March 10, 2008 / 2:24 PM / 9 years ago

Workplace bullying worse than sexual harassment: study

TORONTO (Reuters Life!) - Whether it is belittling comments, persistent criticism or withholding resources, bullying at work is more harmful than sexual harassment, according to new Canadian research.

It is more difficult for employees to cope with bullying because they have nowhere to turn and no workplace policies or legislation to protect them compared to victims of sexual harassment. Their overall well-being is worse, they are more stressed, angry, anxious, less committed and more likely to quit.

"Bullying can be done in such an insidious way that unless you're the victim, other people don't even know its happening," Sandy Hershcovis, of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, said in an interview.

"Its really hard to get other people to understand or to try to report it."

Herschcovis and Julian Barling, of Ontario's Queens University, reviewed 110 studies conducted over 21 years that compared outcomes of workers dealing with sexual harassment and workplace aggression. They presented the findings at a conference co-hosted by the American Psychological Association.

They studied the effects of workplace bullying and sexual harassment and also examined work stress and physical, psychological and emotional well-being.

"In all cases both sexual harassment and workplace aggression had relationships with these outcomes but workplace aggression or bullying had the stronger effect over sexual harassment," Hershcovis said.

The study defined workplace aggression as incivility, including rudeness and discourteous verbal and non-verbal behavior. Bullying behaviors included yelling, repeatedly reminding employees of mistakes, spreading gossip and lies, ignoring or excluding workers and insulting a person's habits, attitudes or private life.

Interpersonal conflict included hostile behavior, verbal aggression and angry exchanges.

Hershcovis said while there are still challenges for victims of sexual harassment, they do have recourse. They can report the abuse, go to their union or take legal action.

"Workplace bullying . . . doesn't have any policy attention, there's no legal recourse you can take, so really you're stuck and there's no coping mechanisms that you can try to use to overcome the situation," he explained.

Hershcovis said governments should follow those in Quebec, Canada and in Scandinavian countries and create workplace aggression legislation. She said training co-workers to recognize and "put their foot down" against bullying as they do in schools is likely to be more effective than company policies. (Editing by Patricia Reaney)

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