NIOSH studies bullying in the U.S. workplace

Most report employee vs. employee

Anyone who, as a kid, was the victim of a bully can remember the sick feeling he or she felt on the way to school each morning. Any adult who is the victim of bullying in the workplace can tell you the feeling is no different. A study by NIOSH reveals that workplace bullying — nonphysical belittling, intimidation, and rudeness — is commonplace, and suggests that management might not be aware of the extent of the problem.

The cost to workers is difficult to quantify, experts say, but at least costs time off from work, stress-related health problems, and depression, occupational health, and psychology researchers say. Paula Grubb, PhD, a NIOSH research psychologist who reported the study findings, says about one-fourth of the 516 public and private companies surveyed reported some type of bullying.

A key component of the survey, she notes, is that the responses do not come from employees themselves — the survey questions were posed to key personnel, usually members of human resources management, so the results reflect only incidents of bullying that management knows about.

Most incidents of bullying in the workplace appear to be perpetuated by employees against one another, early findings from the studying suggest. Grubb said different survey methods might show different results, perhaps indicating more aggression between managers and employees. "We were looking at a couple of different things, like outright violence, verbal threats, and incivility," Grubb says. "Incivility is just being rude in the workplace, but some researchers think this type of behavior can spiral into more serious things."

Grubb says this survey is thought to be the first look at verbal bullying and aggression in a nationally representative sample of employers. The findings suggest that efforts to make changes at the organizational level to prevent bullying in the workplace should include steps to improve relationships among co-workers and should not strictly focus on improving supervisor-employee and customer-employee relationships, the researchers state in reporting the preliminary results.

The study points to further research that would be needed before researchers could offer definitive recommendations for preventing bullying as a potential factor for work-related stress. "We don’t have enough information to give recommendations at this point," Grubb says. "We were interested in getting information from the organizational level, about what dynamics might relate to bullying and other forms of psychological aggression.

"We got a sample of what’s going on and what policies are in place, and later, we’ll be doing some work where we’ll ask the employees themselves to report on aggression in the workplace."

The findings were reported at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, held in July, as a progress report on the study.

Groundwork for more study

Since the results are based on a survey of a representative but small sample of respondents, other studies involving larger numbers of respondents would be needed to confirm the findings, researchers say. In addition, more study would be needed in greater depth to identify the reasons for acts of bullying in the workplace, the circumstances in which bullying is most likely to occur, and specific measures for improving interpersonal relationships in the workplace.

"In this study, we started from a workplace violence background, with broad, general questions, about what type of violence is occurring and in what kind of numbers," Grubb explains. "We asked them if they have conflict resolution programs in place, written policies for workplace violence, grievance systems, that sort of thing."

Data reported from the survey indicate the following:

  • 24.5% of the companies surveyed reported that some degree of bullying had occurred there during the preceding year.
  • In the most recent incident that had occurred, 39.2% involved an employee as the aggressor, 24.5% involved a customer, and 14.7% involved a supervisor.
  • In the most recent incident, 55.2% involved the employee as the victim, 10.5% the customer, and 7.7% the supervisor.

The organizations surveyed range in size from five employees to 20,000 employees each. Bullying was defined as repeated intimidation, slandering, social isolation, or humiliation by one or more persons against another. The study is part of NIOSH’s research to identify factors associated with work-related stress and to recommend practical interventions.

Grubb says larger companies reported more bullying probably because there are more workers, more layers of management, and more opportunities for interaction.

High cost of bullying

Grubb notes that bullying at work contributes to myriad problems, including depression, insomnia, and substance abuse. Productivity, motivation, and job satisfaction also are affected, she adds. Also linked to bullying are poor job security and a breakdown in trust between employees and management, even among employees who are not victims of the aggression.

According to Gary Namie, PhD, president of the Bellingham, WA-based Workplace Bullying & Trauma Institute, employers who allow workplace intimidation to go unchecked experience high turnover. His studies, available at www.bullyinginstitute.org, indicate that 82% of people targeted by bullies leave their workplaces: 38% cite health problems as their reason for leaving, while 44% say they left because they received performance evaluations that were skewed to show them as incompetent. Namie’s studies, conducted through surveys of victims of workplace bullying, estimate the cost of replacing an employee at two to three times the employee’s salary.

Health care costs also may rise for a company, as a bully’s targets become affected by stress-related illnesses. According to Namie, 41% of bully targets become depressed, with 31% of targeted women and 21% of targeted men being diagnosed with stress disorders.

"Eventually, this will help us know which areas to focus on and research," says Grubb of the NIOSH study. "What are some of the characteristics, what kinds of programs there are being used out there."

Most employers — 59% — report having programs in place to deal with aggression and conflict; what researchers hope to learn is how well the programs work and what might be done to prevent workplace aggression from happening in the first place. "What can come out of this, once the results are published, is an awareness of the problem," says Grubb. "The first thing you do is put the information out there that shows this is going on, so people are aware that this is an issue in the workplace."

Grubb says that in other countries, bullying in the workplace is an issue that has been considered important for some time. The United States lags behind other countries in addressing the issue of workplace bullying, Grubb points out. An Internet search turns up several web sites addressing workplace aggression in Australia and the United Kingdom, for example, including information about government programs long in place to address the problem.

"What you hope for then is that it will encourage more research that is more systematic, and eventually, maybe finding out what some of the antecedents are and develop what can be used in the workplace and whether [the programs] are any good or not."

For more information, contact:

  • Paula L. Grubb, PhD, Research Psychologist, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 5676 Columbia Parkway, Cincinnati, OH 45226. Telephone: (800) 35-NIOSH. E-mail: paula.grubb@cdc.hhs.gov.
  • NIOSH web page on work stress: www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/stress/.
  • Gary Namie, PhD, President, Workplace Bullying & Trauma Institute, P.O. Box 29915, Bellingham, WA 98228. Telephone: (360) 656-6630. E-mail: namie@bullyinginstitute.org.