November 13, 2012

Office Bullies

Bullying doesn't just happen at school. Cyberbullying at work is common and may affect your mental health.

Bullying has been getting a lot of publicity these days. But it's not just a grade school thing. Bullying in the workplace is actually more common than you might think, particularly now that “cyberbullying” has become more common.

A new study set out to look at the just how much cyberbullying – bullying via email, web post, or text message – occurs in the office setting. Researchers asked 320 employees at several universities in the UK how often they had been “humiliated, ignored or gossiped about” in cyberspace by colleagues. They found that about 80% of the participants had experienced some form of cyberbullying, and 14-20% said it occurred on a weekly basis.

'Witnesses are much less affected [by cyberbullying],' said Coyne. 'This might be because of the remote nature of cyberspace…[and] could affect the witness's reaction to the bullying and potentially whether to report it or otherwise intervene.'

Does this form of bullying affect a person’s mental health? You bet. "Overall, those that had experienced cyberbullying tended to have higher mental strain and lower job satisfaction," said study author Iain Coyne in a news release. "In one of our surveys, this effect was shown to be worse for cyberbullying than for conventional bullying."

The team found another important difference in cyberbullying. In “conventional” bullying, people who merely witness the act still are upset. But this wasn’t the case with cyberbullying. "Witnesses are much less affected [by cyberbullying],” said Coyne. “This might be because of the remote nature of cyberspace – perhaps people empathise less with the victims. This could affect the witness's reaction to the bullying and potentially whether to report it or otherwise intervene." In other words, people are less likely to be upset by cyberbullying than regular bullying, and this helps perpetuate it.

Given the fact that technology seems to be pushing us farther apart rather than pulling us together, it’s a sad but not-so-surprising finding that cyberbullying is associated with less empathetic bystanders. Study author Carolyn Axtell pointed out that “When we're communicating with people via communications technologies, we tend to be less aware of the impacts that we are having, we're less aware of the response that the other person is having, we're less aware of the sort of social body language cues that we might see if we were face to face with someone.” It’s important to remember that the person on the receiving end of an email or the subject of a web post is a real human being, and not a cyberperson. Being a little more mindful of how we relate to each other in person or online is never a bad idea.

The study was carried out by researchers at the University of Sheffield and Nottingham University and presented at the Economic and Social Research Council's (ESRC) annual Festival of Social Science. It has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal at this time.

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