Workplace bullying: what is it? And what can be done?

Tensions in the workplace, frequent criticism or disparaging comments: can these be signs of workplace bullying? In this article, you will find important information for making an initial assessment – as well as tips for the next steps.

21.02.2024 Sarah Schumacher 6 minutes

Between 4.4 and 7.6 percent of working people in Switzerland are or have been affected by workplace bullying. These statistics were quoted in 2023 by the “Schweizerische Ärztezeitung” medical journal, drawing on figures from the Swiss Federal Statistical Office (FSO) and the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO). It is not always easy to make a clear distinction between “personal conflicts” and “bullying” as a violation of personal integrity.

What is workplace bullying?

Bullying occurs if someone’s dignity is repeatedly violated (about once a week) for more than six months. There is no internationally recognised definition of the term “bullying”. However, experts talk of workplace bullying when these characteristics are present:

  • Bullying behaviour, refusal to communicate or conflict-laden communication that directly or indirectly attacks one or more people.
  • The behaviour is repeated, systematic and continues over a long period of time. The nature of the attacks can keep changing.
  • The attacks come from line managers and/or employees.
  • The person concerned subjectively perceives the behaviour as hostile. It is possible that this is not the case at first, and that it takes time and hindsight for the negative intention to be recognised.
  • The act may aim to damage the reputation of the person attacked, to isolate or ostracise them.
  • The person subjected to the attack is put in an inferior position as a result of the bullying.

These points are taken from the SECO brochure “Bullying and other forms of harassment – protecting personal integrity in the workplace” (2014/2016, p. 7) (German original: “Mobbing und andere Belästigungen – Schutz der persönlichen Integrität am Arbeitsplatz”). The Federal Supreme Court also bases its decisions on this “workplace bullying” checklist.

Where does workplace bullying start?

Bullying is not always behind every argument or criticism. On the other hand, individual acts of bullying are often not serious offences in themselves and can be interpreted in different ways. An overall view of the situation is essential in order to recognise bullying.

As well as psychological attacks, bullying can even progress to physical assault or sexual harassment in the workplace: offensive jokes, supposedly accidental touching and even aggressive, intrusive behaviour and violence.

Difference between bossing and staffing

Bullying at work can take various forms. In addition to harassment in the traditional sense between colleagues at the same hierarchical level, it can also take the form of bossing (from the top down) or staffing (from the bottom up).

Bossing is bullying by superiors. If bullying in the workplace comes from the boss, this can manifest itself, for example, through:

  • Non-objective criticism
  • Excessive control
  • Devaluing an individual in front of their colleagues
  • Withdrawing privileges
  • Pointless assignments
  • Deliberate over- or underchallenging
  • Competition with no rules

Staffing refers to workplace bullying by colleagues. Young, inexperienced managers are a frequent target of staffing, but team members are also targeted. Sometimes the roles are reversed in this form of workplace bullying. Examples include:

  • Employees taking on the role of supervisor
  • Insider knowledge being withheld
  • Silence as a form of exclusion
  • Slander or lies
  • Insults

Reasons for bullying at work

The following indications of bullying are frequently found in research on the topic:

  • Inadequate or excessive leadership
  • Fear of losing your job
  • Poor work organisation
  • Envy and resentment
  • Competition

Calling in sick due to workplace bullying

Workplace bullying does indeed have consequences: a lack of respect, insufficient fairness and other bullying tactics impact negatively on the physical and mental health of those affected. What’s more, victims of bullying often tolerate a stressful situation for too long. They wait until they start getting serious health problems to seek professional help to cope with workplace bullying.

Diagnosis:

In medical terms, the effects of bullying on health are summarised as “bullying syndrome”:

Stage 1: acute stress reactions 
The psychological or physical burden manifests itself in the form of various coping mechanisms. Signs and signals of this are irritability, defensive or withdrawing behaviour, a lack of motivation and passiveness.

Stage 2: cumulative traumatic stress disorder
Signs include generally feeling unwell, headaches or tension pains, nervousness, sleep disturbances, including profuse sweating, and memory problems. In addition, those affected by bullying often develop anxiety in reaction to forms of external control or hostility.

Stage 3: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Symptoms of PTSD resulting from bullying include flashbacks and reliving traumatic events, nightmares, apathy, social withdrawal, anxiety or depression.

Stage 4: ongoing change in personality
People can develop an anxious-avoidant personality disorder (PD), paranoid PD or obsessive PD as a result of suffering extreme stress.

Long-term consequences of workplace bullying

If people who suffer personal injustice or stress for too long, the consequences of workplace bullying (stage 2, see “Bullying syndrome” above) often make themselves felt mentally and physically. Physical after-effects include headaches, back pain or stomach ache, while psychological ramifications can manifest themselves in the form of burnout due to bullying or depression, as well as lower self-esteem.

Signing off work sick due to bullying

Although your head doesn’t want to give in, at some point your body will slam on the emergency brake. Taking sick leave due to bullying at work is an acceptable remedy from a medical perspective. However, a study published in 2022 by WorkMed, a competence centre at the psychiatry institution Psychiatrie Baselland, shows that even prolonged treatment and being certified as having an incapacity for work does not improve workplace conflicts in most cases.

Tips – tackling workplace bullying

Wondering how to tackle workplace bullying? 

Our tip: respond to it immediately.

Step 1: keep a diary of what happens

Do certain comments or actions in your working environment trigger negative feelings in you? Take what you see and feel seriously and start making a note of these snapshots: incidents, comments and what these trigger in you. Protect your health and make more use of stress management exercises.

Step 2: raise the issue

Experts recommend addressing the problem with the other party in the conflict as early as possible. Has there possibly been a misunderstanding? If talking one-to-one doesn't help to improve the situation, go one step further: approach your boss or line manager. If you lack the confidence or courage to do so, you can contact HR or a specialist advice centre.

Step 3: consult a specialist centre

The aim of a specialist advice centre is to analyse situations confidentially and discreetly, find solutions and plan the next steps. Case management, company mentors or coaches, psychotherapists, lawyers, HR at your own company or company health managers as well as dedicated external specialist centres for bullying are all well-suited to this purpose. Support from people in your personal life can also have a positive effect.

Step 4: report workplace bullying

Contact someone you trust and discuss the situation. Report the person you feel is bullying you to your line manager. Take legal action. And as a final step: check whether resigning could be the last resort for you.

Overview of support providers

German-speaking Switzerland:

Anywhere in Switzerland

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