Bullying at work

Bullying isn’t something  that just happens in school – workplaces can be a hotbed of aggression, intimidation and general meanness.

Business manBullying in the workplace is actually incredibly common, but can be hard to identify and even harder to know how to deal with it.

In certain work environments, it can feel like just part of the game, like everyone slags each other off and you have to be tough and keep up.

But working somewhere where you’re being intimidated or threatened is not on. It can have a really negative effect on both your performance and your confidence.

What is workplace bullying?

Bullying at work often takes the form of psychological or social intimidation, like:

  • verbal abuse, insulting your work or you (including your family, sex, sexuality, race or culture, education or economic background)
  • excluding or isolating you from people or situations
  • psychological harassment (playing mind games, ganging up on you)
  • giving you pointless tasks that have nothing to do with your job
  • giving you impossible jobs that can’t be done in the given time or with the resources provided
  • deliberately changing your work roster to make it difficult for you
  • deliberately holding back information you need to get your work done properly.

This sort of thing isn’t always obvious to everyone else, but over time, it can really affect you. That’s not to say that there can’t be more obvious, physical bullying in work too. These cases include:

  • pushing, tripping, grabbing or any other type of direct physical contact
  • attacking or threatening
  • any form of sexual harassment, such as flashing or groping
  • initiation or hazing – where you’re made to do humiliating things in order to be accepted as part of the team.

This can happen, and can get pretty serious. Remember, physical assault and threatening behaviour just isn’t on – for starters, it’s against the law.

How it can affect your work

If you’re being bullied at work, it can have a major effect on your work and your confidence. You might:

  • be less productive
  • be less confident in your work
  • feel scared, stressed, anxious or depressed
  • have your life outside of work affected, eg study, relationships
  • want to stay away from work
  • feel unable to trust your employer or the people you work with
  • lack confidence and self-esteem in yourself and your work
  • have physical symptoms of stress such as headaches, backaches, sleep problems.

See bullying for more about the other effects.

Why it happens

As with bullying at school or anywhere else, people who bully other people at work often have low self-esteem or have been a victim of violence themselves.

They use bullying as a way of exerting power to make themselves feel better.

If you’re dealing with bullying, remember whoever’s doing it is probably using it as a way of dealing with their own problems and it isn’t because of anything you’ve done.

They could be  motivated by jealousy, lack of knowledge, fear or misunderstanding. That doesn’t make it ok.

Your rights in the workplace

No one deserves or asks to be bullied, no matter what. Everyone has the right to work in an environment free from bullying, harassment, discrimination and violence. It’s not too much to ask.

Employers and employees have duties by law (Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 ) to comply with any measures in place to promote health and safety within the workplace and not to put themselves or their colleagues at risk.

It’s worth keeping in mind that bullying is not the same as conflict. Disagreement and conflict happens, and you have to deal with that. You shouldn’t have to deal with aggression or intimidation.

What you can do

When you’re being intimidated or bullied by someone at work, it can feel as if your options are pretty limited.

You might want to avoid making a fuss, or think people will assume you’re making a big deal out of nothing.

If it’s a really macho or competitive environment, you might be worried it’ll seem like you’re not tough enough to handle it. You might also be worried about keeping your job.

But it shouldn’t go unchallenged. There are things you can do and people who can help.

  • Respond to the person calmly and firmly. Stand up straight, look them in the eye and be confident.
  • Find out exactly what your job description is and what your contract says. That way if they’re getting you to do stuff that goes beyond your remit, you can point it out completely factually.
  • Make sure you’re informed. Find out what the organisation’s policies and procedures are for preventing and handling bullying.
  • Keep a diary documenting everything that happens, including what you’ve done to try stopping it. This can help if you make a complaint.
  • Get external information and advice from bodies such as the union representing your industry, the Health and Safety Authority or the Equality Tribunal. These organisations can give you advice on your options and your rights.
    You can also ask them to act on your behalf if you don’t feel comfortable doing it. They should respect your confidentiality, though if you are concerned about this, ask them what their responsibilities are.
  • Tell someone. The person to talk to might be a Human Resource Manager. If there isn’t one you should report it directly to your employer, a supervisor/manager or health and safety representative (if your work has one).
    This situation might be able to be resolved informally, without any official complaint being made.
  • If the situation continues or is serious, you might need to make a formal (written) complaint that follows company policy. The person doing the bullying might be officially warned, and required to have counselling. If the bullying continues, there might be a mediation process. If all else fails, the person bullying might be fired.
  • If the bully is your employer or they don’t do anything to stop it, it’s important you get outside support and advice.

In all situations, whether it’s work or school or wherever, you should make sure you aren’t intimidating people, or ignoring the fact that someone else is being bullied.

More information

For more information about bullying, see what to do if you’re being bullied.


Comments Show all comments

  1. Naoise says:

    Hi Diane
    That sounds like a tricky situation. You may not be overreacting, however it is important to protect yourself by trying to not to dwell on it now that you're off and experiencing a period of depression. This is of course far easier said than done but while you're off and trying to get better it will not help you to dwell on it and may work harder to go back to.
    The unfortunate thing with a lot of this kind behaviour in the workplace, where someone is excluded is not always deliberate and sometime people do not realise the impact of their behaviour. That is not to say that isn't deliberate either, but yourself right now focus on getting through this period and look after yourself, making sure you get enough sleep, eat as nutritiously as you can and get regular exercise so that you can go back to work with a fresh perspective really pinpoint what the dynamic is in work.
    Focus on the positives in your life right now, jobs are not permanent so focus on yourself to build back up your esteem and this will help you in the long run giving you focus.
    Take care Diane

  2. Diane says:

    I am currently off sick, with what's likely to be depression/anxiety (as diagnosed by my Doctor). A couple of recent events at work have given me cause to think. One - a colleague was presented with flowers & wine by my line mgr, co-worker and departmental mgr to another co-worker (whom I work directly with). This was also conducted in a closed-door office. The reason, for all her hard work. Which is fine, though she claimed time and a half and double. My beef is that I'd like to have been asked if I'd like to offer some contribution, as I considered myself part of a team. Second - the said same co-worker applied and achieved a new position within the dept. A meeting was called at 3pm (my finish time, as I'm part-time) to announce to all and sundry about her new position. But, I wasn't told. Am I just overreacting?

  3. ReachOut.com says:

    Hi BC,

    It sounds like you and your family member have been through a lot. Your family member is really lucky having someone like you supporting them.

    We have information on ReachOut.com about workplace bullying and at the end of this article (LINK) there are details of external organisations that your friend could escalate the situation to but it sounds like right now the focus should be on making sure your family member is linked into the support they need to make sure they can get well again.

    It would be irresponsible for us to comment on specific diagnoses or treatment options as we are not doctors and have not met with your family member. However, what we can say is that it is important that your friend feels comfortable and supported with the treatment options being provided to them.

    Mental health professionals have the patient’s best interest at heart. It is really important that your family member talks openly and honestly with the mental health professionals that they are linked into about their concerns around taking medication and talks to them about all the combinations of treatment options that could be available to them. If your family member is struggling to communicate how they feel about their treatment plan they could try writing their feelings and questions down before meeting with the psychiatrist. If your family member really doesn’t agree with the psychiatrist then they could reach out to their GP or another psychiatrist for a second opinion.

    It is however important to note that medications can be really helpful for some people and it can often take some time to find the right combination and doses of either medication or medications and therapy that works for a specific individual. This means that even if your family member has had a negative experience with medication before this may not be the case with all medications and all doses. This is why it’s really important that your family member talks openly with their psychiatrist to make sure they fully understand their treatment plan and the medications that have been recommended for them.

    Your family member can’t be forced to partake in any kind of treatment unless it is thought that they would be a danger to themselves or others. If this is the case there would be a whole team of professionals involved to try to come up with the best possible treatment to suit your family member’s individual needs. What is important is that your family member stays linked in with professionals and stays open minded to their recommendations so that they can find a treatment plan (whether it includes medication or not) that will get them through this tough time. Keeping an open line of communication with supports will be the key for your family member to get through this.

    These website could also have information that could be relevant to you:



    All the best,

  4. BC says:

    Hi Reachout.com,

    I have a family member on LTD, because she was harassed by 2 managers and coworkers. She is very sick now and was hospitalized for 3 weeks. She has found no support through the organizations systems, her union, her O&H, HR, and the LTD physicians will not support her. Her WCB claim was also denied.....everywhere she turns she got no support or acknowledgement that she got depressed from the worksite. I have been doing 24/7 care for her and know she is suffering from PSTD. I have asked her union for an advocate and turned down? Now her psychiatrist wants for force these toxic medications for her to take? Does these psychiatrist have this right? Can we transfer her care back to her GP, as she refuses to take these mind altering medication as she got sooo sick from the with a lot of side effects? i need help and don't know where to turn to or if i should seek an advocate for her? as she is so sick now, she lost her own self of well being, and is getting into a deeper depression? Is there anyone who can advise me of what to do? I appreciate and thanks for your help.

    Thankyou: Compassion4others

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