Workplace bullying: Its prevalence, aetiology and health correlates

Publikation: AfhandlingPh.d.-afhandling


A number of studies conducted within the last two decades point to bullying at work as an important psychosocial stress factor. However, no previous Danish studies have focused on workplace bullying. Accordingly, this research project aims at exploring the prevalence of bullying in Danish work-life. A second aim is to investigate the health correlates of exposure to bullying and to study variables pertaining to individual differences in reported strain. Also, the project aims at exploring the prevalence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder among self-selected victims of workplace bullying. A further aim is to propose a theoretical framework from which we might conceive bullying and its health injurious effects and to examine if this framework can be applied to workplace bullying. A final aim is to explore whether or not bullying is related to a generally poor work environment.
Altogether, six studies were conducted involving 5 community samples (n= 963) and a sample of 118 self-selected victims of bullying and 118 non-bullied controls.
The results from studies conducted in five Danish organisations showed that generally, about 3-4% of the employees had felt exposed to bullying, yet in most cases only occasionally. A higher prevalence was found in a manufacturing company: about 10% had felt subjected to bullying 2-3 times per month during the foregoing six months. Based on an operational definition of bullying, i.e. weekly exposure to one act for at least six months, prevalences in the samples ranged from 8% to 25%.
A general finding was that employees who claimed to be victims of bullying reported prolonged exposure to a range of negative acts. No significant gender and age differences were found in regards to exposure to bullying acts. However, women were over-represented in the sample of self-selected victims. In all samples the most commonly reported bullying acts were indirect and verbal, while the level of reported sexual harassment and physical abuse was low.
Exposure to bullying or bullying acts was associated with increased levels of reported psychological and psychosomatic health complaints and mental fatigue. Data revealed correlation coefficients of up to .39 between reports of bullying acts and psychosomatic symptoms, while correlation coefficients between exposure to bullying acts and reported psychological health complaints amounted to .45. In one study, exposure to bullying behaviours accounted for 27% of the variance in reported psychological health complaints and 10% explained variance in psychosomatic complaints.
Another study explored the prevalence of PTSD in a sample of 118 self-selected victims of bullying. Results showed that 29% fulfilled all six DSM-IV criteria of PTSD, while 47% met all criteria except the stressor criterion A1. Measurements of symptom severity scores showed that 61.7% displayed a moderate to severe or severe level of impairment, while 73.6% exhibited a moderate or severe impairment in functioning. Victims exposed to high levels of bullying behaviours also reported high symptom severity scores and victims who had been bullied for many years reported greater levels of impairment than did those who had been bullied for a shorter period of time. Fifty-four percent of those bullied more than five years prior to the study still met all DSM-IV PTSD criteria (not counting A1).
Most of these victims considered their being exposed to bullying as a major trauma in their lives. However, compared to non-PTSD victims, a significantly higher percentage of victims with full PTSD reported feeling more negatively affected by an event other than bullying, indicating that in addition to the bullying, exposure to one or several other traumatic life-events may have contributed to the development of PTSD.
In an attempt to explain the high level of traumatisation displayed by some victims of bullying, it was suggested that we use Janoff-Bulman’s (1989) cognitive theory of PTSD as a framework theory from which we may study the overall strain effect of workplace bullying. The theory holds that exposure to highly stressing events may damage or shatter victims’ basic positive assumptions of themselves, other people and the world, and that as a result of this some victims may develop PTSD.
The applicability of this theory in relation to workplace bullying was examined in a comparative study comprising 118 victims of bullying and 118 non-bullied controls using an adapted Danish version of the World Assumptions Scale (Janoff-Bulman, 1989). Comparisons of basic assumptions of victims and controls revealed significant group differences on six out of eight assumptions: compared to the controls, victims regarded themselves as less worthy, others as less caring and the world as less meaningful and just.
The present research project also aimed at delineating likely situational and person-related factors that may make individuals more vulnerable when exposed to bullying. Accordingly, it was suggested that victims’ perceived locus of control, generalised self-efficacy, negative affectivity, attributional style and coping strategies, might influence the extent to which they develop health problems following exposure to bullying. Moreover, it is argued that exposure to other traumatic life-events may increase victims’ vulnerability.
One study explored two individual variables assumed to influence vulnerability, namely state negative affectivity and generalised self-efficacy. Results showed that state negative affectivity correlated strongly with exposure to bullying behaviours and that it appeared to act as a partial mediator of the relationships between exposure to bullying behaviours and psychological health complaints and psychosomatic complaints. Moreover, generalised self-efficacy seemed to act as a weak moderator of the relationship between exposure to bullying behaviours and psychological health complaints.
Finally, results from a study of 186 blue-collar workers employed in a food-producing company showed that victims of bullying rated the work environment more negatively than non-bullied, particularly with respect to management style, role clarity, social climate and meaningfulness of work. Comparisons between departments with different levels of bullying yielded significant differences in terms of management style, role clarity, workload and social contact. However, when victims were excluded from the sample, the three departments differed only in terms of employee ratings of management style and job demands: employees in the high bullying department rated job demands as higher and management as more authoritarian. The study thus yield little support to the notion that a poor work environment is the primary etiological factor of bullying.
In conclusion, the results of the present research project indicate that bullying is also a problem at Danish workplaces. However, Denmark appears to be among the countries where the risk of exposure to workplace bullying is fairly low. However, given that the results demonstrate that exposure to workplace bullying may have extreme negative effects on employees’ health and well being, this underscores the importance of conducting further studies exploring bullying in Danish work-life. An important aspect of this is to initiate research aimed at the prevention and management of workplace bullying.

StatusUdgivet - 2001
Udgivet eksterntJa