Widespread bullying at work carries high emotional and economic cost

First ever nationwide study of bullying at workplace finds 40% of over 2,400 respondents claiming to have been bullied at their workplace within the past year

A nationwide study by Malta’s only anti-bullying organisation has found 64% of participants in a survey of over 2,400 respondents, reporting some form of bullying currently within their workplace.

The study, Bullying and Ostracism at the Workplace in Malta, carried out by bBrave, also found 56% of participants witnessing bullying in their workplace, while 40% said they had been bullied at their workplace within the past year.

Of these participants, 20% had experienced bullying daily, and 27% on a weekly basis.

In the vast majority, 66% of those who experienced bullying said the person responsible for their bullying was at a senior level and that in 88% of cases, had done so in the presence of others.

“Malta is no exception for workplace bullying and ostracism,” bBrave says in its report. “This study is imperative to assess the current situation locally, especially due to the significantly diverse workforce and that over the years Malta has witnessed a rising number of persons at risk of poverty or social exclusion present in the country.”

Bullying at the workplace can take many forms, and persons at the workplace act in various ways to carry out bullying. This includes excessive criticism, intimidation, aggression and removal of responsibility, amongst others. Another hurtful behaviour at the workplace is that of social ostracism and exclusion.

Bbrave said bullying can be considered as an active form of social rejection, where the individual receives negative attention, while ostracism is a passive form of social rejection where the individual does not receive any attention.

“The link between workplace bullying and social exclusion has been well documented abroad. Ostracism and bullying at the workplace cause immediate and long-term psychological injury to the recipient.”

In this first detailed study for the Maltese islands, psychological and emotional bullying was reported as the most common form of bullying experienced by participants, followed by verbal and exclusionary bullying.

Other forms of bullying were isolation, humiliation, teasing, shouting, and other threats on career, duties, skills, work transfers, and gaslighting or psychological manipulation.

“Participants felt that the type of bullying changes depending on the environment, where isolation and work misallocation may increase in online environments but picking on people for jokes may decrease,” bBrave said.

And while 69% of participants who experienced bullying said they believed it was due to work-related reasons, 22% cited socio-economic background and 15% body appearance. In focus groups, reasons for bullying were also listed as being down to ‘lack of self-confidence’ or simply being ‘different from the norm’, being ‘perceived as less productive and efficient’, as well as for being female, gay, young or old, disabled, or a foreigner, as well as due to political beliefs.

And as expected, 73% of participants who experienced bullying reported to have increased stress, 58% mental health repercussions and 9% even engaged in self-harm or suicidal thinking. A further 39% reported physical health repercussions.

The result is that 45% of those who experienced bullying reported being less engaged at the workplace and 37% stated they have resigned or plan to resign.

The economic impacts also include presenteeism – continued work presence but at lower efficiency levels – absenteeism, high employee turnover, and damaged reputation of the organisation.

“The extent of workplace bullying in Malta necessitates the existence of anti-bullying legislation, with a clear definition of what constitutes bullying behaviour and penalties which hold the same weight as a criminal offence,” bBrave said. “The anti-bullying legislation should also oblige every workplace to have anti-bullying policies in place, outlining mandatory affairs such as training and well-being practices.”

bBrave also called for a robust and nation-wide workplace bullying awareness that targets not just organisations but also society at large. “This would include a clear definition of bullying, how to identify and recognise negative behaviours, how to act such as reporting and what support is available. The impact and consequences of bullying should also be made clear.”

Bbrave also said a zero-tolerance anti-bullying and well-being policy at workplaces had to set out acceptable and unacceptable behaviour at work, as well as a grievance mechanism and appropriate complaint procedure.