in the workplace often do not work because of this and some form of independent arbitration is needed,” she says.

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