Why bystanders are also victims of bullying

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A number of studies suggest workplace bullying is on the rise with those on the receiving end at risk of mental illness and a lack of motivation – but they may not be the only ones who are suffering.

According to Michele Medina, an adjunct professor at the University of North Texas, innocent bystanders and those who witness workplace bullying are also impacted.

“The majority of the time, a bully likes an audience and often the audience takes the form of a random bystander,” Medina tells HRD. “Of course it’s horrible when somebody is bullied but everybody tends to forget about that person who saw it happen.”

According to Medina, who conducted a study into workplace bullying as part of her doctoral thesis, bystanders are often overlooked because they’re secondary victims – but that doesn’t mean they’re not suffering.

“They’re not directly violated but their perceptions, their fears and their expectations are changed as a result of having witnessed this type of event,” she told HRD.

“Bullying witnesses are impacted by a reduction to their job satisfaction, their productivity, it increases their stress and impairs their wellbeing,” she continues. “It can cause depression and other mental health problems and they’re more likely to leave their jobs if the environment in their workplace is so toxic.”

Medina’s research also found that bystanders are less likely to think they will be treated fairly in the workplace and may be less productive – but one of the most prevalent repercussions is fear.

“If they're scared, they might not be performing as well because they don't know if that co-worker is going to be bullying them next or they might or they might even decide the back the bully up because they’re afraid of becoming a victim themselves.”

Medina also suggests that those who frequently witness bullying may eventually become desensitized to the unacceptable behaviour.

“In some instances, the bystander may end up being a little more desensitized to it which can quickly affect the organisations culture,” she told HRD.

Medina said she conducted the study with the hope of increasing awareness and demonstrating to managers that direct victims aren’t the only employees who are impacted by workplace bullying.

“Understanding how bullying affects everyone at work, and which employees are most likely to be affected, allows companies and organisations to address all aspects of workplace bullying properly,” she added.

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