Data from 2019 show that 3.5 percent of all employees in Norway reported that they were exposed to workplace bullying at least once a month. 2.4 per cent experienced bullying from colleagues and 1.9 per cent bullying from a manager, while some experienced bullying from both colleagues and managers.

Previous research has shown exposure to workplace bullying can lead to several health problems and is associated with sick leave and reduced work ability.

The impact of perceived ability

In research literature, workplace bullying is defined as a situation where one person is systematically exposed to negative treatment by one or several others over time, and where the target finds it difficult to defend themself against this treatment due to a perceived power imbalance with the perpetrator.

Even though this is a widely accepted definition, few studies have examined whether the experience of being able to defend actually will reduce the risk of being exposed to sustained bullying. Little is also known about differences related to gender and types of bullying behaviour.

A recently published study by researchers at STAMI, The University of Linköping and The University of Bergen examines these issues more closely.

Nationally representative survey

The study is based on a nationally representative survey of Swedish employees where data was collected in autumn 2017 and spring 2019. A total of 2,215 employees took part in the survey, but only participants who reported that they had experienced exposure to bullying behaviours were included in the study. The final sample consisted of approximately 400 participants between the ages of 18 and 65. Of these, 43 % were men and 57 % were women. All participants worked in businesses with at least 10 employees, and all had been exposed to one or more types of bullying behaviour in the last six months before the first data collection.

– We were particularly interested in how the employees perceived their ability to defend themselves against workplace bullying, and whether this perception affected the further development of bullying exposure. Therefore, the participants were asked to assess their ability to defend themselves against negative treatment, explains STAMI-researcher Morten Birkeland Nielsen.

Workplace bullying can take on several different forms. The attacks may be person-related or work-related. They may be direct, in the form of insults, threats or physical attacks but they may also be indirect, e.g., in the form of rumours, exclusion or excessive monitoring.

Regardless of form, being a target of such aggressions or violations over a long period of time will lead to a feeling of helplessness. Therefore, the attacks will often be perceived as increasingly difficult to defend against.

People who experience workplace bullying will apply different strategies to cope and defend themselves. Some will try open confrontation or retaliation; others will seek support or try to avoid the bullies as much as possible.

Previous studies indicate that there are significant gender differences in responses to bullying behaviour. Women will more likely seek help and support, either formally or from colleagues, while men are more prone to choosing direct confrontation.

These differences may relate to the traditional gender imbalance in many industries, where men have higher social status and more influence. Some studies indicate that women who handle bullying in ways which challenge gender stereotypes, may experience negative sanctions from their colleagues.

“Buffering effect” only in some of the cases

By comparing the participants’ perceived ability to defend themselves against bullying and the degree of bullying they later reported, the researchers wanted to investigate whether this perception would function as a “buffer” against further or increased bullying.

– When analysing the data, we saw that most of the respondents who initially found it difficult to defend themselves against negative treatment, were exposed to the same levels of bullying at follow-up. But also in the other group, i.e., those who originally perceived their ability to defend themselves as good, the majority reported that the level of bullying had remained more or less the same, says the STAMI researcher.

The researchers then investigated the characteristics of the few participants who experienced a “buffer effect” against bullying.

– By moderating for gender and types of bullying behaviour, we saw that this buffer effect only applied to men, and only to direct bullying behaviours such as personal attacks in public. The perceived ability to defend oneself had little or none effect in cases of indirect bullying behaviour, says Birkeland Nielsen.

Indirect bullying harder to detect

Indirect bullying is usually more difficult to detect than direct bullying, and thus it can also be more difficult to defend against.

– After all, the first time you miss out on important information or don’t hear about a meeting, it may be due to chance. Therefore, most people will give their colleague or boss the benefit of the doubt until such incidents eventually start to form a pattern, explains Birkeland Nielsen.

He adds that most people who are exposed to workplace bullying will experience a combination of direct and indirect bullying. The possible buffer effect is therefore of little importance both with regard to limiting bullying behaviour, and for maintaining health and work ability.

Early intervention important

Birkeland Nielsen says that one implication of their findings is the importance of developing effective human resource strategies to prevent and handle bullying in organisations.

Such a strategy should describe concrete measures available to the employer to stop bullying before the situation escalates. The strategy should consider that exposure to bullying is problematic even for employees who are perceived to be in a relatively balanced power relationship with their perpetrator, rather than reflect a belief that some employees will be able to deal with the exposure on their own.

– Another important implication of our findings is that employers should have routines in place to deal with less direct and less intense forms of bullying, he concludes.