Bullying doesn't only happen in school. Fifty-four million employees — over a third of the U.S workforce — have been bullied at some point in their careers, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute.

Victims rarely report the incidents, and an Iowa State University study recently took a closer look at why.

Victims said it was like describing the indescribable.

Other employees, aware of the bullying and who have perhaps even witnessed it, are often afraid to get involved, making the victim feel even more ostracized.

The problem is that their accounts don't always have a distinct beginning, middle or end, so what's happened to them is hard to explain and even harder to understand and believe.

Because the kind of bullying that goes on at work can start with subtle behaviors, when exactly it started or even what it is become difficult to describe. Months may pass before a worker fully realizes that there is a problem.

As victims struggle to make sense of their mistreatment over time, they may feel unable to communicate to others the effects the bullying has on them. It can be difficult to find the right words that will make a co-worker or friend understand without feeling they are making themselves look overly sensitive or critical.

And victims are also afraid of the consequences of telling their story.

“Many of the participants felt no one would believe them, or they were afraid of being labeled as a big cry baby or a whiner, so they didn't tell a manager or someone else in the organization,” said Stacy Tye-Williams, co-author of the study. “When you experience serious trauma in the workplace, it's difficult to explain to people what is happening to you.”

Researchers looked at the stories of 48 people, aged 19 to 61, who had been bullied at work. They worked in diverse professions, including education, finance, health care, manufacturing and the military. More than half reported being bullied by their manager or their boss.

Complaining about a bad boss is rarely a way to get ahead at work.

Other employees, aware of the bullying and who have perhaps even witnessed it, are often afraid to get involved, making the victim feel even more ostracized. Co-workers either feel they don't have the power to change the situation or they, too, worry about the consequences of getting involved.

Tye-Williams, an assistant professor of communications studies and English at Iowa State University, notes that the fact that the manager or boss was most often identified as the culprit may be the biggest obstacle to change, especially in smaller businesses. Victims had no one to complain to, no way to transfer away from the bully.

While prevention of bullying will require significant changes in organizational culture, even small steps can make a difference, she points out. Managers need to keep an open mind and reserve judgment when listening to reports of bullying, even if the accounts seem disjointed. Listen to the whole story and then ask questions afterwards, she advises. That will help clarify the uncertainties in an account.

Co-workers can help just by listening. It's a sign of support. If you know of workplace bullying and are uncomfortable reporting it, you can help just by listening sympathetically to your co-worker vent or going out for coffee or a drink with them.

Victims are less depressed and happier with their jobs when they have a co-worker to talk to and provide support. Even though the bullying did not usually change, the support of co-workers helped victims cope and feel empowered.

And as Tye-Williams reminds us, “It's also important that we learn how to treat each other better and reach out when people are being harmed. We can all make strides in that direction.”

An article on the study appears in Management Communication Quarterly.