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Cyberbullying in the workplace ‘worse than conventional bullying’

31 October 2012 Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)

Cyberbullying – using modern communications technology such as e-mails, texts or web-postings to abuse people - is as common in the workplace as ‘conventional’ bullying.  Yet, the way cyberbullying influences both the victim and witnesses are more hidden in the workplace according to new research by occupational psychologists.

The results of a study by Dr Christine Sprigg, Dr Carolyn Axtell and Sam Farley of the University of Sheffield, together with Dr Iain Coyne of Nottingham University, will be revealed at a seminar during the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) annual Festival of Social Science in November.  They shine a light on this relatively new phenomenon. 

Until now the impact of cyberbullying has mainly focused on younger people in environments such as schools rather than adult workers. The researchers will reveal suggestions on how employers should tackle and prevent cyberbullying in the workplace. This will become more important as communication technologies continue to evolve and become more widespread.

The study included three separate surveys among employees in several UK universities, asking people about their experiences of cyberbullying. “We gave people a list of what can be classed as bullying, such as being humiliated, ignored or gossiped about, and asked them if they had faced such behaviour online and how often,” said Dr Coyne.

Of the 320 people who responded to the survey, around eight out of ten had experienced one of the listed cyberbullying behaviours on at least one occasion in the previous six months.  The results also showed 14 to 20 per cent experienced them on at least a weekly basis – a similar rate to conventional bullying.

The research team also examined the impact of cyberbullying on workers’ mental strain and wellbeing. “Overall, those that had experienced cyberbullying tended to have higher mental strain and lower job satisfaction,” Dr Coyne said.  “In one of our surveys, this effect was shown to be worse for cyberbullying than for conventional bullying.”

The research team also found that the impact of witnessing cyberbullying was different than that seen for conventional bullying. “In the research literature, people who witness conventional bullying also show evidence of reduced wellbeing. However, in our research this does not appear to be the case for the online environment,” Dr Coyne said.

“Witnesses are much less affected. This might be because of the remote nature of cyberspace – perhaps people empathise less with the victims. This could affect the witness’s reaction to the bullying and potentially whether to report it or otherwise intervene.”

The results of the research, which was partly funded by Sheffield University Management School, will be presented at a seminar to business representatives. “We believe our research will likely have implications for the way that employers formulate policies and guidelines relating to cyberbullying, and the seminar will be an opportunity for us to discuss our findings and learn about the experiences of other employers,” Dr Coyne said.

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