All too often, society’s view of bullying is simplified to no more than mean words thrown between children on the playground. Although this kind of behavior is an all-too-common occurrence among children, the reach — and consequent emotional toll — of bullying is not limited to childhood. Counselors often find that their adult clients are also victims of this behavior, whether in their personal or professional life. However, professionals may not always be as prepared to address the impact on older clients.
For counselors, recognizing the settings where bullying is prevalent can help to identify adults who are either at risk or already a victim of demeaning behavior, even if the individuals do not realize that they are being bullied.
What is bullying?
The first federal definition of bullying was released in 2014 by the Department of Education and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ website StopBullying.com, the key elements of the definition include:
- An imbalance of power.
- Undesirable aggressive behavior.
- Repetition of the behavior or likelihood of repetition.
Bullying is a topic of increasing study by researchers who want to understand its complexities and the short- and long-term effects that it can have.
“Bullying and interpersonal violence are tragic experiences that far too many people undergo every day,” said American Counseling Association (ACA) President Thelma Duffey. “People can be hurt in such devastating ways when they are bullied, and counselors are in prime positions to help.”
Common settings for bullying
Educational institutions traditionally are thought of as fertile ground for bullying, particularly junior high and high schools. However, bullying can occur on sports teams, at social gatherings, within individual families and more. Bullying also is increasingly common through social media and other online venues. According to the 2013 Youth Risk Surveillance Program, 15 percent of high school students reported being bullied online in the last year.
However, one area that sometimes is underestimated as a fertile ground for bullying is the workplace.
“In the workplace, bullying receives far less attention and focus,” Jessi Eden Brown, a licensed mental health counselor, told the American Counseling Association. “Management may fail to appropriately label the bully’s behavior as being abusive, especially if it doesn’t violate the law. Some employers recognize the problem and still choose to turn a blind eye. And even worse, there are some companies that actively encourage ‘weeding out the weak,’ whereby successful bullies are rewarded with promotions, bonuses, extravagant gifts and other incentives. After counseling and coaching more than 3,000 targets of workplace bullying over the years, believe me, I’ve heard it all.”
The American Counseling Association reported that examples of bullying in the workplace include:
- Criticizing in a public or humiliating way.
- Attempting to turn other employees against one staff member.
- Assigning blame where it is not deserved.
- Stealing credit for work that was done by someone else.
- Preventing access to necessary resources.
The challenge with workplace bullying is that it is not only the person’s emotional health at risk. Standing up to a workplace bully potentially can put the person’s livelihood in peril, as well, especially if the tormentor is a supervisor or boss. Consequently, the employee may choose to say nothing and let the behavior continue or look for an opportunity to move to a friendlier workplace. The latter, while less confrontational, can be devastating if the person is working in a position that he or she loves.
Signs of a problem
It is important for counselors to know what environments are fertile grounds for bullying and to recognize the signs in a client who may not be willing to talk about the experience. Adults, in particular, may be hesitant to admit that they are being bullied because of the stereotype that it is solely a problem among children. Or, they may see it as a sign of weakness. Sometimes, the client may not even recognize that bullying is occurring. Whatever the reason that they are reluctant to discuss the problem, ignoring the bullying can take both an emotional and physical toll on the victim.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, warning signs of bullying include:
- Avoidance of social settings or friends.
- Frequent feelings of illness.
- Problems sleeping or regularly occurring nightmares.
- Plummeting self-esteem.
- Self-destructive behaviors.
In the interview with the ACA, Brown reported that to help clients, the first step for counselors is to identify what is being experienced. Labeling the behavior as workplace bullying or psychological violence will help them to realize that it is a real problem and not something that they are imagining. Counselors then need to encourage their clients to prioritize their own health, which could require working closely with a health care provider.
While there is no legal protection against bullying in the U.S., if the behavior is occurring in the workplace, your client may be able to file a complaint on the legal grounds of discrimination, intentional infliction of emotional distress or something similar. While you cannot provide legal advice to your clients, you may be able to work with an attorney who has expertise in labor law to meet this need. However, this kind of action should never be forced on a person. Ultimately, Brown reported that the role of the counselor is to simply help clients consider their options.
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