A Matter Of Debate

How to Deal with Workplace Bullying, Start in Schools

Team Work

Bullying doesn’t stop in the schoolyard! In this year’s survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute, 19% of Americans – about 60.3 million people – experience bullying in the workplace each year. Of the perpetrators, 61% have a higher rank in the company than their targets. Of those targeted, 35 million people ultimately leave their jobs in search of a less toxic work environment.

A study conducted by the NIH in 2015 showed that victims of childhood bullying were at higher risk for anxiety and depression as they grew older. Moreover, after the age of 18, victims showed:

  • An increased risk of psychotic experiences
  • A higher rate of suicidal ideation, attempt, and completed suicide
  • Slower recovery from illness
  • Increased general body pain

They were found to have lower educational qualifications overall, trouble managing money, and persistently lower salaries than their peers, creating a distinct barrier to success. Children who both experienced bullying and bullied others were found to suffer from the same setbacks, and in addition were more likely to become young parents. Those who bullied others most frequently were likely to be less educated and unemployed, and more likely to be charged with serious crime.

Over the past decade, at least ten other studies have confirmed what these results suggest: that bullying during childhood has many serious, long-term effects, which can result in irreversible damage to the lives of both the bullies and the victims.

Employer Responses

In response to instances of bullying in the workplace, studies show that employers respond by helping the target only 29% of the time. This not only creates a culture of victim-blaming, but discourages targets from coming forward.

In certain fields, such as healthcare and education, this culture is particularly pervasive: in an interview, one nurse talked about a series of incidents that culminated in the bullies – a group of senior-level nurses – hiding a used syringe amongst the clothes in her locker. The hospital refused to conduct an investigation or permit her to transfer departments, giving her little choice but to leave.

These patterns cannot be solved simply by asking victims to speak out and report their experiences, or instructing bullies to act with compassion. Let’s take a look at the four traits that characterize bullying behavior, as defined by the US Department of Health and Human Services:

  • Aggressive
  • Continual
  • Deliberate
  • Based on an imbalance of power

While the first three elements are commonly associated with this type of behavior, the fourth is perhaps intuitively understood but not arrived at as naturally in stating the definition of bullying. In the workplace, an imbalance of power typically relates to rank: 61% of workplace bullying incidents are perpetrated from the top down, while 33% are perpetrated by coworkers and 6% from the bottom up. It is this aspect of bullying that makes it particularly difficult for victims to come forward.

Bullying in Schools

In a school setting, an imbalance of power may translate to a difference in age, physical size, popularity among peers, or – in the context of cyberbullying – the possession of embarrassing information or photos. Approximately 25% of all K-12 students are bullied each year, and 13% of students report being cyberbullied.

Though bullying in college does not attract as much focus, it remains pervasive: nearly 19% of students identify as victims. Here, the relationship between traditional bullying and cyberbullying flips: 22% of college students report experiencing cyberbullying.

With bullying comes a loss of empowerment, rendering it extremely difficult for students to come forward. Recent studies indicate that social media use noticeably increases risk of anxiety and depression in young people, which adds to the struggle of speaking out about their experiences.

Working for Change

We need to change this cycle and create certain social-emotional learning (SEL) standards in order to prepare today’s students to confront and eliminate tomorrow’s workplace bullying. The National Urban Technology Center – Urban Tech – is striving to do just that.

Inspired by the passage of The Dignity Act, Urban Tech has spent the past three years developing Dignity For All (DFA), a research-based anti-bullying curriculum aimed at middle school audiences. The curriculum focuses on giving students and teachers the tools they need to build skills in reflection, empathy, and teamwork in order to create a safe and supportive environment for the entire school community. DFA uses Urban Tech’s ACID Test to remind students of the four components of bullying: aggression, continuity, imbalance of power, and deliberateness.

Classes embark on three Quests, each of which has its own guiding principle:

  • Quest 1 provides background knowledge on what bullying is, elaborates on the different forms it can take, and describes the impact that the physical brain has on emotional decisions
  • Quest 2 relates that background knowledge to the importance of empathy and reflection, and encourages students to examine their core beliefs, needs, and long-term goals
  • Quest 3 inspires students to create classroom value statements, practice skills that support those values, and use restorative enquiry to create a safe and supportive climate

Making these connections internally will provide students with the preparation to recognize exactly what constitutes bullying, develop a deeper understanding of the underlying causes, strive to confront it without escalating the situation, and resolve it in a manner that fosters a safer environment for everyone involved. To put a stop to bullying in schools and in the workplace, we must provide young people with the capacity and encouragement to take the lead.

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Patricia Bransford
Patricia Bransford is the Founder and President of The National Urban Technology Center, and an expert in the use of technology to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of delivering educational services to students, teachers, parents and communities.She is the author of Urban Tech’s online youth development and leadership initiative, Youth Leadership Academy (YLA), transforming the conventional classroom into a multi-disciplinary, interactive learning environment that leverages technology to improve student engagement and academic performance.
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