Don’t stand by on workplace bullying

Opinion: Mike Webster explains the role of bystanders who witness intimidation and bullying in the workplace and speak out, no longer colluding through their silence.

The image shows a man in a business suit sitting in a darkened stairwell of an office building looking upset: A culture of bullying in the workplace must be replaced by a culture of kindness. Photo: iStock
A culture of bullying in the workplace must be replaced by a culture of kindness. Photo: iStock

Bystanders hold the key to changing toxic workplace cultures where bullying and intimidation are rife; where employee well-being is disregarded and individuals can be destroyed.

These bystanders are co-workers who observe bullies in action against workplace targets and, regardless of their organisational status, will have come to a non-negotiable position: We will no longer collude with workplace intimidation.

Early findings in a multidisciplinary research project looking at leadership for workplace wellbeing by the University of Auckland has shown bystanders who choose to speak out can bring powerful change.

Workplace bullying

Bullying in the workplace is back in the headlines. This has brought to mind a book published by Stanford University business school professor Jeffrey Pfeffer in 2018 with the disturbing title: Dying for a Paycheck. The subtitle explains the meaning of that phrase: How modern management harms employee health and company performance—and what we can do about it.

Sources of harms Pfeffer identifies include excessive workload demands and workplace bullying, the consequences of which can be devastating for individuals: mental distress, burnout and in extreme cases, self-harm and suicide.

In fact, workload demands and bullying are often two sides of the same coin: as workloads increase to the point of burnout, demands to maintain outputs in effect become workplace bullying. Pfeffer gives a tragic US example - one of many.

A software engineer committed suicide in August 2016 by shooting himself. His wife blamed workplace stress: “He worked long hours [and] felt immense pressure and stress and was scared he’d lose his job. He became someone with very little confidence in himself. He was saying he couldn’t do anything right.”

Similar instances are occurring in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Employment New Zealand defines workplace bullying in these terms: Workplace bullying is repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that can cause physical or mental harm. Bullying can be physical, verbal, psychological or social. This may include victimising, humiliating, intimidating or threatening a person.

In April 2021, a report by Dr Charlotte Chambers into senior medical workforce burnout was released by the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists. Accompanying the release, a New Zealand Herald journalist Emma Russell wrote: "Medical workloads are so bad thousands of doctors across the country are severely burnt out - to the point one says she became suicidal after repeatedly being told by her bosses that patients would die if she took time off.

"I couldn't see another way out of the situation. I would rather not be alive than deal with this because there was no end in sight," the doctor said.

Dr X shared her harrowing experience of working in a public hospital amid a new report revealing one in two senior doctors are suffering high levels of burnout in New Zealand.

How should we respond?

The expectation that senior management should do something or even anything to address such levels of workplace toxicity is understandable. Examples include referring staff experiencing such demands to attend stress management courses, online or in person. The intention is admirable, but in my opinion, these solutions amount to applying Band-Aids.

Participating in yet another course may even add more stress. An opinion piece in Harvard University daily student newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, commented that such approaches may be “addressing symptoms of institutional problems”, thus delaying structural change.

For this opinion piece I am drawing from the early findings of the research project referred to above. The research team comprises workplace practitioners and academics from health, business, social work and social entrepreneurship. We have drawn from existing models of healthy workplaces such as the World Health Organisation and the work of nurse and healthy workplace specialist Janice Riegen in Aotearoa New Zealand.

The proposal we have coming out of this research is that only a profound change in organisational and professional culture will address toxic workplace bullying. Transactional management - “if you (the workers) do this, I (the manager) will do that” - falls into only fixing symptoms, as observed in the Harvard Crimson piece cited above. Both the WHO and Riegen models propose a seminal change in culture which needs leadership, not management; leadership exercised both formally by designated office-holders and informally by thought leaders at diverse levels in the organisation.

How can the culture change?

This is where bystanders come in. Workplace bullying consists of three groups: perpetrators, targets, and bystanders. The latter group, by far the largest at typically 80 percent of the workforce, observe what is happening. They may be designated office-holders or informal thought leaders, but whatever their roles, they will have subscribed to the belief that workers carry the capability to produce cultural change and will constructively confront perpetrators.

Once the culture of bullying has been challenged, the aim then is to develop a culture of kindness, reflecting the globally-recognised call by our Prime Minister: “If I could distil it down into one concept that we are pursuing in New Zealand it is simple and it is this: kindness.”

Kindness originates from the cognate word 'kin': the notion that because we are all human we treat each other in kind. Kindness derives from 'noble deeds' and is an act showing generosity, helpfulness and caring. Exercising workplace kindness benefits us all; it reinforces our human kinship and personal wellbeing.

Our initial research findings have led us to propose that workplace wellbeing contributes to three outcomes for workers: They feel valued as a whole person; they take responsibility for healthy workplace functions, and they flourish in completing work tasks. In turn, employees with a strong sense of personal wellbeing contribute to an organisational culture in which kindness is valued, each individual becoming integral in shared basic assumptions about how we live.

Only then, when these elements are embedded in organisations’ policy and practice, will stressed doctors, software engineers and employees across all sectors feel their working lives have meaning and purpose and value.

Dr Mike Webster is a senior lecturer in Counselling, Human Services and Social Work at the University of Auckland.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom Don’t stand by on workplace bullying 27 May 2021.

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