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Organisational Mental Health Focus: Bullying in the workplace

Society for Industrial and Organisational Psychology of South Africa
Date: 9 October 2020


Bullying in the workplace

By: Senzekile Shongwe, Psycho-Social Therapist and Mental health educator

Bullying in the workplace is more common than we think, people mistaken it to action of authority or the general rule of management and leadership, but is it?

Workplace bullying is a persistent pattern of being ill-treated by either your equals or superiors in the workplace this can be done verbally, non-verbally, psychologically and sometimes physically through means of extreme hard labor and negative physical contact. Bullying in the workplace usually includes repeated incidents of behavior that is intended to intimidate, offend, degrade or humiliate as a result; it can cause physical, psychological and emotional harm which can take time to heal from.

Emotional bullying in the workplace

Emotional bullying affects the way in which one feels about themselves and others, it is closely related to aggressive behavior, suppression, deceit, maltreatment.

Emotional related bullying is usually non- physical, it can also be non-verbal. It can be in the form of being stalked and being uncomfortably monitored at work, refusing to communicate or give out needed information to the victim and therefor depriving them of doing their work to the best of their ability.

Emotional bullying normally happens where there is an imbalance of power; it does not always come from a superior but it definitely comes from an imbalance of power in the relationship. It can actually come from an employee or a co-worker that falsely accuses you of something, the power then shifts in favor of the accuser.

Emotional bullying often goes on for a very long time and it is consistent in the way that it happens and then typically escalates as time goes on.

Psychological bullying in the workplace

Psychological bullying in the workplace is often meant to press down the victim mentally, making them feel severely dis-stressed, anxious, fatigued and depressed.

This can be achieved by deliberately making the working environment unpleasant for a specific employee, giving unreasonable targets to reach in and unreasonable amount of time, threatening the employee that they will lose their job every time they make a mistake or do not satisfy certain expectations.

Shouting and yelling can cause psychological distress where the employee may experience anxiety and get jumpy every time the perpetrator is in the room.

Individuals who experience psychological abuse in the workplace usually need psychological intervention from professional psychologists, social workers and registered counsellors to heal from the trauma.

Physical bullying in the workplace

Physical abuse in the workplace is when the physic is worked beyond its capacity through extreme hard labor as an order to a specific individual from a superior. The bully may do this to punish the individual or to satisfy his/her own egocentric needs. Most victims go beyond what their bodies can manage because of the fear that they have about potentially losing their jobs and therefore not being able to provide for themselves and their families.

Sexual assault is also a form of physical bullying, when the perpetrator touches the victim in an inappropriate and uncomfortable manner. It could start with a peck on the cheeks, a kiss, and an inappropriate hug, to molestation or non-consensual sex. In some instances victims agree to have sexual intercourse with the perpetrator because they fear losing their jobs or having their reputation tarnished.

Signs of bullying in the workplace

Wearing down your self-esteem

  • The bully would try to isolate the victim from people who may help them out of the situation or even intimidate the victim from wanting to seek help.
  • The bully may lower the victims self-esteem by belittling accomplishments, giving the victim derogatory names and also diminishing their character through humor in front of other colleagues.
  • The bully would be immediately dismissive if or when the victim voices out their concerns by merely shaking their head, smirking and rolling their eyes with that making them feel stupid for raising their concerns to start off with.
  • Passive aggressive behavior is one of the most common ways of displaying emotional bullying in the workplace where the bully would intentionally push the victims’ buttons knowing that they will get a reaction from them. This can be in a form of raising goals higher for the victim than others, taking credit for the victims work or holding the victim accountable for the things that other employees are not.
  • Calling the victim degrading names in front of other colleagues and showing everyone how “incompetent” they are.

Shaming behaviors

  • When the employee is monitoring the victims whereabouts or activities more than that of other employees with no justification this can be done through digital spying and monitoring of emails and even personal internet activities.
  • Having other employees engage in conversations about the victim and excluding the victim from workplace events, activities or team building sessions or even completely ignoring the victim.
  • Making the victim feel incompetent or alter events to make the victim feel a sense of incompetence.
  • Superiors would make bad decisions and later blame the victim for the consequences of their decision and also telling the victim to take a specific action or do something and then later denying it.

Shame or guilt

  • Making the victim feel that they are the problem, that they are doing something wrong or that something is wrong with them for no real wrong doing or making them feel inadequate and unworthy.

Punishment and revenge

  • When the bully undeservingly punishes an employee with physical discipline, psychologically through passive aggression or emotionally through isolation.
  • When the bully acts vindictive towards the victim; seeking unfair revenge when mistakes happen and retaliating against the victim.

Blocking advancement or growth

  • Impending and employee’s progression, growth or advancement in the workplace unfairly.
  • This normally happens when the victim has clear potential to develop themselves at work or in their career path.

Illegal Discrimination

  • Race
  • Religion
  • Sexual Harassment
  • Disability or
  • pregnancy
  • Age
  • Retaliation
  • Hostile working environment

What to do when you realize that you are being bullied

  • Document every incident that has happened to you.
  • If the bullying is obvious to others, ask the perpetrator to stop bullying you in front of some witnesses.
  • Report all incidences to your superiors at work or to the HR manager and proceed your reporting higher up the hierarchy.
  • Always keep proof of all correspondence.
  • Consider whether legal steps may be required.
  • It is also important to get counselling after experiencing workplace bullying because the effects can affect you psychologically and emotionally way after the case is closed if the necessary psychological intervention is not put in place.

I hope that this article has shed some light on the context of workplace bullying, if you find yourself in a situation of workplace bullying do not keep quiet; report the issue and if you are scared ask a fellow colleague that you trust to help you through the process and  also seek professional support and intervention.


  • Baillien, &  De Witte,  H.  (2009).  Why is  organizational  change  related  to Workplace bullying? Role conflict and  job  insecurity  as  mediators. Economic and Industrial Democracy, 30(3), 348-37.
  • Bakker, A. B., & Demerouti, E. (2007). The job demands-resources model: State of the art. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 22(3), 309-328.
  • Bartlett, J. E., Bartlett, M. E. (2011). Workplace bullying: An integrative literature review. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 13, 69-84.

For more information please contact: SIOPSA Marketing and Communications at marissa@siopsa.org.za

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