22 April 2009

RESEARCH - Norwegian research on bullying at work - Empirical and Theoretical contributions

Associate Professor Ph.d. Ståle Einarsen
Department of Psychosocial Science
University of Bergen


The aim of this paper is to present Norwegian research on bullying at work conducted during the last 10 years. This research has focused on the issues of "who is doing what to whom, where why and with what kinds of consequences". Bullying is defined as a situation where one or more persons persistently over a period of time, perceive themselves to be on the receiving end of negative actions from one or several others in a situation where the one at the receiving end has difficulties defending himself against these actions. According to this definition, at least some 5 % report to be the victims of bullying at work. Large, male dominated organisations seems to be at risk, as do older workers. Men are seen as offenders more often than women. Bullying occurs more often in organisations that are characterized by a negative psychosocial work environment. Bullying seems to have very negative effects on the victim's health and well-being.

Correspondence and request for reprints of the cited studies should be sent to Dr. Ståle Einarsen, Department of Psychosocial Science, University of Bergen, Christiesgate 12, N-5015 Bergen, Norway.


Norwegian research on harassment and bullying at work started in the late 80thies (Kile, 1990; Matthiesen, Raknes & Røkkum, 1989; Einarsen, et al., 1990: Einarsen, 1996; Raknes & Einarsen, 1995) inspired by a long tradition in research on bullying among school children (see Munthe, 1989; Olweus, 1994, for a review). Since the early 1970s, bully/victims problems in schools had received substantially interested both by the public and by researchers. Following the Norwegian Work Environment Act of 1977 which secures the rights of employees to remain mentally healthy during work and which places a high value on the psychological aspects of the work situation, focus was set by media and union-representatives on a seemingly parallel phenomenon in the workplace. A first documentation, using a representative national sample, showed that some 17% had observed others being bullied, or in Norwegian mobbed, at their present work-site. Yet, empirical investigations were few, even internationally (see Brodsky, 1976 for an exception). Although there were some public concern, the issue was still a taboo.

As we saw it when we started out our research program in 1990, the first generation of research on bullying and harassment at work had to be the thorough documentation of the frequency, risk groups, behaviours involved, effects and causes. Descriptive and exploratory studies, using both quantitative and qualitative methods had to be conducted within a vast array of organizations. In short, our research has so far focused on the issues of "who does what to whom, why and with what kinds of consequences". This paper presents an short overview of our findings, based on surveys and interviews among a total of some 8000 Norwegian employees.

What is it?

Building on definitions of bullying in the school yard, we define bullying to occur when someone persistently over a period of time, perceives himself to be on the receiving end of negative actions from one or several others, in a situation where the one at the receiving end has difficulties defending against these actions (Einarsen et al, 1994). Although the concept of bullying, or in Norwegian "mobbing", normally refer to incidents of non-sexual and non-racial harassment, such problems can also be implied in this concept. Bullying refers to all situations where one or more persons feels subjected to negative behaviour from others over a period of time in a situation where the victim for different reasons are unable to defend him/herself. Typically, a victim is constantly teased, badgered and insulted and perceives that he or she has little recourse to retaliate in kind. What is not bulling then, is the everyday struggles and conflicts that are a part of all human interaction. In research among school-children, Olweus (1993) distinguished between "direct bullying" with open verbal or physical attacks on the victim, and "indirect bullying" which takes the form of more subtle acts, as excluding or isolating the victim from his or her peer-group. Among 137 Norwegian victims of bullying at work, social isolation and exclusion, devaluation's of ones work and efforts, and exposure to teasing, insulting remarks and ridicule, were the most commonly negative acts, as reported by the victims (Einarsen et al., 1994).

Bullying seems not to be an either-or phenomenon, but a gradually evolving process. Many victims have difficulties in pinpointing the exact on-set of their problems (Einarsen et al, 1994). Interviewstudies as well as observations made during third parties interventions, indicate that Norwegian bullying cases are often triggered by a work-related conflict (Einarsen et al., 1994). During an escalating conflict a person may acquire a disadvantaged position, and may gradually be the subject of stigmatizing actions by colleagues or shop-floor management. These aggressive behaviours may be quite a number of different activities used with the aim or at least the effect of humiliating, intimidating, frighten or punish the victim. The stigmatizing effects of these activities, and their escalating frequency and intensity, makes the victims constantly less able to cope with his or her daily tasks and the cooperation requirements of the job, thus becoming continually more vulnerable and "a deserving target".

During the early phases of the bullying, the victim are subjected to aggressive behavior that are difficult to pinpoint by being very indirect and discrete (Einarsen et al., 1994; Björkqvist, 1992). Later on more direct aggressive acts appear. The victims are clearly isolated and avoided, humiliated in public by being the laughing-stock of the department and so on. In the end both physical and psychological means of violence may be used. Victims of long lasting harassment are attacked more frequently than victims with a shorter history as victims. In early phases, the victims seems to be attacked only now and then. As the conflict escalates, the frequency of the attacks comes more frequent and more harsh, and after some time the victims are attached on a weekly or even daily basis (Einarsen & Skogstad, 1996).

If continued and escalated, bullying seems to place a stigma on the victim which makes the organization treat the victim as the problem. As long as the victims is recognized as such, most organization will probably take action or the victim will at least experience substantial support from other organization-members. What makes bullying especially difficult to handle is that the victims is not believed and supported when making a complaint. It is typical that upper management, union representatives, or personnel administration accept the prejudices produced by the offenders, thus blaming the victim for its misfortune. Third-parties or managers seldom acknowledges the harm done to the victim as in fact bullying and harassment, but rather a no more than fair treatment of a difficult and neurotic person (Einarsen, et al., 1994; Leymann, 1990; 1996) Expulsion of the victim is therefor common, be it long-term sick-leave, no work provided (but still employed), relocation to degrading tasks or plain notice.

Frequency of bullying in Norway

Einarsen & Skogstad (1996) reports data on the frequency of bullying from 14 different Norwegian "Quality of working life" surveys (n = 7986) including a wide range of organisations and professions like school teachers, university employees, hotel and restaurant workers, clerks, electricians, psychologists, health care workers and industrial workers. The sample consisted of 43.9% men and 55.6% were women, mostly employed in public organizations (85%). On average, 8.6% of the respondents had experienced bullying and harassment at work during the last six months. At least some 4.5% of the respondents were victims of very serious bulling. Many of these victims had been victimized for a long period of time. Mean duration of all reported bullying episodes was reported to be 18 months. Hence, bullying as reported by these victims is not isolated episodes or short conflict intermezzos, but rather ongoing situations where the victims repeatedly experience aggression from others at work.

Organisations with many employees, male-dominated organisations and industrial organisations had the highest prevalence of victimization during the last six months. Older workers had a higher prevalence rate than younger workers. The prevalence rate among those between 51 and 60 years was 10.3%. Even if men and women did not differ in prevalence of bullying, significantly more men were reported as bullies. While 49% were bullied by one or more men, 30% were bullied by female perpetrators. Ninety per cent of all male victims reported men among the bullies, while women were bullied to a larger extent by both men and women. Victims reported superiors as bullies as often as they reported colleagues as tormentors. Twenty per cent of the victims were bullied by both superiors and colleagues.

A closer look at a large (n= 500) almost all-male, industrial organisation showed that a large part (89%) of the work-force had been subjected to some kind of harassment during the last six months(Einarsen & Raknes, 1997). On a weekly basis, 7% of the men reported to be subjected to at least one of the following behaviours from co-workers or supervisors; ridicule and insulting teasing, verbal abuse, rumours and gossips spread about oneself, offending remarks, recurring reminders of blunders, hostility or silence when entering a conversation, or devaluing of one's effort and work. As many as 22% reported to be subjected to one or more of these acts at least once a month. Bullying seemed to be highly embedded in this culture, making it a rather common phenomenon.

Antecedents of bullying at work

Different causal models of bullying and harassment at work can be distinguished. From two decades of research on bullying among school children Olweus (1991 concludes that the typical victim of bullying is more anxious and insecure than other students and often seen as cautious, sensitive and quiet. The victims react with withdrawal when attacked and they have a more negative self-esteem than other students. Bullies, on the other hand, are self-confident, impulsive and do not suffer from lack of self esteem. They do, however, show a general aggressive reaction pattern in many different situations. Victims of bullying and harassment at work have been described as conscientious, literal-minded, and somewhat unsophisticated, being often an overachiever with an unrealistic view of both oneself and ones situation (Brodsky, 1976). In our study among 2200 members of six Norwegian Unions (Einarsen et al, 1994; Einarsen et al, 1996), victims of bullying at work had lower self-esteem and were more anxious in social settings than their non-bullied colleagues. This may make them easy targets of aggression and scapegoating processes and may make them vulnerable when faced with interpersonal aggression and conflicts. However, a victim with low social competence may also elicit aggressive responses in others through his or her behavior. In research among children, a small group of victims were characterized as "provocative" victims (Olweus, 1993) victims were found to be both anxious and aggressive, and were experienced by most other pupils as annoying.

On the other hand, Brodsky (1976) claimed that harassment may in fact be an inherent characteristic and a basic mechanism within all human interaction. A similar view was presented by Thylefors (1987), who regarded bullying as a scapegoating process found in most organisations. However, the causal model of bullying and harassment at work that has received most public attention in Scandinavia, emphasises the quality of the organisations work environment as the main determinant of such misconduct. Norwegian Labour Union officials, as well as governmental campaign agents, have strongly advocated such a situational view of the problem. According to this view, harassment is primarily caused by work environment and social environment problems within the organization. Based on case studies, Leymann (1993) claims that four factors are prominent in eliciting harassment at work: (1) deficiencies in work design, (2) deficiencies in leadership behavior, (3) a socially exposed position of the victim, and (4) a low moral standard in the department.

The work environment hypothesis has been explored in a couple of studies. Einarsen, Raknes & Matthiesen (1994) showed that the occurrence of bullying and harassment correlated significantly with several aspects of the organizational and social work environment, in particular leadership, role conflict and work control. Work environments where bullying exist had employees who reported an elevated level of role conflict and who were dissatisfied with their social climate, their superiors leadership behavior, and the possibility of self monitoring ones work. Both victims of bullying and observers of bullying suffered from an ill-conditioned work environment. Observers of bullying also reported an elevated level of role conflict as well as dissatisfaction with the social climate at work, the leaders of the organization and the possibilities of self monitoring ones work. Work conditions accounted for 10% of the variance in bullying, ranging from 7% to 24% in the different organizational settings investigated (Einarsen, Raknes & Matthiesen, 1994).

In our study among male industrial workers, a strong correlation existed between exposure to harassment and dissatisfaction with work pressure, the social climate at work, the supervisors leadership practice and the lack of stimulating and challenging work (Einarsen & Raknes, 1997). In a Finnish study, Appelberg and associates (1991) found a relationship between work related factors (hectic and monotonous work) and the experience of interpersonal conflicts and problems at work. Although significant relationships existed between bullying and both work-overload and monotonous and low challenging work in our study (Einarsen, Raknes & Matthiesen,1994), it does not seem to be hectic and monotonous work in itself that may cause bullying at work. Rather, the lack of possibilities to monitor and control one's own work, the lack of clear and unconflicting goals, as well as the lack of constructive leadership within this situation, may be even more important. A group of German victims (Zapf, Knorz & Kulla, 1996) reported to have little control over there own time and had high cooperation requirements. A situation where people are forced to work closely together and are highly interdependent, offers more possibilities for conflicts. As a consequence of peoples restricted control over their own time, unresolved conflicts may escalate into harassment, particularly if the work group climate is characterized by "humor going sour" (Brodsky, 1976).

The tension, stress and frustration caused by a job situation characterized by high role conflict, lack of self monitoring possibilities and poor performing supervisors, may in itself be perceived as harassment when attributed to hostile intentions (Brodsky, 1976). Role-conflict and lack of work control may also be related to bullying and harassment through its creation of elevated tension, stress and frustration in the work group. A high degree of ambiguity or incompatible demands and expectations around roles, tasks and responsibilities may have created a high degree of frustration and conflicts within the work group, especially in connection to rights, obligations, privileges and positions. This situation may then act as a precursor of conflict and poor inter-worker relationships. The experience of great work strain is generally found to have a negative impact on a person's relationships with colleagues (French & Caplan, 1972). According to the revised frustration-aggression hypothesis (Berkowitz, 1989), a high-stress work situation may lead to aggressive behavior through the production of negative affect. This implies that harassment and bullying may flourish in ill-conditioned work environments, most probably through environmental effects on aggressive behavior. Alternatively, a social-interaction approach to aggression (Felson, 1992) would argue that stressful events will indirectly affect aggression through its effect on the victim's behavior. Distressed persons may violate expectations, annoy others, perform less competently and even violate social norms describing polite and friendly interactions (Felson, 1992), and hence elicit aggressive behavior in others.

Consequences of workplace bullying

Several studies based on interviews with victims have stressed the serious negative impact bullying may have on both health and well-being. In the study among 500 male industrial workers, a significant negative association was found between exposure to bullying and psychological health and well-being (Einarsen & Raknes, 1997). Exposure to harassment explained 23% of the variance in self-reported psychological health and well-being. The strongest relationship existed between experiences of personal derogation and psychological well-being. In our study among Union members, significant relationships were found between experienced bullying and both psychological, psychosomatic and muscle-skeletal health complaints. The strongest correlation's were found between bullying and psychological complaints where experienced bullying predicted 13% of the variation. A total of 6% of the variation in muscle- skeletal problems could be statistically predicted by the different measurements of exposure to bullying. These findings are very much in line with those of Niedl (1995) and Zapf, Knorz & Kulla (1995). In the latter studies, mental health variables showed highly significant differences between harassed and non-harassed respondents. Zapf and associates (1995) also found that victimization in the form of personal attacks had especially strong correlation's with mental health variables.

The relationships between harassment and health found in the study by Einarsen et al., (1996) were moderated by the victims level of social anxiety and the victim's self-esteem and lack of social support. Victims high on social support at work or off work, are probably less vulnerable when faced with aggression. Social support may also reduce the emotional and physiological activation of the victim, hence reducing the health effects of long term harassment. Personality traits may be positively related to an individual's health by causing the individual to respond to a difficult situation in an optimistic, flexible and enduring manner (Rodin & Salovey, 1989). Victims who are not anxious in social interactions and victims with a positive self image, may cope better than others when faced with interpersonal problems. They may be less vulnerable in such situations and may possess a "hardiness" that prevents further impairment of their health (Kile, 1990). Another way of looking at these results is that bullying causes health problems only if the bullying is intense enough to harm the self-esteem of the victim.

Negative effects of bullying and harassment at work may also be observed on an organizational level. In the study among Norwegian union members, 27% claimed that harassment had influenced negatively on the productivity of their organization (Einarsen, et al., 1994).


The main objective of conducting research on bullying at work must be to contribute to the prevention and constructive management of such problems, and to the healing of individual and organizational wounds resulting from such episodes. To accomplish this, different types of information have to be provided. First we must provide descriptive information on the phenomenon itself, both from a conceptual and an empirical point of view. A review of our findings in this respect has been presented in this paper. Secondly, information on the causes and consequences of the problem is needed, both theoretical and empirical. Descriptive data and personal experiences gathered by both victims and professionals may be helpful in this respect, but are by no means sufficient for the implementations of effective interventions, which may only be accomplished through the development of theoretical and empirically sound models of the causes and effects involved in bullying at work. Although both personality and psychosocial factors at work seems to play a role in bullying at work, the causal links and the relative importance of these factors still need further research. A broad outlook taking into account both personal, situational, contextual and social factors is definitely needed.

The third kind of information needed concerns the actions that may be taken to resolve or prevent the problem. Not all possible causes of bullying and harassment at work may be easily altered. Information is therefore needed regarding possible interventions and actions steps and the cost-benefit of the different strategies. In addition to the causal theories, we need theories of action and empirical data on the effectiveness of these actions. Research conducted by Dan Olweus (1993, 1994) on bullying among children has revealed that personality traits among victims and bullies are highly important causes of victimization in schools. However, the intervention program developed by Olweus (1991) has a strong focus on the school and the classroom as a social system, and involves all children, teachers and parents of the particular school (Olweus, 1991). Although prevention programs and interventions strategies have also been proposed on the issue of bullying at work (Einarsen et al., 1994), these have not yet been based on systematic research and evaluations, and have thus not been presented in this paper. More research is needed on the causes of bullying before such programs can merit a scientific status.


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