Workplace bullying takes many forms, with each individual instance of bullying behaviour possibly difficult to detect and tricky to manage. “Was that supposed to be a joke? Maybe he’s just having a bad day.” Or, “It was probably just an admin mistake that I wasn’t informed about the meeting, even though it was so crucial to my project …” 

It is, however, the repeated nature of bullying that is particularly destructive. Bullying can be physical, verbal or social, including behaviours such as name-calling, intimidation, social exclusion, spreading rumours, undermining the person’s credibility, and public humiliation. 

When bullying often starts with “just” a bit of a put-down or some hurtful comments, it can hook in to our ordinary feelings of self-doubt or a bit of “impostor syndrome”, so we don’t immediately challenge it. It can be difficult for targets of bullying to clearly identify a pattern of behaviour over time as bullying, and hard for managers or colleagues to spot it happening. Targets of bullying are often reluctant to report it, often for fear of making it worse or, on the other hand, not having their concerns taking seriously and seeing nothing being done. 

For those experiencing bullying, the impact can be very significant. Bullying is often insidious and eats away at the target’s self-esteem, ability to cope, and mental health. Common responses include:

  • Emotional distress. Feelings of hurt, anxiety, low mood or feeling down, fear, anger, loss of confidence or low self-esteem, and helplessness are common. This emotional distress can lead on to further mental health challenges. 
  • Reduced job satisfaction. Bullying can lead to greater staff turnover, as well as lower engagement, productivity and motivation, and increased absenteeism and presenteeism (being physically present but mentally checked out). 
  • Physical health impacts. Bullying causes stress, which in turn leads to a range of negative health impacts, including high blood pressure, headaches, sleep problems, and digestive issues. 
  • Poorer workplace relationships. Understandably, trust and openness decline in an unsafe work environment, impairing the ability of the target of bullying – and consequently their team – to collaborate and work well together. The presence of a bully can also undermine psychological safety in the team, even for those who are not targets of the bullying behaviour. The impact of workplace bullying on relationships can also extend into people’s personal lives, where they may find themselves withdrawing and mistrusting others. 
  • Career progression. Oftentimes, workplace bullying seeks to undermine the person’s credibility or professional reputation, so can have significant career implications, or cause the target great concern about the potential impact on their career. 


As a manager or team leader, what might you see? 

Given that people may not report bullying, are there any clues to watch out for? Many of the signs below are general indications that someone might be having a difficult time. For this reason, having regular open conversations about how your team members are doing will help to identify all kinds of wellbeing issues, including bullying. 

In team members affected by bullying, you may see:

  • Changes in interpersonal behaviour, such as becoming more withdrawn, less certain of themselves with others, and less engaged or forthcoming in group settings.  
  • Emotional responses. Signs that the person is having a more difficult time emotionally, including tearfulness, lack of confidence, increased anxiety, or becoming stressed more easily. 
  • Decline in productivity. As mentioned above, productivity can be significantly reduced. This decline may show up in their work output, or any metrics you have on performance. You may also be able to see an increase in sick leave taken, changes in the person leaving early or arriving late, or working away from the office more, if that is an option for them.
  • Changes in online behaviour. If you work predominantly online, changes like keeping their camera off, preferring text-based communication over phone or video, and generally interacting less can be signs of distress, if they are uncommon for that team member. 
  • Direct report. The best way to know for sure is them telling you that the bullying is happening. Try to create the right conditions for your team members to be open with you when they are struggling. Listen for what they aren’t saying, as they may or may not call the behaviour “bullying”. Possibly they will come to you saying things like, “I’m having a hard time working with person x”. 

Like all workplace wellbeing issues, the more proactively and openly you manage bullying, the more it will facilitate positive change, which flows on to both greater wellbeing and great performance for the team member and the whole team.