Quarter of employees have been bullied at work, survey finds

Experts say organisations need to ‘drive sustainable change’ and build a healthy workplace culture

More than a quarter of employees reported being bullied despite a general increase in wellbeing, a new report has revealed.

In a survey of 4,000 employees, conducted by Bupa in February, 26 per cent of workers said they had experienced being bullied in the last three years – a rise of 12 percentage points compared to the number of cases reported in the three years up to 2019 (14 per cent).

This figure was even higher in certain sectors, with 33 per cent of employees in retail, 30 per cent in transportation and 29 per cent in the education sectors reporting they experienced bullying at work.

The research said factors such as role ambiguity and changes in work levels – caused by organisations being forced to adapt to pandemic regulations – could be placing employees under pressure, leading to an increase in bullying.

A lack of clarity over who to turn to when not in a physical office space could also allow cases of bullying to fly under the radar, the study highlighted. And heightened isolation caused by remote working could lead to exclusion – intentionally or not – as video meetings or instant messages may occur only among certain groups.

Mark Allan, commercial director at Bupa UK Insurance, said changes to the way people work have created “increasingly complex social dynamics”, generating more opportunities for miscommunication, misinterpretation and isolation among employees.

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“There is no place for bullying or discrimination in any organisation, whether that’s hiding behind a screen or face to face,” he said. “Employers have the same duty of care for their workers whether they’re in the office or at home. Therefore creating a culture where employees feel able to speak up if they experience any problems is absolutely key.”

Alison Unsted, deputy CEO at the City Mental Health Alliance, added it was crucial organisations showed their commitment to action through their senior leaders, and suggested firms nominate a mental health and wellbeing lead – either on the board or at a senior leadership level.

In doing this, she said, businesses could “drive sustainable change and influence healthy business culture”.

“A big part of leading this change is by encouraging an open dialogue”, she said. “This can start with leaders being more open about how they are feeling and how they look after their own wellbeing, which we have increasingly seen during the pandemic. This signals that this business has an open culture and that this business cares about mental health.”

As well as an increase in bullying, the research also found more than a quarter (28 per cent) of those polled had personally experienced discrimination at work, increasing to 35 per cent among women and 40 per cent among disabled employees.

Workers also reported seeing more discrimination against others. More than one in five (22 per cent) commented that age discrimination had increased, while 18 per cent said there had been an increase in gender reassignment discrimination.

However, nearly half (46 per cent) of employees believed that gender discrimination had become less prevalent, while 56 per cent reported there was less sexual orientation discrimination this year.

Despite the issues of bullying and discrimination, more than three-quarters (78 per cent) of employees reported that they had good overall mental health at work during the last year, a two percentage point increase from pre-pandemic levels.

More than a third (37 per cent) felt that changes to their commute had a positive impact on their wellbeing over the last year, while 29 per cent said the same for home working and 19 per cent said they benefited from working flexibly.

More than a third (36 per cent) of UK workers also reported their employer’s understanding of mental health had improved over the last year and nearly half (46 per cent) claimed that wellbeing services were better.

The number of employees reporting that workload had impacted their mental health had also decreased from 39 per cent in 2019 to 27 per cent in 2020.

Despite the generally positive impact of the pandemic, the study also found that 61 per cent of workers felt the Covid crisis had had a negative impact on their wellbeing. This increased to 70 per cent among the youngest demographic, 18 to 24-year-olds.