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What is bullying?

What is bullying?

What is bullying, the types of bullying, why people bully and what you can do about it. All your questions are answered here in this bullying guide, courtesy of Bully OnLine, a project of The Tim Field Foundation.

What is bullying, the types of bullying, why people bully and what you can do about it. All your questions are answered here in this bullying guide, courtesy of Bully OnLine, a project of The Tim Field Foundation.

What is bullying?
Bullying is a form of abuse. It is persistent unwelcome behaviour, mostly using unwarranted or invalid criticism, nit-picking, fault-finding, also exclusion, isolation, being singled out and treated differently, being shouted at, humiliated, excessive monitoring, having verbal and written warnings imposed, and more.

In the workplace, bullying usually focuses on allegations of underperformance. The bully will often try to keep their targets quiet, using threats of disciplinary action and dismissal. What bullies fear most is exposure of their inadequacy and being called publicly to account for their behaviour.

Definitions of bullying

• The act of intimidating a weaker person to make them do something
• Repeated acts over time that involve a real or perceived imbalance of power with the more powerful abusing those who are less powerful
• Deliberate action or behaviour directed towards another person, which may take many forms and can often occur over a long period of time
• ‘Bullying is a compulsive need to displace aggression and is achieved by the expression of inadequacy by projection of that inadequacy onto others through control and subjugation’ (Tim Field, 1999)
• Workplace bullying is the 'repeated less favourable treatment of a person by another or others, which may be considered unreasonable and inappropriate workplace practice'.
• Workplace bullying is behaviour that can intimidate, offend, degrade or humiliate an employee.

Examples of bullying

• Forever subject to nit-picking and trivial fault-finding
• Constantly criticised and subjected to destructive criticism
• Undermined, especially in front of others; false concerns are raised, or doubts are expressed over a person's performance or standard of work
• Singled out and treated differently
• Overruled, ignored, sidelined, marginalised, ostracised
• Belittled, degraded, ridiculed, patronised, subject to disparaging remarks
• Regularly the target of offensive language or personal remarks
• Threatened, shouted at and taunted with the intention to humiliate
• Set unrealistic goals and deadlines
• Denied information or knowledge necessary for undertaking work
• Denied support by their manager
• Overloaded with work or have work replaced with menial jobs
• Subject to excessive monitoring supervision
• Given the silent treatment
• Encouraged to feel guilty and to believe they're always the one at fault
• Facing unjustified disciplinary action on trivial or false charges
• Subjected to unwarranted and unjustified verbal or written warnings
• Coerced into reluctant resignation.

Types of bullying
Bullying is present behind all forms of harassment, discrimination, prejudice, abuse, persecution, conflict and violence. The bullying can have a focus (for example, race), but can also lack a focus, and it will emerge as just hostile behaviour. 

These are some of the types of bullying that may take place within midwifery:

Pressure bullying is where the stress of the moment causes behaviour to deteriorate; the person becomes short-tempered, irritable and may shout
Client bullying is where employees are bullied by those they serve, for example midwives bullied by clients – often the client is claiming their perceived right (such as better service) in a derogatory manner
Serial bullying is where the source of all dysfunction can be traced to one individual, who picks on one employee after another and harasses them
Secondary bullying occurs when there's a serial bully in the department. The pressure of a bully causes other’s behaviour to decline
Pair bullying is a serial bully with a colleague
Gang bullying is a serial bully with colleagues. Some are coerced into joining in, usually through fear of being the next target if they don’t
Vicarious bullying is where two parties are encouraged to engage in conflict. One party becomes the bully's instrument of harassment and is deceived and manipulated into bullying the other party. For example, a serial bully can create conflict between employer and employee
Legal bullying is the bringing of legal action to control and punish
Residual bullying is the bullying that continues after the serial bully has gone. The serial bully leaves a dysfunctional environment to those left
Cyber bullying is the misuse of email systems or internet forums, for example, sending of aggressive mails
Hierarchical bullying/peer bullying can involve an individual being bullied by their manager, or by peers. Bullies like to tap into hierarchical power and also generate their own power through bullying.

Why do people bully?
People may bully to:

• Avoid facing up to their inadequacy and doing something about it
• Avoid accepting responsibility for their behaviour and its effects
• Reduce the fear of being seen for what they are, such as inadequate
• Divert attention away from their inadequacy.

Why me?
There are many reasons how and why bullies target others. There are also myths and stereotypes such as ‘victims are weak’. Bullying often repeats because the reasons that bullies target their victims don't change.

Some possible reasons for bullying are:

• There’s a reorganisation in your trust
• Obvious displays of affection, respect or trust from co-workers
• Your performance unwittingly highlights, draws attention to, exposes or invites unfavourable comparison with the bully's lack of performance
• You may have become the focus of attention whereas before the bully was
• Refusing to obey an order, which violates rules or procedures
• Standing up for a colleague who is being bullied
• Blowing the whistle on incompetence/malpractice
• Gaining promotion
• Gaining recognition for your achievements, such as winning an award
• Suffering illness or injury.

Bullies usually target their victims if they are:

• Popular
• Intelligent
• Honest, have integrity, are trustworthy, trusting, loyal and dependable
• Successful, tenacious, determined and courageous
• Sensitive
• Slow to anger
• Selfless, helpful and always willing to share knowledge and experience
• Have difficulty saying ‘no’
• Tolerant
• A strong forgiving streak (which the bully can exploit and manipulate)
• Being incorruptible – having high moral standards and values, which they are unwilling to compromise.

Some of the common symptoms of bullying

• Stress, anxiety, depression and mood swings
• Sleeplessness and fatigue
• Withdrawal
• Reduced immunity to infection leading to frequent colds or flu
• High blood pressure
• Headaches and migraines
• Palpitations
• Irritable bowel syndrome
• Skin irritation/skin disorders
• Loss of appetite or overeating (weight loss or weight gain).

What can I do to tackle bullying at work?
If you feel that you are being bullied, the guidance below can advise you how to deal with this situation.

Step 1: Regain control

• Recognise what is happening to you as bullying – it is the bully who has the problem, which he or she is projecting onto you
• Understand that public service organisations and employers have a legal obligation to care for their employees as a consequence of a range of workplace legislation
• Do not be fooled into believing false criticisms and allegations towards you have any validity – they do not. The purpose of criticism is control. It has nothing to do with performance enhancement. Criticisms and allegations are a projection of the bully's own weaknesses
• Remember you’re not alone. Bullying happens to millions of employees
• You may be encouraged to feel shame, embarrassment, guilt and fear – this is a normal reaction, but misplaced. Guilt and fear are well known as tactics of control. This is how abusers control and silence their victims
• You cannot handle bullying by yourself – bullies use deception and abuse of power. Get help. There is no shame or failure in this.

Step 2: Plan for action

• Find out everything you can about bullying. It's essential to do your homework and research before taking action
• Overcome the bullying misconceptions (for example that ‘it's tough management’)

Step 3: Take action

• Keep a log of everything– it's the regularity and patterns that reveal bullying. Keep it in a safe place. Also keep copies of all letters and emails.
• Carry a notepad and pen with you and record everything that the bully says and does. Also make a note of every interaction with personnel, management, and anyone else connected with the bullying
• Obtain a copy of the NHS's and RCM's bullying and harassment policies.
• When you are studying, your university also has a duty of care to you. All public organisations and employers are obliged to have workplace policies in relation to bullying. You should make contact with your university’s student support service, which will offer you a listening ear and appropriate guidance and support. Further support can be obtained from your union such as the Students’ Union or the RCM
• If you are on clinical placement, then contact your local RCM steward
• Take the matter up with your line management and trust’s HR department. Inform your employer if you are stressed, that your ill-health is due to bullying by another member of staff and their behaviour is a danger to the health and safety of employees
• Check your rights at work and then follow the grievance procedure
• Try to reunite yourself with your employer against the bully. Point out to your trust’s HR that the bully may do this again and the bullying is likely to include breaches of health and safety for example
• See a doctor - bullying can cause stress, and may result in psychiatric injury. Also contact occupational health.
• Search the web for the name of your bully. Many bullies are repeat offenders and your bully may have featured in previous cases
• See if there are bullying survivor support groups in your area or seek out self-help groups for mutual support
• Build yourself a support network.


These are initial guidelines. The list is by no means exhaustive. If you think you are being bullied, then please tell someone and get some help and support.

This article is courtesy of Bully OnLine which is funded by sales of the books: Bully in sight, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Bullycide: death at playtime.