Bully pulpit: Stop workplace bullying before it causes absenteeism, turnover

Make yourself the go-to person and get it stopped

Workplace bullying is known to cause lost productivity, high turnover, injury and illness, but this problem is often completely ignored by managers and senior leaders.

As an occupational health manager, you are probably the single best person in the company for bullied workers to go to. Moreover, you can point out the hidden costs of bullying to management.

"This is part of your role. It absolutely affects the physical and emotional well-being of employees," says Shellie Simons, PhD, RN, an assistant professor in the Department of Nursing at University of Massachusetts Lowell. "You are the best first step. There is nobody else that really cares about the well-being of the employee."

As an occupational health professional, you should "communicate your ability and desire to assist employees," says Donna M. Gates, EdD, MSPH, MSN, FAAN, professor & chair at the University of Cincinnati's College of Nursing. "This can be done on a one-to-one basis when employees are seeking assistance with other health or safety issues, and by flyers, e-mail communication, and educational seminars."

The first step? Inform others about bullying's adverse impact on the workplace. "Occupational health is in a great position to do teaching on this," says Simons. "The literature is full of documentation that bullying will cause depression, headaches, stomachaches and quite a bit of absenteeism."

Presenteeism is a related issue. "When someone is bullied, they are thinking about what to do about the problem, rather than their job," says Simons.

What's the true cost?

"There are direct adverse effects on the workers. Then there are secondary effects and financial costs, because the organization is affected," says Dianne M. Felblinger, EdD, MSN, WHNP-BC, CNS, RN, a professor and women's health nurse practitioner at the University of Cincinnati's College of Nursing.

Bullied workers may have stress-related illnesses, such as hypertension, gastrointestinal problems, or sleep disorders. "There are increased health care costs that the organization ends up picking up," says Felblinger. "On a larger scale, there is increased absenteeism and turnover intention. Employee safety becomes an issue."

Gates says it's important to know that there are psychological and physical consequences for bullied workers. Bullying can lead to stress symptoms similar to those seen with post-traumatic stress disorder, such as sleep disturbances, loss of interest in activities, irritability or anger, difficulty concentrating, substance abuse, helplessness, and depression, she explains.

"Physical symptoms may include headache, stomach problems, musculoskeletal pain, and chest pain," says Gates.

Since bullying makes it more likely for an employee to leave their job, Simons recommends calculating the cost of replacing an employee.

"There is the need to replace and retrain employees who leave due to the bullying," says Gates. "Also, there is decreased productivity due to the time and energy spent on coping with the bullying, costs for medical and psychological care, potential legal actions, and cost for sick pay and worker's compensation."

Create a policy

Work with managers, human resource representatives and safety to create a policy that promotes a zero tolerance for bullying, says Gates. This should be part of a comprehensive workplace violence policy that covers all types of violence, she advises — verbal abuse, harassment, bullying, threats, and physical violence.

"The policy should cover violence from employees, managers, and customers. It should be part of the company's commitment to a safe and healthy work environment," says Gates.

Occupational health professionals, says Felblinger, "by and large are good interviewers, and have a way of pulling out history. Ask workers, 'What do you think this is related to?' and 'Is there something at work that exacerbates this?'"

Felblinger points to the Healthy Workplace Bill introduced by 17 states, which provides an avenue for legal recourse for workers whose health was harmed by an abusive work environment. "There is a movement going on to introduce legislation against bullying," she notes. "It is to the workplace's advantage to get on top of that curve."


For more information about bullying in the workplace and the occupational health role, contact:

• Dianne M. Felblinger, EdD, MSN, WHNP-BC, CNS, RN, College of Nursing, University of Cincinnati. Phone: (513) 558-5214. Fax: (513) 558-2142. dianne.felblinger@uc.edu.

• Donna M. Gates, EdD, MSPH, MSN, FAAN, College of Nursing, University of Cincinnati. Phone: (513) 558-3793. E-mail: donna.gates@uc.edu.

• Shellie Simons, PhD, RN, University of Massachusetts Lowell. Phone: (978) 934-4401. E-mail: shellie_simons@uml.edu.