It's official: bullying is not only endemic in the British workplace - it is actually on the increase. A new study conducted by the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) and supported by the CBI and TUC, suggests that one in four of all British workers have experienced bullying within the past five years. One in 10 of the 5,500 individuals questioned in the study said that they had been bullied at work in the past six months and a half of all respondents had witnessed it. Engineering , with the exception of IT engineering, is a 'high risk occupation' in terms of bullying.
Judging by the emails received for this month's Careers clinic, the above findings will come as little surprise to civil engineers.
One reader describes how, in his previous job as a chartered project engineer, he was bullied by his regional director, a senior engineer in his early fifties.
'The bullying would take the form of verbal abuse and derision in front of work colleagues, and he was generally antagonistic towards me. This often resulted in confrontations in the office and was extremely stressful. I was not alone in suffering these attacks.
'In more amenable moments, this man would confide that he really believed you had to upset people to get the best out of them. Yet everyone just worked to the clock and did the minimum they were contractually obliged to do. The atmosphere in the office was very depressing, and everyone felt low self-esteem.'
Bullying negatively affects morale and productivity, says Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology at UMIST and co-author of the study. Victims of bullying are likely to suffer mental ill health and to take more sick leave than colleagues who are not being bullied, says Cooper, and an estimated 18M working days are lost every year because of bullying. 'Yet with fewer people doing more work, especially managers, bullying has become a management style,' he adds.
One reader says that he tried to be open by reporting his predicament to senior directors, but it did not help. He has since moved on to another company where, he says, he is treated as a valued member of staff and gives his employer far more in terms of dedication and productivity.
Another NCE reader describes how his former boss used bullying as part of her management strategy. 'I was working as a director of a small consulting firm,' he explains. 'She was a classic bully: someone who demands (and commands) respect while simultaneously denying it to others. I found the only way to survive was to work a 70-hour week and not to expect to achieve the targets set.
'The owner knew she had created a high stress no-win working environment and took out insurance on my health in my first week. I survived for three months with the help of exercise, whisky, Nytol and Rennies, but there should be more to a career than survival.'
It is useful to note at this point exactly what constitutes bullying. 'You don't have to scream and shout at someone to harass them,' Cooper warns. 'Bullying includes excessive monitoring of an employee, frequent fault-finding and presenting them with unrealistic workloads.'
A third NCE reader has experienced bullying twice in his career, in each case while working for major contractors. Here he describes his second experience, which took place last year:
'The bullying started with the arrival of a new boss who said that he promoted team contribution and openness. In fact he was a control freak, and displayed his true colours with his 'it's my way or the highway' approach. Verbal abuse turned physical.
'Staff were rated on whether they were allies of his and not by ability. I am currently fighting an employment tribunal for breach of contract and unfair dismissal, but found I could only bring claims of sexual harassment or race discrimination rather than a claim for straight bullying.'
An engineer in academia recalls being bullied by a line manager over a period of many years. 'I was given impossible deadlines and rapidly changing objectives,' he says.
'I was relocated to another department and put into a dust-filled room with no windows,' he adds, 'before my union took up my case. And then, after six meetings with the chief executive, I was told he would do nothing against my 'successful manager'.'
A safe reporting procedure is one of the recommendations made by the UMIST study. Organisations, it says, should train managers so they are aware of the negative effects of bullying. And bullying is one of the issues that the Respect for People working group (part of the post-Egan report initiative Movement for Innovation) is keen to challenge, says chairman Alan Crane, chief executive of Christiani & Nielsen.
'There's no doubt that it exists in the construction industry, but we don't know the scale as there's precious little real evidence,' he says. 'As a working group, we're trying to assess the extent of bullying, identify the causes and from this to put forward simple proposals to improve the situation,' he adds.
'While no claim for 'simple' harassment (as opposed to sexual or racial harassment) may exist to the Employment Tribunal, bullying may amount to a breach of the fundamental duty of trust and confidence implied into all contracts of employment,' says Matt Dean of leading employment lawyer Simmons & Simmons. 'As such the victim may treat him or herself as constructively dismissed.' If the employer has failed to take action when a complaint is made any breach will be compounded.
More enlightened employers understand the adverse effects of bullying and introduce harassment policies to ensure the issue is properly dealt with.
Bullies rely on the fact that few of their victims are willing to complain formally about their plight. Even Cary Cooper suggests that bullied employees may be best advised to look for another job rather than taking legal action.
One in four British workers have experienced bullying in the past five years
Bullying negatively affects morale and productivity
An estimated 18M working days are lost every year in Britain because of bullying
Bullying affects employees at all levels - from workers with no managerial responsibility to senior managers
Getting another job may be better than taking legal action if you are being bullied at work
Coming up: Are you overworked?
Do you work too hard and for too long? Is work having a negative effect on your private life? Next month's Careers clinic (13 April issue) will look at what employers should be doing and what you can do to improve your work/life balance.
Please email your experiences (120 words max) to Sally O'Reilly at
email@example.com by 4 April. Remember, we will not use your name unless you want us to.