One of the key roles of a senior mental health lead is to provide evidence-based interventions that support staff wellbeing and development.

Bullying and School Staff Wellbeing

Worth-it spoke with Dr Iain Coyne, senior lecturer and workplace bullying expert, to find out more about workplace bullying, its impact on school wellbeing, and ways in which the risk of workplace bullying can be reduced.

What are the different types of bullying behaviour?

Bullying behaviour is generally seen as being work related (e.g., persistent and undue criticism of work, setting impossible deadlines, setting up to fail) and person related (aggressive behaviour, verbal abuse, even physical abuse). Ostracism can sit in either depending on the nature of it.

How can bullying affect the person being bullied? 

Evidence is unequivocal that experiencing bullying at work can negatively impact a target’s mental and physical wellbeing. Targets can experience depression, burnout, low self-esteem, anxiety, nausea, and headaches. There is even some evidence of long-term cardiovascular problems and at the extreme level, PTSD. 

How can bullying affect other people who are witness to the bullying behaviour? 

The ripple effect of bullying feeds down to others in the organisation who witness it and bystanders can also experience, although not to the same level as targets, similar psychological outcomes. Further, seeing bullying at work can result in lower morale and poorer performance across all employees.

How can bullying have an impact on school staff?

Aside from the individual outcomes of bullying referenced above, there are organisational outcomes in terms of lower job satisfaction, absenteeism, turnover, and poorer work performance. Within a school context this would potentially have implications for teacher workload (e.g.,covering for absent staff) and the quality of teaching provided to pupils. 

How can bullying affect the bully?

We only know a little about perpetrators in research, because this group tends to be much harder to study. There is some evidence to suggest perpetrators also need support, especially when there has been an accusation of bullying towards them. We need to move away from the notion that all bullies are psychopathic individuals, intent on destroying other peoples’ lives. While this may happen, it is not as common as bullying evolving from an escalation of conflict. In these situations, the behaviour is still not acceptable and needs addressing, but, the root cause of the behaviour is not down to individual personality.

What is the role of bystanders?

I believe the role of bystanders is crucial to helping reduce incidences of bullying at work. Bystanders are by far the largest group in a bullying situation, and they can enact a number of roles –some supportive to the victim and some supportive to the perpetrator. The question is, why do bystanders act or not, and what can schools put in place which will allow bystanders to feel comfortable and safe to report incidences of bullying and intervene? There is some emerging work on bystander training which uses scenario-based approaches to help individuals understand what they can do in a bullying situation and how they can do it. It does rely on bystanders feeling the culture and climate is safe to do so.

How can bullying affect whole school (workplace) culture/wider school wellbeing?

Bullying can have school outcomes of increased absenteeism, turnover, lower individual and team performance, lower satisfaction, and lower commitment. This will impact teacher morale and ultimately teacher performance towards pupils and other staff members. Further cultures conducive to bullying tend to be strained and stressful, with high demands and competitive natures.

How can schools provide an emotional secure and safe environment that prevents any kind of bullying or violence? 

I do not believe that schools will create a situation where bullying is totally eliminated, and I think schools need to be realistic here and set criteria to reduce bullying. To do this, schools will need to take a preventative approach to bullying by considering the nature of the job teachers are doing (e.g., role conflict, role ambiguity, organisational change), developing a climate that manages conflict early, ensuring good quality leadership (leader competencies), and developing bystander awareness. By creating the right environment which promotes fairness and understanding and manages organisational risks of bullying, schools can develop a working environment which promotes dignity and respect.

Any final thoughts?

Bullying behaviours, antecedents and outcomes within a school context will be no different to other organisational contexts. Schools are organisations in which employees work with each other to achieve goals and therefore they are open to conflict and the potential of this conflict to escalate into bullying. Therefore, by using the understanding we currently have on bullying at work, we can help develop solutions to reduce workplace bullying within school contexts.

If you’d like to find out any more about workplace bullying or have any questions for Dr Iain Coyne, come along to Worth-it’s December discovery workshop, which Iain will be co-hosting, on Tuesday 9th December 21.

Find Out More and Next Steps

In our Wellbeing Club for SMHL's we have regular guest expert workshops related to all aspects of school wellbeing. You can access these helpful workshops in the course library inside our private Wellbeing Club membership. To find out how you can access funding to join our Wellbeing Club programme access our FREE funding information session.

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