Bullying in the workplace can take many forms - verbal, psychological or physical. It can be conducted by a person or a group against another one person or a number of people.
The most serious effects of bullying are fear, anxiety and depression, all of which can lead to suicide. Victims can also suffer from severe loss of confidence and low self-esteem.
Victims of bullying have described their experiences as paramount to "absolute terrorism of the self".
In spite of the horrific number of cases there is no specific legislation, north or south of the border to deal with the growing problem.
While sexual, religious, racial and disability harassment are covered by anti-discrimination laws, bullying is seemingly a legal grey area.
But work is underway to change the situation.
Last month, Tom Kitt, Minister for Labour Affairs in the Republic, announced the establishment of a task force to look at ways of preventing workplace bullying, to identify the size of the problem and the employment sectors most at risk.
The task force will also develop proposals for practical programmes and strategies to prevent workplace bullying and to provide appropriate responses from the government.
Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, The Labour Relations Agency is adding the finishing touches to an advisory booklet for employers and employees on bullying which will be available within the next two months.
This booklet will highlight to employers the need for a bullying policy in the workplace.
Rampant bullying in schools hit the headlines five years ago. And only just recently workplace bullying has been identified as a burning issue.
The Anti-Bullying Research Centre in Trinity College, Dublin was initially set up to tackle bullying in schools. One year after it opened, calls from victims of bullying in the workplace jammed the phone lines.
"Judging by the amount of calls we are receiving, there is no doubt that bullying in the workplace is on the increase," said Murray Smith, a research assistant at the Anti-Bullying Centre.
Murray deals with victims of bullying every day and he has seen how victimisation of this sort can take its toll on a person.
"The person being bullied can suffer from various stress-related illnesses. They can suffer from headaches, sweating, shaking, stomach and bowel problems, loss of energy and appetite and high blood pressure.
"The psychological symptoms can be anger, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, loss of confidence, tearfulness, lack of motivation and a general loss of concentration.
"Victims can also become uncharacteristically aggressive, irritable, withdrawn and perhaps start smoking, drinking alcohol and taking drugs to cope with the situation at work.
"Furthermore, the victim of bullying can bring their personal problems into the home, making life nasty for their family. There is no end to the effects bullying can have on an individual.
Murray finds that although bullying occurs all year round, the Anti-Bullying Centre receives more calls around holiday periods.
"Christmas time and around the start of September are very busy times for all of us. Holiday periods are times of great stress for people in general. Then the bully is most likely to be at their worst. At the Anti- Bullying Centre we work with counsellors and solicitors who can also assist the victim.
"Bullying happens to people at work from their late teens up. There is no archetypal victim and no archetypal bully."
Bullying is not confined to those in authority as an employee might bully someone in the same grade or groups of employees may victimise a certain individual."
Paul Blease, an inquiry point manager in the Labour Relations Agency in Belfast admits that there is no pattern to bullying.
"Not just timid people are bullied. There is no one type of person who will be bullied in the workplace. But it is important to remember the problem is with the bully and not the victim.
"Every day I receive two complaints of bullying in Northern Ireland from people who feel they can't cope any more. And in the main the complaints come from women.
"I have also come across cases in which the woman boss is bullying men, where women bully women, men bully men and so on. There is no fixed pattern and it depends on the particular working environment.
"When someone is bullied they experience humiliation or ridicule, are set impossible deadlines or are given excessive workloads.
"The bullying may take the form of threats, abuse, teasing or practical jibes which are beyond the bound of humour. Unjustified criticisms can be made about them, their responsibilities are gradually taken away and they are then given menial and pointless tasks.
"The person being bullied may also be persistently picked on and shouted at in private or public, excluded or sent to Coventry, refused requests and blocked from promotion.
"Some people who are very competent in their jobs are bullied possibly because their expertise attracts some form of jealousy by a peer or the boss. It can be an attempt by the bully to assert themselves over that person.
"Or it may be a manager simply taking a dislike to a member of staff and bullying them for that reason.
"People who are bullied obviously become ill. Some become so stressed out with it that they have panic attacks every time the bully comes into the office.
"Some people take off sick with the stress and their doctor puts them on anti-depressants, beta-blockers - you name it, they are on them.
"Quite recently I was talking to a man who worked for a building firm. This man worked away competently but kept himself pretty much to himself.
"That was why colleagues took a grudge with him. The form of bullying he came under was finding dead rats in his lunch box and general exclusion from the rest of his work colleagues.
"He started eating his lunch in the car and one afternoon he went out to find paint splattered all over his vehicle. This is a criminal offence.
"The majority of calls we receive are from white collar workers. Blue collar workers are least likely to report bullying. From my experience blue collar workers just seem to pack in their job and go somewhere else.
"But if you have been working for 20 years in an insurance company, it is more difficult to up and leave."
When someone approaches The Labour Relations Agency with a complaint of bullying, they are given information about their rights. But the Labour Relations Agency is unable to take the case any further.
Ian McInnes, the Director of the Labour Relations Agency, explains: "There is no one piece of legislation in Northern Ireland to deal with bullying.
"But while there is no precise anti-discrimination law against bullying, there are some points which employers have to consider.
"Under the Health and Safety at Work Act, employers are required to ensure risks to the health and safety of employees are properly assessed.
"That duty extends to the mental as well as the physical well-being of an employee.
"So in ordinary common law employers have to provide a safe system of work and that includes an environment free from bullying.
"For example, an employee who has left his or her job because of bullying may be able to maintain that that amounts to constructive dismissal.
"Violence to a colleague may attract criminal proceedings. It can also be a criminal offence and a civil wrong to pursue a course of conduct which amounts to harassment of another person. Of course all this has to be proven.
"The Labour Relations Agency offers advice on bullying both to the employer and employee. All our calls are confidential. If the caller doesn't volunteer their name we don't press them for it.
"Generally we advise the victim to approach the alleged bully directly, with the support of a union representative or with a supervisor or manager about the problem.
"If it's too difficult, someone can approach the alleged bully on their behalf. Resolving the problem within the workplace is usually the best option for everyone involved.
"Our booklet on bullying in the workplace will enable employers to produce policies and to counteract bullying," explained Ian. "There is a clear is a need for all employers in Northern Ireland to use a bullying policy so that managers and employees know their rights and responsibilities."
Patricia McKeown, the Deputy Regional Secretary of UNISON in Northern Ireland was startled at the results of a 1996 survey into bullying in her union. She believes bullying needs to be tackled in a strong way.
"Seven out of 10 members who replied to the survey maintained they had been bullied in the past six months. That is quite frightening.
"UNISON deals only with workers in the public sector. But I have no doubt that people in the private sector get bullied to the same extent. Today the workplace is riddled with pressure and that pressure is telling on both managers and workers.
"It seems that bullying has become part of the management culture of many public-service employers and is often being allowed to carry on unchecked.
"Bullying in the workplace is detrimental to a business as it can cause low morale, high rates of absenteeism and a general lack of initiative and creativity. The survey also revealed a high cost to employers through job losses because of bullying.
"It has a detrimental effect on the organisation and requires an organisational response. Employers need to make clear what is unacceptable behaviour in the workplace and promote a climate where bullying is not tolerated.
"UNISON is continually working to challenge the bullying culture and ensure employers recognise this behaviour is unacceptable."
Eric Bradshaw, a Dublin solicitor who specialises in Employment Law and works in tandem with the Anti-Bullying Centre at Trinity College has been inundated with clients over the past four years who feel they have been bullied.
"People are just finding out they can seek legal advice to help them deal with bullying at work. Not so long ago legal advice was quite different - it was a matter of putting your head down and getting on with it. Not any more.
"The 1989 Health and Safety in the Workplace Act does lay out some guidelines but it is still quite a grey area.
"To be awarded damages in a case, a client needs to prove injury usually in the form of a psychiatrist's report. The report must prove the client has suffered bullying from the manager or peer group."
No one on the south has ever taken a case of bullying to the high court. Cases are always settled as no employer wants bad press.
"In my experience employers will do anything to keep the case out of court. For that reason the general public never get to hear about what is going on as most settlements are made on the basis of confidentiality.
"I have people in front of me from all spectrums of the community crying about their work situations. Some people are mentally demolished and it is terrible to see them. These people find themselves in problem situations and can't find a way out.
"In reality individuals just can't walk out of their jobs without a reference. Getting a bad name for yourself as a problem employee is not an ideal situation either.
"People have to earn a living and would rather take the heat at work rather than lose out on a wage. Bullying is a very big problem in the workplace and something needs to be done about it fast."
I WISH I HAD STOOD UP TO MY MANAGER
TWO years ago Sinead (not her real name) felt life was going well. She had just landed herself a good job in a large office in Dublin as a sales executive.
"The first day went well," explained Sinead. "I took to the job like a duck to water. Six months after I started my manager took me into her office and shut the door. She accused me of talking too much and keeping the others back, taking long lunch breaks and producing sloppy work. I was told if I didn't prove myself, I would be out on my ear."
Sinead couldn't believe what she was hearing. Nothing her manager said was true.
"I tried really hard to please her but nothing seemed to work. Every few days she would come and stand over me when I was working just waiting for me to make a mistake. Every time she walked in the room I started shaking. The very sound of her voice terrified me. She treated me like a simpleton in front of everyone, reprimanded me in public and made me feel like a fool. I nearly began to believe what she was saying.
"After eight months in the office it seemed my manager had told other high members of staff I was incompetent.
"Fellow members of staff in the office sympathised with me, but didn't get involved. There was no one I could talk to about my problem as my manager got on so well with higher management.
"She just didn't like me and I couldn't see why. Life was hell. I couldn't sleep at night or work during the day as my mind was so distracted. I was making life hell for my boyfriend as I came home every night like a bull. I went to the doctor and he put me on a course of anti-depressants. But tablets alone were not enough - I needed to get out."
Eventually Sinead started applying for other jobs. She knew if she created a fuss in the office her name could be branded as a problem employee. Then she would never get another job.
"At the start of the 11th month I left for a poorer paid position. But I have no regrets about leaving although I do wish I had stood up to my manager."
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